Google O3D may finally bring 3D to the Web

Today Google released a very early preview of O3D, a cross-platform, open source plug-in that enables OpenGL accelerated graphics within Web browsers. Delivering 3D graphics within browsers is not a new thing, (remember VRML?) but what makes this initiative promising is that it works on all platforms and is backed by Google. Performance-wise O3D seems very snappy when compared to alternatives such as Flash 3D. As a result some of the initial demonstrations are very impressive, and it hints at a future where Google Earth and SketchUp leave their desktop roots behind to become pure web applications.

From an architectural collaboration perspective O3D is valuable for a number of reasons. Firstly in a review situation it would mean remote clients can experience 3D designs without having to download, install and learn a separate "viewer" application. Likewise within an intranet such functionality would be valuable when navigating a project or company knowledge base. Whereas at the moment textual (web) data is quite distinct from 3D models, in a O3D-enabled future the two could be seamlessly intertwined in a variety of powerful ways. Finally by freely distributing 3D capabilities to everyone with a browser O3D opens up the possibility for new types of 3D-centric web applications that allow all design team participants to more effectively communicate ideas with one and other. For examples of these potential markets checkout the section 'Where will Dragonfly land?' in my earlier 'Autodesk Dragonfly emerges from its larvae' post. The people behind O3D's demo applications seem to appreciate this fact too, because the "Interiors" demo showcases such a tool (i.e. it 'copies' Project DragonFly).

A 3D, Google Trends view of the Earth in O3D

I have not yet created or rendered content using O3D, but if I get the chance there is a significant amount of developer documentation online. Anybody with web development experience should feel at home because the rendering engine is initiated and controlled using Javascript. This is a great choice, not only does it make the technology accessible, but it means 3D can be integrated into "traditional" web applications using standard Javascript event handlers. For example if you were creating a web-based CAD application you could create the majority of the user-interface using standard HTML/Javascript and leave O3D to handle just the rendering of the model window(s). Such an approach also means developers who already have already created 3D web applications in Flash and HTML could leverage O3D without being completely rewritten.

Overall O3D comes across as a very powerful and surprisingly polished early preview. Google are obviously very serious about 3D in the browser, and this implementation seems to be the most promising yet.