Surfin' Safari

WebGL Now Available in WebKit Nightlies

Posted by Chris Marrin on Monday, October 19th, 2009 at 1:55 pm


WebGL is a new standard being worked on in the Khronos consortium. The work done in Khronos is only available to its members, so I can’t show you the spec just yet. But it will become public within the next few months after a review by Khronos members. The good news is that WebGL is now available in WebKit nightlies as of October 4, 2009 (r49073). So if you’re running Leopard or Snow Leopard you can try it out for yourself. WebGL runs in the HTML Canvas element, so it works very similarly to the 2D Canvas capability currently in WebKit.

OpenGL for the Web

OpenGL has been around for ages, so it’s very mature. It can handle all the features of the most advanced graphics cards, but works across a wide variety of hardware. WebGL is based on OpenGL ES 2.0 which is a shader based API.

WebGL is a very low level API, so it’s not for the faint of heart. OpenGL’s shading language, GLSL, is itself an entire programming environment. So doing even simple things in WebGL takes a lot of code. You have to load, compile and link the shaders, setup vertex buffer objects to hold the shapes, and setup the variables to be passed into the shaders. Then you have to do matrix math to animate the shapes. If you want to learn more about all this before continuing, head over to the OpenGL Site for some nice tutorials.

Getting Started

WebGL is really cool! But because it’s new and still under development it isn’t turned on by default. To do that, you need to go into Terminal and type this:

    defaults write WebKitWebGLEnabled -bool YES

Once you’ve done that, restart the WebKit nightly build. Then click on the image below. If you see a spinning cube, you have WebGL installed and enabled. If not go back and make sure you have the latest Safari and you typed the above line correctly.

NOTE: The above instructions do not apply to Safari 5.x and above. Instead, show the developer menu and select “Enable WebGL”.

Image of Spinning Box

Click to see Spinning Box (requires WebGL)

If you don’t have a nightly build, you can still see WebGL in action here.

A Simple Example

Let’s see how to create the spinning cube above. For the examples and demos here I’ve created a couple of files of JavaScript utilities to help out: one with some general utilities and another with a set of matrix functions. These will let us focus on the different steps needed to use WebGL without worrying about the details.

Like I said, WebGL is built on top of the Canvas Element. So just like you do for a 2D Canvas you start out by getting a CanvasRenderingContext with a call to the getContext method of the Canvas Element, passing the string “webkit-3d” (this is temporary, and will eventually change to “webgl”). The returned object has a set of functions very similar to OpenGL ES 2.0.

Using Shaders

Nothing happen in WebGL without shaders. They take shape data and turn it into pixels on the screen. When using GLSL you define two separate shaders. The vertex shader runs on each corner of every triangle being rendered. Here you transform the points, pass along the texture coordinates and use the normals to compute a lighting factor based on the normals of each triangle. There is a really nice GLSL Tutorial on lighting. GLSL gives you one special variable to store the transformed corner point, gl_Position. The value stored there for each of the corners of a triangle is used to interpolate all the pixels being output. The texture coordinates and lighting factor are passed in varying variables we created for the purpose.

All these values are passed to the fragment shader, which runs on each pixel of every transformed triangle passed in. This is where you get the appropriate pixel from the texture, adjust its lighting, and output the pixel. GLSL gives you a special variable for this, gl_FragColor. Whatever color your store there will be the color of that pixel.

So let’s define the shaders. I’ll use normal script notation here, even though HTML ignores it. It’s a useful way to include GLSL. The contents of the script will be passed as a string to the shaderSource function:

<script id="vshader"type="x-shader/x-vertex">
        uniform mat4 u_modelViewProjMatrix;
        uniform mat4 u_normalMatrix;
        uniform vec3 lightDir;

        attribute vec3 vNormal;
        attribute vec4 vTexCoord;
        attribute vec4 vPosition;

        varying float v_Dot;
        varying vec2 v_texCoord;

        void main()
            gl_Position = u_modelViewProjMatrix * vPosition;
            v_texCoord =;
            vec4 transNormal = u_normalMatrix * vec4(vNormal,1);
            v_Dot = max(dot(, lightDir), 0.0);


<script id="fshader" type="x-shader/x-fragment">

        uniform sampler2D sampler2d;

        varying float v_Dot;
        varying vec2 v_texCoord;

        void main()
            vec2 texCoord = vec2(v_texCoord.s, 1.0 - v_texCoord.t);
            vec4 color = texture2D(sampler2d,texCoord);
            color += vec4(0.1,0.1,0.1,1);
            gl_FragColor = vec4( * v_Dot, color.a);


The vertex shader in this example simply sends along the vertex position, vPosition to the fragment shader after transforming it by a composite model-view/projection matrix. We’ll get to that later. Then it passes along the texture coodinate, vTexCoord, and uses the normal in vNormal to compute a lighting factor, v_Dot for the fragment shader. The fragment shader is even simpler. It just gets a pixel from the texture, (after flipping the texture coordinate so the image is right-side up). Then multiplies that by the lighting factor passed in from the vertex shader. This causes the pixels to be brighter when a side of the cube is facing you and darker when it is at an angle, giving it a realistic lighting effect.

