art with code

2009-04-11

GL canvas feedback

Some of the feedback I've heard on using a thin OpenGL ES 2.0 wrapper as the 3D canvas API [and my thoughts parenthesized]:

  • It would be better to design a new API and translate it to OpenGL / Direct3D / low-level driver calls in the browser backend. [Is it easier to write a new API and translate it to Direct3D and OpenGL than translating OpenGL to Direct3D? Plus, Windows has OpenGL support. Nothing but Windows has Direct3D support. How much work is this going to involve? What will the API be based on? Current hardware? Future hardware? CPU fallback? Shaders? Will it be a pure drawing API, a general purpose data-parallel computing API or something in between? How much complexity does it expose to the web devs? Will it be immediate-mode or a scene graph? How easy will it be to get a teapot on the screen? How easy will it be to get a per-pixel shaded teapot with a normal map, environment map, gloss map, DOF blur, soft shadows and a bloom shader on the screen? Are there any documentation and tutorials for it?]

  • Java3D would be a better approach than OpenGL. [Might be, want to write a spec and an implementation based on it? What shading language will you use? Remember to write a compiler from it to GLSL and HLSL.]

  • It's not going to run on computers older than 2 years. [It runs on a 6-year-old computer. Both on Linux and Windows. On an ATI card. I've personally tested it on Linux 32-bit, 64-bit, Windows XP, with Nvidia, ATI and software rendering.]

  • Having explicit delete methods for resources (textures, FBOs and VBOs) is a bad idea in a GC'd language. [Agreed, they should be freed on GC.]

  • glGetError is bad, errors should be thrown as JavaScript exceptions. [Agreed. The glGetError overhead is <0.2us per call, it's not going to blow your budget.]

  • A GLSL shader that works on one driver may fail on another. Even with the same hardware. [Agreed. We need to specify a single compatible subset of the language. So, I guess it's still going to require writing a GLSL parser? Unless there's some #version that's compatible across drivers.]

  • You can hang the GPU if you have shaders and they have infinite loops in them. [My tests disagree on the infinite loops -part, but it is a problem with heavy shaders (and hypothetical drivers lacking runtime sanity checks.) Getting rid of branches in shaders would probably fix the problem, but is it worth it? And I imagine you could hang the GPU by compositing a few thousand large 2D canvases as well (at least you can make the browser hang and swap a lot.)]

  • X3D would be better than an immediate-mode API. [X3D isn't an immediate-mode API though, it's a document format. Like SVG. It's taken SVG 8 years from a W3C recommendation to get to the point where no browser still supports the whole spec, and all have different bits that they don't support (filters, animations and fonts being the big culprits.) 2D canvas took around a year to get around (OS X Dashboard 2005, Firefox 2 2006, Opera 9 2006.) Of course X3D might be easier to implement, but I wouldn't count on it.]

  • Khronos membership and conformance costs are high enough to make it impossible for small operators to have their say on the working group. [Agreed, though none of the browser engine developers are exactly small. Mozilla is probably the smallest at $66M revenue, Opera is $74M, Nokia $66G, Apple $32G, Google $22G and Microsoft $60G. And Nokia, Google and Apple already are members.]



Conclusions? APIs are faster and easier to implement than document formats. Shaders are a pain, but also the best feature in hardware-accelerated drawing. Kicking up a whole new cross-platform accelerated drawing API from dust is going to be hard.
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Built art installations, web sites, graphics libraries, web browsers, mobile apps, desktop apps, media player themes, many nutty prototypes, much bad code, much bad art.

Have freelanced for Verizon, Google, Mozilla, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Valve Software, TDK Electronics.

Ex-Chrome Developer Relations.