Monday, March 21, 2016

WebGL: RWD, Mobile-First And Progressive Enhancement

WebGL: adapting to the device

This is a rather under-studied area, but it is going to become more important as WebGL is increasingly used to make websites. This article is a summary of my thoughts and learnings on the topic, so far.

I should say that my context is using WebGL for things other than games. Informational websites, educational apps, data visualization, etc., etc.

Please use the comments to add related links you can recommend; or just to disagree.

What is RWD?

Responsive Web Design. The idea is that, rather than make a mobile version of your website and a separate desktop version of your website, you make a single version in such a way that it will adapt and be viewable on all devices, from mobile phones (both portrait and landscape), through tablets, to desktop computers.

Mobile-First? Progressive Enhancement?

Mobile First is the idea that you first make your site work on the smallest screen, and the device with least capability. Then for the larger screens you add more sections.

This is contrast to starting at the other end: make beautiful graphics designed for a FullHD desktop monitor, using both mouse and keyboard, then hiding and removing things as you move to the smaller devices.

Just remember Mobile-First is a guideline, not a rule. If you end up with a desktop site where the user is getting frustrated by having to simulate touch gestures with their mouse, then you’ve missed the point.

It Is Hard!

RWD for a complex website can get rather hard. On toy examples it all seems nice and simple. But then add some forms. Make it multilingual. Add some CSS transitions and animations. Add user uploaded text or images. Then just as you start to crack under the strain of all the combinations that need testing, the fatal blow: the client insists on Internet Explorer 8 being supported.

But if you thought RWD and UX for normal websites was hard, then WebGL/3D takes it to a whole new dimension…

Progressive Enhancement In 3D

Progressive enhancement can be obvious things like using lower-polygon models and lower-resolution textures, or adding/removing shadows (see below).

But it can also be quite subtle things: in a 3D game presentation I did recently, the main avatar had an “idle” state animation: his chest moved up and down. But this requires redrawing the whole screen 60 times a second; without that idle animation the screen only needs to be redrawn when the character moves. Removing the idle animation can extend mobile battery life by an order of magnitude.

And that can lead to political issues. If you’ve ever seen a designer throw a tantrum just because you re-saved his graphics as 80% quality jpegs, think about what will happen if two-thirds of the design budget, and over three-quarters of the designer’s time went on making those subtle animations, and you’ve just switched them off for most of your users.

By the way, it is also about the difference between zero and one continuous animations. Remember an always-on “flyover” effect counts as animation. An arcade game where the user’s character is constantly being moved around the screen does too. So, once one effect requires constantly re-drawing the scene, the extra load of adding those little avatar animations will be negligible.

Lower-Poly Models

I mentioned this in passing above. Be aware that it is often more involved than with 2D images, where using Gimp/Photoshop to turn the 800x600 image to 320x240 and as lower quality can be automated. In fact you may end up with doubling your designer costs, if they have to make two versions.

If the motivation for low-poly is to reduce download time, you could consider running a sub-surf modifier once the data has been downloaded. Or describing the shape with a spline and dynamically extrude it.

If the motivation is to reduce the number of polygons to reduce CPU/GPU effort, again consider the extrude approach but using different splines, and/or different bevels.


Adding shadows increases the realism of a 3D scene, but adds more CPU/GPU effort. Also more programmer effort: you need to specify which objects cast shadows, which objects receive shadows, and which light sources cast shadows. (All libraries I mentioned in Comparison Of Three WebGL Libraries handle shadows in this way.)

For many data visualization tasks, shadows are unnecessary, and could even get in the way. Even for games they are usually an optional extra. But in some applications the sense of depth that shadows give can really improve the user experience (UX).

If you have a fixed viewing angle on your 3D scene, and fixed lighting, you can use pre-made shadows: these are simply a 2D graphic that holds the shadow.


With virtual reality headsets you will be updating two displays, and it has to be at a very high refresh rate, so it is demanding on hardware.

But virtual reality is well-suited for progressive enhancement: just make sure your website or application is fully usable without it, but if a user has the headset they are able to experience a deeper immersion.

Controls In 3D

Your standard web page didn’t need much controlling: up/down was the only axis of movement, and being able to click a link. Touch-only mobile devices could adapt easily: drag up/down, and tap to follow a link.

