What is WebGL and why should you be using it?

webGL by minivegas audiI’m guessing that your experience of WebGL falls into one of two camps: The first is the ‘WhatGL?’ camp – those who have never heard of it, or might have heard it bandied around occasionally as a new technology buzzword but don’t have a clue what it actually means.

And then there are those in the second camp who understand what WebGL means, are quite intrigued by it but think it might not be for them or their brand and are still pretty apprehensive about jumping in, head first.

I would estimate that these two standpoints make up the experience of at least 90 per cent of advertisers and marketers out there today.

And my position on all of this?  I’m firmly in another, much smaller, camp – the 10 per cent of us who know and love WebGL – and I’m here to tell you why you should not only get a crash course in what this technology means to you, but you should also dive straight into using it.

First up, let’s deal with what it is.  At its most basic level, WebGL (or Web Graphics Library to give it its full name) is an image library that allows you to create real-time rendered, interactive 3D graphics, using a different part of your computer’s ‘brain’ than you usually would.  This means you can build advanced 3D visuals that run in a web browser without the need for the user to download any plugins. Simple, right?

As Executive Producer at production company Minivegas, creating campaigns for the likes of Audi (pictured), Sony, Old Spice, PlayStation VITA and Toyota, I am always amazed by what is possible with WebGL.

We at Minivegas have been using it since 2011 for innovative, integrated and social campaigns. We have even won a few awards for our work in it, thank you very much. We work with 3D visuals on a daily basis, with our in-house team of 3D artists and animators, who are responsible for creating some of the most cutting edge TV commercials, real life installations and digital campaigns around today.

While the more forward-thinking of the brands I work with are really starting to embrace this technology, there is definitely still a job to do in convincing many advertisers that WebGL isn’t all smoke and mirrors.

This leads me to the not-so-great news: WebGL requires HTML5 in order to work, and isn´t supported by all browsers and operating systems, or any mobile devices right now.  With this in mind, it is no surprise that brands are often afraid to spend their limited marketing budgets on newer technologies such as web activations built using WebGL. They will be knowingly limiting the number of users that engage with their brand. So why the hell would brands want to use it?

On first sight, this makes sense. But, in reality, this newer, advanced and immersive technology has a flip-side that counters perceived wisdom.

As we all know, reaching every single potential customer with your campaign platform is impossible. You need word of mouth. You need PR. You need a good concept. Despite what many brands think, it is not just about how many people can see your platform; it is how they engage that also matters.

Even when you consider that 25 per cent of the target audience may not see a WebGL website, what we have found is that our WebGL projects become some of the most successful campaigns our clients have ever run.

That is because when something is built well, has true worth and a clear message, those who can engage, engage for longer. Therefore you may exclude some users right now, but those who do get involved are even more invested in your brand and get more value from your message, and ultimately are more vocal about it, across platforms such Facebook.

While many people will immediately call to mind computer games when they think of 3D visuals, there are countless impressive uses for this technology. With pretty standard software, we are creating digital 3D models for architecture, entertainment and art. One of the next steps is 3D printing. You can already find 3D printing available in many toy shops and 3D printers are set to become common domestic electronics very quickly. Imagine a future where you can make a copy of your house keys or dog collar instantly, or download the latest iPad cover, personalise it and print it, without ever putting on your coat.

We can use WebGL as a tool for anything from real-time data visualisation, games, maps and support for 3D printing. Think of the many medical and educational uses: why not create a 3D human model with bones, muscles, arteries, and then interact in real-time to see how a disease can develop, a body ages or how neurons fire in the brain under different conditions.

And if that hasn’t convinced you to give WebGL a second look, then perhaps the recent news that Internet Explorer 11, released this summer, is compatible with WebGL will whet your appetite for this new technology.

Today it may seem that I’m banging a drum for a scary, new bit of kit that doesn’t come with an instruction manual.  In just a matter of years, I’m betting the house, WebGL will appear to be no more of an unknown quantity than Twitter or Facebook.  And, as far as innovation and creativity are concerned, the sooner that brands take a leap of faith and discover what WebGL can do for them, the better.

Brian Bourke is executive producer at digital production agency Minivegas.