New Google Maps Shows Future Of Web Graphics
Google showcases the power of HTML5, combined with OpenGL support in browsers, to create graphically intense experiences without plugins.
Brian McClendon, engineering director for Google's geospacial products, showed off Google Maps GL last week as part of a keynote presentation at Web 2.0 Expo, a UBM TechWeb/O'Reilly Media event in New York. He noted that the product indirectly takes advantage of technologies created by his former employer Silicon Graphics (once the ultimate computer graphics powerhouse), which were standardized as OpenGL. Google Maps GL takes advantage of WebGL, a variant implemented in Google Chrome and in the latest beta versions of Firefox, which allows those browsers to display 3-D graphics without the need for plug-ins.
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While Google Maps GL shares all the familiar functions of Google Maps, "we've completely replaced the engine that draws the maps," McClendon said.
[Even as Google adds new features and products, it eliminates dead weight. Find out more: Google Kills Buzz In Friday Product Purge.]
WebGL adds a language for programming 3-D graphics and animations, with direct access to your computer's graphics card. When you enable Google Maps GL, Google runs a test first to see if your graphics card is up to snuff--I received a warning when I tried it on my laptop, but it worked anyway.
You can opt into enabling Google Maps GL at maps.google.com/gl/. (Look for the "Do you want to try something new?" link.) WebGL has also been used to create some beautiful multimedia experiences, such as Lights and 3 Dreams of Black.
HTML 5 is a little more mainstream, supported to an increasing degree by the major browsers, although some effects still require browser-specific tweaks. Google developer advocate Pete LePage gave a tutorial built around a Web jukebox for sharing music, with audio player and animation effects, and drag-and-drop file uploads and downloads. Those effects are typically implemented using a plug-in such as Adobe Flash, but HTML 5 makes them possible using only Web native APIs.
For example, it's now possible to specify image gradients in CSS code rather than adding gradients as background images, but browsers do handle this slightly differently. He recommended the Colorzilla Gradient Editor as a tool to help you get the code right.
Other techniques such as showing and hiding panels are more established and clearcut. Even when using techniques that are borderline, you can often work around the gaps using browser polyfills, or ways of detecting the capabilities of the user's browser and filling in with other techniques such as jQuery or a plug-in when necessary.
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