Mouseover hints are usually done as progressive enhancements, meaning they are not available to people not using a device with a mouse. (Meaning in mobile apps I often have no idea what all the different icons do…)

If your WebGL involves the user navigating around a 3D world, the four arrow keys can be a very natural approach. But there is no common convention on a touch-only device. Some games show a semi-transparent joystick control on top, so you press that for the 4 directions. Others have you touch the left/right halves of the screen to steer left and right, and perhaps you move at a constant speed.

Another approach is to touch/click the point you want to move to, and have your app choose the route, and animate following it.

Zoom is an interesting one, as the approach for standard web sites can generally be used for 3D too. There are two conventions on mobile: the pinch to grow/shrink, or double-tap to zoom a fixed distance (and double-tap to restore). With a mouse, the scroll-wheel, while holding down ctrl, zooms. With only a keyboard, ctrl and plus/minus, with ctrl and zero to restore to default zoom.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Timestamp helper in Handlebars

Handlebars is a widely-used templating language for web pages. In a nutshell, the variables to insert go between {{ and }}. Easy. It offers a few bits of logic, such as if/else clauses, for-each loops, etc. But, just as usefully, Handlebars allows you to add helper functions of your own.
In this article I will show a nice little Handlebars helper to format datestamps and timestamps. Its raison d’etre is its support for multiple languages and timezones. The simplest use case (assuming birthday is their birthday in some common format):
<p>Your birthday is on {{timestamp birthday}}.</p>
It builds on top of sugar.js’s Date enhancements; I was going to do this article without using them, to keep it focused, but that would have made it unreasonably complex.
There are two ways to configure it: with global variables, or with per-tag options. For most applications, setting the globals once will be best. Here are the globals it expects to find:
  • tzOffset: the number of seconds your timezone is ahead of UTC. E.g. if in Japan, then tzOffset = 9*3600. If in the U.K. this is either 0 or 3600 depending on if it is summer time or not.
  • lang: The user-interface language, e.g. “en” for English, “ja” for Japanese, etc.
(By the way, if setting lang to something other than “en”, you will also need to have included locale support into sugar.js for the languages you are supporting - this is easy, see the sugar.js customize page, and check Date Locales.)
The default timestamp format is the one built-in to sugar.js for your specified language. All these configuration options (the two above, and format) can be overridden when using the tag. E.g. if start is the timestamp of when an online event starts, you could write:
<p>The live streaming will start at
{{timestamp start tzOffset=0}} UTC,
which is {{timestamp start tzOffset=32400}}
in Tokyo and {{timestamp start tzOffset=-25200}}
in San Francisco.</p>
Here is the basic version:
Handlebars.registerHelper('timestamp', function(t, options){
var offset = options.hash.tzOffset;
if(!offset)offset = tzOffset;

    if(!t)return "";
    if(Object.isString(t))t = Date.create(t + "+0000").setUTC(true).addSeconds(offset);
    else t = Date.create(t*1000).setUTC(true).addSeconds(offset);
else t = t.clone().addSeconds(offset);

if(!t.isValid())return "";

var code = options.hash.lang;
if(!code)code = lang;   //Use global as default

var format = options.hash.format ? options.hash.format : '';
return t.format(format, lang);
The first two-thirds of the function turn t into a Date object, coping whether it was already a Date object, or a string (in UTC, and in any common format the Date.create() can cope with), or a number (in which case it is seconds since Jan 1st 1970 UTC). However, be careful if giving a pre-made Date object: make sure it was the time in UTC and specifies that is in UTC.
The rest of the function just chooses the language and format, and returns the formatted date string.
If you were paying attention you would have noticed t stores a lie. E.g. for 5pm BST, t would be given as 4pm UTC. We then turn it into a date that claims to be 5pm UTC. Basically this is to stop format() being too clever, and adjusting for local browser time. (This trick is so you can show a date in a browser for something other than the user’s local timezone.)
But it does mean that if you include any of the timezone specifiers in your format string, they will wrongly claim it is UTC. {{timestamp
theDeadline format="{HH}:{mm} {tz}" }} will output 17:00 +0000.
To allow you to explicitly specify the true timezone, here is an enhanced version:
Handlebars.registerHelper('timestamp', function(t, options){
var offset = options.hash.tzOffset;
if(!offset)offset = tzOffset;   //Use global as default
    if(!t)return "";
    if(Object.isString(t))t = Date.create(t + "+0000").setUTC(true).addSeconds(offset);
    else t = Date.create(t*1000).setUTC(true).addSeconds(offset);
else t = t.clone().addSeconds(offset);
if(!t.isValid())return "";

