OpenGL could boost online 3-D

A new version of OpenGL, an interface that computer applications can use to connect to graphics hardware, may result in higher-quality 3-D images on the Internet.

OpenGL has been the industry standard for high-quality 3-D graphics applications for a long time. If you saw the dinosaurs in the film “Jurassic Park,” then you were looking at an OpenGL application.

OpenGL is already the 3-D interface of choice for Apple’s Macintosh OS X and Linux computer operating systems. OpenGL ES is a royalty-free, crossplatform API for full-function 2-D and 3-D graphics on embedded systems, including game consoles, mobile phones, appliances and vehicles.

Khronos Group, the industry consortium that develops OpenGL, announced the new version (4.1) of the software in late July in hopes it will better compete with Microsoft’s DirectX, which currently dominates the industry in consumer games.

For Web browsers, all the top vendors except Microsoft are now backing a 3-D Web graphics technology called WebGL, which is a variation of OpenGL ES. It offers improved security in Web browsing, excellent debugging features and no competition from Microsoft. Khronos sees it was a stand-alone winner in the market to improve Web 3-D.

“WebGL will mean major changes,” said Neil Trevett, president of Khronos. “It will be a lot higher in terms of image quality. Everybody wants to accelerate 3-D in the browser.” According to Trevett, the new version of OpenGL is so good that it will eventually win out over Microsoft’s Direct3D in the marketplace.

OpenGL 4.1 adds several new features. One is the ability to store compiled graphics programs called shaders onto the hard drive so the graphics chip can reload them as needed rather than recreate them. Another is the ability to separate two components called vertex shaders and fragment shaders that previously had to be linked together.

The new version also has 64-bit floating-point component vertex shader inputs for higher geometric precision and multiple viewports for a rendering surface for increased rendering flexibility.

WebGL currently is in draft form, but a final version is expected before the end of the year, said Barthold Lichtenbelt, chairman of the OpenGL Architecture Review Board. “The group is working on making sure WebGL doesn’t open up any security issues,” he said.

“GPU vendors in the past haven’t had to be too concerned about exploits,” he said. But because WebGL compiles and runs graphics programs called shaders that run on the graphics chip, it could “could open a serious hole” if not done right.

On the mobile side, Apple’s iOS, used on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, can use OpenGL ES. Newer versions of Android, Google’s mobile phone operating system, also can use the technology.