WebGL Goes On A Rampage
To showcase the power of WebGL and the kind of experiences it can power, Microsoft partnered with Red Bull and Seattle’s Pixel Lab (the developers behind, among many other things, the web version of Cut The Rope, Contre Jour and Pulse). Together, they built a fully immersive experience that lets users relive the action during Red Bull’s Rampage 2013 freestyle mountain biking event in Utah. The team outfitted all the riders with a GPS tracker and then built a WebGL-based experience that mashes up the GPS data, the terrain of the course and the video from their runs. The terrain map is in 3D and completely interactive, with the GPS data mapped on top (because it’s a freestyle event, every rider takes a different path from start to finish). What’s really cool, though, is that Pixel Lab uses the rider’s position on the track as a scrubber for the video, too. So you can just pick a spot on the map and the video will sync to that exact position. Users can then easily switch between the video (which always runs in the background) and the terrain map (which smoothly moves into the bottom left corner and back as needed). As Pixel Lab’s founder and creative director Robby Ingebretsen told me, web developers are so used to working in 2D that going to 3D brings a number of challenges. The team had to build its own shader for the terrain map, for example, because it couldn’t quite find the right off-the-shelf tool for that. Just building the 3D models, too, brings its own challenges, and the team had to spend quite some time just finding the data for the map, for example. Interestingly, the Pixel Lab team said it had no issues with performance. Part of that, Ingebretsen admitted, probably has to do with the fact that the 3D terrain isn’t all that detailed. Whenever there’s a new web development technique, people will overdo it (just look at all the sites with parallax effects…). Nair likens the state of WebGL to the early days of 3D gaming. Games, he argued, always existed in 3D, but then we realized some games are better in 3D. Hopefully, developers and designers will quickly realize that WebGL is probably best used sparingly. Chances are, though, that their clients will ask them to build 3D into all of their sites, so get ready for a web with a bit more 3D than necessary over the next two years.