var code = options.hash.lang;
if(!code)code = lang;   //Use global as default

var format = options.hash.format ? options.hash.format : '';
var s = t.format(format, lang);
return s;
(the only change is to add a couple of lines near the end)
Now if you specify appendTZ=true then it will append the global tzString. Alternatively you can append any text you want by specifying append. So, our earlier example becomes one of these:
{{timestamp theDeadline format="{HH}:{mm}" appendTZ=true}}
{{timestamp theDeadline format="{HH}:{mm}" append="BST"}}
{{timestamp theDeadline format="{HH}:{mm}" append=theDeadlineTimezone}}
The first one assumes a global tzString is set. The second one hard-codes the timezone, which is unlikely to be the case; the third one is the same idea but getting timezone from another variable.
VERSION INFO: The above code is for sugar.js v.1.5.0, which is the latest version at the time of writing, and likely to be so for a while. If you need it for sugar.js 1.4.x then please change all occurrences of setUTC(true) to utc().

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Comparison Of Three WebGL Libraries

Comparison Of Three WebGL Libraries

For many people, WebGL is a technology for making browser-based games, but I am more interested in all the other uses: data visualization, data presentation, making web sites look fantastic, new and interesting user experience (UX), etc. (I have spent many years using Flash for similar things.)

What is WebGL?

WebGL is an API to allow browsers to use a GPU to speed up 2D and 3D graphics; you write in a mix of JavaScript and a shader language. Because it is low-level and complex I recommend against writing in raw WebGL; use a library instead.

It is supported on just about any popular OS/browser combination, including working on tablets and mobile phones. Your device does not need to have a dedicated GPU to run WebGL.

What libraries are there?

There are actually quite a few choices, but for this article I will focus on the three libraries I have made (non-trivial) WebGL applications with:
The first two are fairly low-level (Babylon.JS has a few more abstractions built-in), meaning you will be thinking in terms of vertices, faces, 3D coordinates, cameras, lighting, etc. A 3D graphics background will be useful. Superpowers is higher-level, but more focused on games development. Some Blender (or equivalent) skills will also come in handy, whichever library you go for.

Three.js And Its Resources

Three.JS is the most established WebGL library, with some published books, many demos (, and others), even a Udacity course.

However it has scant regard for backwards compatibility, meaning that frequently the code in the published books (or the source code of older demos and tutorials) will not work with the latest library version. It has a relatively aggressive developer community, who think that having an uncommented demo of a feature counts as documentation.

It uses the MIT license (the most liberal open source - fine for commercial use), hosted on github; bug reports to github, but support questions to StackOverflow’s [three.js] tag.

Babylon.js And Its Resources

Babylon.JS is now two years old, and was developed at Microsoft in France, though it is open source (Apache license, so fine for commercial use). It is primarily intended for making games, but is flexible enough for other work.

Like Three.JS, it has plenty of demos, and again they are often undocumented. There is an active web forum; explanations and experiments there often link to the Babylon Playground, which is a live coding editor. There is also a very useful eight hour training video course (free), presented by the two David’s who created Babylon.JS. (There is a just-released book,, but I’ve not seen it, so cannot comment.)

Superpowers And Its Resources

Superpowers is a bit different: it is a gaming system, with its own IDE. It is very new, only released as open source (ISC license, which is basically the nice liberal MIT license again) in the middle of January 2016, though appears to have a year’s closed development behind it. (The IDE is cross-platform; it has been running nicely for me on Linux, I’ve not tried it on other platforms.)

Some of the initial batch of demos and games have been released on GitHub (kind of as open-source - the licenses are a bit vague, especially regarding re-use of assets), which has been my main source of learning. A few tutorials have also appeared recently (, and

What grabbed my attention was the quality and completeness of the Fat Kevin game, combined with the fact that I could download all source and assets for it, to learn from. (The Discover Superpowers demo is similar, but simpler, so easier to learn from.)

Support is through forums on, with separate English and French sections. This requires yet another user account; I find it a shame they didn’t use StackOverflow, Github, or at least HTML5 Game Devs (as Babylon did). I’d not heard of (“an open marketplace for independent digital creators with a focus on independent video games”) before, but I think their choice tells you how they see Superpowers being used.

The coding language is TypeScript, basically JavaScript 1.8 plus types; it is worth specifying those types, as then the IDE’s helpful autocomplete can work. Note that Superpowers is closely tied to the IDE - you need to be clicking and dragging things; doing everything in code is not realistic (though this might just be the style of the initial few games). Superpowers is built on Three.JS, but I’m not seeing anything exposed, so I don’t think you can take a Three.JS example and use it directly.


Which library to choose? I suggest you try out the demos for each of these, and choose the library that has demos that cover all the things you want to do. If the choice comes down to Three.JS vs. Babylon.JS, and you cannot find a killer reason to choose one over the other, this is because it doesn’t really matter, they can each do 95+% of what the other can: follow your hunch, choose one or the other, and dive in and learn it.

Finally I should say that WebGL for website development is hard: your programmer(s) will need 3D experience, as will your graphic designer(s). If you are using RWD/mobile-first to target both mobile and desktop, it is even more complex. My company, QQ Trend Ltd. can help (contact me at dc [at]

Monday, March 7, 2016

Gradients in Three.JS

Gradients in Three.js

3D charts with gradientsMany years ago, I made some charts in Flash: 3D histograms using boxes and pyramids. More as proof of concept than anything else, I used two types of gradients on the sides:
  • Colour gradients (e.g. red at the bottom of the bar, gradually changing to be yellow at the top)
  • Opacity gradients (e.g. solid at the bottom, gradually changing to be only 20% opaque at the top)
Recently I’ve been trying to reproduce (and go beyond) those charts in WebGL. Gradients seem to be both harder, and less flexible, than they were in ActionScript/Flash.

I’ve been working with two libraries, Three.JS and Babylon.JS. In Babylon.JS I couldn’t find any examples of how to do either type of gradient. In Three.JS I believe there is no support for opacity gradients, but colour gradients are possible, and that will be the theme of this article.

Three.js: mesh, geometry, material

I will assume some familiarity with WebGL and Three.JS concepts, but the most essential knowledge you need to follow-on with this article is:
  • geometry is a shape.
  • material is the appearance
  • mesh is a geometry plus a material.
Most of the time your geometry and your material are orthogonal. E.g. if you have a red shiny material you can apply it equally easily to your pyramid or your torus. And you can just as easily tile a grass image on either of those shapes.

A more tightly coupled (less orthogonal) example is a game character (a mesh) you have made in, say, Blender, with a special texture map (a material) to give it a face and clothes. The mesh and the material are basically tied together. However, if the mesh comes with multiple poses, or animations, the same texture map works for all of them. And you can repaint the texture map to give your mesh (in any of its poses) new clothes.

In contrast, gradients are highly coupled; at least in the way I will show you here. Like coupling in software engineering, this is bad: I cannot prepare a red-to-yellow gradient material, and then apply it to any mesh; instead I have to embed the gradient description into that mesh, in a way specific to that mesh.

Vertex Colours

The way it works is you can switch a material to use VertexColors. E.g.
  var mat = new THREE.MeshPhongMaterial({vertexColors:THREE.VertexColors});
And then over in the mesh you specify a colour for each vertex. If you do this, then Three.JS will, for each triangle, blend the vertex colours in a smooth gradient. All faces in Three.JS are triangles, and vertices are referenced through each face, so you end up with lots of lines like this:
  myGeo.faces[ix].vertexColors = [c1, c2, c3];
where each of c1, c2 and c3 are THREE.Color instances.

By the way, I said opacity gradients were not possible with this technique (because vertexColors takes an RGB triplet, not RGBA), but it is still possible to make the whole mesh semi-transparent.

BoxGeometry Vertices

A THREE.BoxGeometry is used to make a 6-faced cuboid shape. To be more precise it is a shape made up of 12 triangles (two on each face). To be able to set vertexColors you need to know the order of the those 12 triangles. I reverse-engineered it, by colouring each in turn, to get the following list:
  • 0: top-left of one of the side faces. 0 is top-left, 1 is bottom-left, 2 is top-right (anti-clockwise)
  • 1: bottom-right. vertex 0 is bottom-left, 1 is bottom-right, 2 is top-right. (anti-clockwise)
  • 2/3: same for opposite side
  • 4/5: is top. (4’s vertex zero touches 2’s vertex zero)
  • 6/7 is bottom
  • 8/9 is one side
  • 10/11 is the other side

A Factory Function

Here is a factory function to make a box mesh with colour c1 on the base, color c2 on the top, and each side having a smooth linear gradient from c1 at the bottom to c2 on the top.

You can specify c1 and c2 as either a hex code (e.g. 0xff0000) or as a THREE.Color object. w, d, h are the three dimensions of the cube. opacity is optional, and can be from 0.0 (invisible) to 1.0 (full opaque - the default).

function makeGradientCube(c1, c2, w, d, h, opacity){
if(typeof opacity === 'undefined')opacity = 1.0;
if(typeof c1 === 'number')c1 = new THREE.Color( c1 );
if(typeof c2 === 'number')c2 = new THREE.Color( c2 );

var cubeGeometry = new THREE.BoxGeometry(w, h, d);

var cubeMaterial = new THREE.MeshPhongMaterial({

if(opacity < 1.0){
    cubeMaterial.opacity = opacity;
    cubeMaterial.transparent = true;

for(var ix=0;ix<12;++ix){
    if(ix==4 || ix==5){ //Top edge, all c2
        cubeGeometry.faces[ix].vertexColors = [c2,c2,c2];
    else if(ix==6 || ix==7){ //Bottom edge, all c1
        cubeGeometry.faces[ix].vertexColors = [c1,c1,c1];
    else if(ix%2 ==0){ //First triangle on each side edge
        cubeGeometry.faces[ix].vertexColors = [c2,c1,c2];
    else{ //Second triangle on each side edge
        cubeGeometry.faces[ix].vertexColors = [c1,c1,c2];

return new THREE.Mesh(cubeGeometry, cubeMaterial);
Given the earlier explanation, I hope the code is self-explanatory: make a material where all we set is that we will use VertexColors (and, optionally, that it is partially transparent), make a box mesh, and then go through all 12 faces, work out which face it is, and set the colours of the three corners accordingly.

A Full Example

Here is a complete example (you’ll need to paste in the above code, where shown), to quickly demonstrate that it works. (This was tested with r74, but as far as I know it should work back to at least r65.)

The code is minimal: make a scene, with a camera and a light, and put a gradient box (2x3 units at the base, 6 units high) at the centre of the scene. The gradient goes from red to a pale yellow. I made it slightly transparent (the 0.8 for the final parameter), but as it is the only object in the scene this has no effect (except to dim the colours a bit, because of the black background)!

<!DOCTYPE html>
  <title>Gradient test</title>
  <script src=""></script>
function makeGradientCube(c1, c2, w, d, h, opacity){/*As above*/}

function init() {
  var scene = new THREE.Scene();
  var camera = new THREE.PerspectiveCamera(45,
    window.innerWidth / window.innerHeight, 0.1, 1000);

  var renderer = new THREE.WebGLRenderer();
  renderer.setClearColor(0x000000, 1.0);
  renderer.setSize(window.innerWidth, window.innerHeight);

  var dirLight = new THREE.DirectionalLight();
  dirLight.position.set(30, 10, 20);

  scene.add( makeGradientCube(0xff0000, 0xffff66, 2,3,6, 0.8) );


  renderer.render(scene, camera);

window.onload = init;


The above code was based on studying this example and trying to work out how it was doing that. It is undocumented - par for the course with Three.JS examples, sadly. I also peeked at the Three.JS source code. If you want more undocumented code examples of using THREE.VertexColors, see

Future Work

First, if you write your own shaders I believe anything and everything is possible.

Second, I wonder about making a gradient in a 2D canvas, and using that as a texture map. And/or using it as the alpha map to create an opacity gradient.

Either of those may be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, if you know a good tutorial on using gradients in either Babylon.JS or Three.JS, please link to it in the comments. Thanks, and thanks for reading!