Initializing the Engine

Now we have to get WebGL up and running. The utility library we first loaded will help us here:

    function init()
        // Initialize
        var gl = initWebGL(
                // The id of the Canvas Element
                // The ids of the vertex and fragment shaders
                "vshader", "fshader",
                // The vertex attribute names used by the shaders.
                // The order they appear here corresponds to their index
                // used later.
                [ "vNormal", "vTexCoord", "vPosition"],
                // The clear color and depth values
                [ 0, 0, 0, 1 ], 10000);

        // Set some uniform variables for the shaders
        gl.uniform3f(gl.getUniformLocation(gl.program, "lightDir"), 0, 0, 1);
        gl.uniform1i(gl.getUniformLocation(gl.program, "sampler2d"), 0);

        // Enable texturing

        // Create a box. On return 'gl' contains a 'box' property with the 
        // BufferObjects containing the arrays for vertices, normals, texture 
        // coords, and indices. = makeBox(gl);

        // Load an image to use. Returns a CanvasTexture object
        spiritTexture = loadImageTexture(gl, "spirit.jpg");

        // Create some matrices to use later and save their locations in the shaders
        gl.mvMatrix = new CanvasMatrix4();
        gl.u_normalMatrixLoc = gl.getUniformLocation(gl.program, "u_normalMatrix");
        gl.normalMatrix = new CanvasMatrix4();
        gl.u_modelViewProjMatrixLoc =
                gl.getUniformLocation(gl.program, "u_modelViewProjMatrix");
        gl.mvpMatrix = new CanvasMatrix4();

        // Enable all the vertex arrays

        // Setup all the vertex attributes for vertices, normals and texCoords
        gl.vertexAttribPointer(2, 3, gl.FLOAT, false, 0, 0);

        gl.vertexAttribPointer(0, 3, gl.FLOAT, false, 0, 0);

        gl.vertexAttribPointer(1, 2, gl.FLOAT, false, 0, 0);

        // Bind the index array

        return gl;

After this initialization we have the shaders loaded and attached to a GLSL program, which is how you define the interface to your shaders. You pass uniforms to a shader for values that don’t change, and vertex attributes for things that do, like vertices. Most of this is taken care of in the library, but you can pass additional values here, like we do with the lightDir and sampler2d uniforms. Here we also tell WebGL that we want to use the arrays the makeBox() function set up containing the vertices, normals and texture coordinates.

Setting Up the Viewport

Before we can render, we have to tell the canvas how to map the objects we are drawing from modeling coodinates, which is the coordinate space we defined the box in, to viewport coordinates. We do that with a transformation matrix. We will use a perspective projection which will make closer objects look larger than further ones, just like in the real world. Here we will use the matrix library we loaded:

    function reshape(gl)
        var canvas = document.getElementById('example1');
        if (canvas.clientWidth == width && canvas.clientHeight == height)

        width = canvas.clientWidth;
        height = canvas.clientHeight;

        // Set the viewport and projection matrix for the scene
        gl.viewport(0, 0, width, height);
        gl.perspectiveMatrix = new CanvasMatrix4();
        gl.perspectiveMatrix.lookat(0,0,7, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0);
        gl.perspectiveMatrix.perspective(30, width/height, 1, 10000);

We save the perspectiveMatrix for use later. It transforms from world coordinates to viewport coordinates. We will go from modeling coordinate to world coordinates in the next step.

Drawing the Box

Now we’re all set up and we can finally draw our box. Most of the hard work is done but we still have to tell the box we want it to spin, and to do that we define a model-view matrix, which transforms from modeling coordinates to world coordinates. This tells the box where and at what angle we want it to appear. Then we multiply that by the perspective matrix we saved before to complete the transformation all the way from modeling coordinates to viewport coordinates. We also turn the model-view matrix into a normal matrix so it can be used to compute the proper lighting on the box:

    function drawPicture(gl)
        // Make sure the canvas is sized correctly.

        // Clear the canvas
        gl.clear(gl.COLOR_BUFFER_BIT | gl.DEPTH_BUFFER_BIT);

        // Make a model/view matrix.
        gl.mvMatrix.rotate(currentAngle, 0,1,0);
        gl.mvMatrix.rotate(20, 1,0,0);

        // Construct the normal matrix from the model-view matrix and pass it in
        gl.uniformMatrix4fv(gl.u_normalMatrixLoc, false,

        // Construct the model-view * projection matrix and pass it in
        gl.uniformMatrix4fv(gl.u_modelViewProjMatrixLoc, false,

        // Bind the texture to use
        gl.bindTexture(gl.TEXTURE_2D, spiritTexture);

        // Draw the cube
        gl.drawElements(gl.TRIANGLES,, gl.UNSIGNED_BYTE, 0);

        // Finish up.

        // Show the framerate

        currentAngle += incAngle;
        if (currentAngle > 360)
            currentAngle -= 360;

Once this is all done you simply add a JavaScript timer to keep changing the angle and rendering the box in its new position and you have a spinning box!

Where to Next?

So, as you can see there’s a lot to learn about 3D rendering. There are some nice tutorials at the OpenGL Site. Most of these are not specific to OpenGL ES 2.0, so you’ll have to figure out what features are and are not available. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of specific ES 2.0 examples yet. But I think these tutorials will give you a good start. There’s also a great book specifically about OpenGL ES 2.0 called the OpenGL ES 2.0 Programming Guide.

There are also a few WebGL examples in the wild already. Check them out here, here and here. WebKit has a few samples as well:

Spinning Box


Many Planets

Teapot per-vertex

Teapot per-pixel

WebGL+CSS Animation

7 Responses to “WebGL Now Available in WebKit Nightlies”

  1. cying Says:

    Here’s another example using WebGL, a port of a GPU raytracer to WebGL:

  2. oscarbg Says:

    Webkit Windows builds are Webgl enabled?
    if that what’s to do as i cant’:
    defaults write WebKitWebGLEnabled -bool YES

    please help

  3. David Nelson Says:

    I don’t see anything…

    1.2 GHz iBook G4 (Late 2004) running Webkit build 49845 and Mac OS X 10.5.8.

  4. giles Says:

    I’ve not been able to install the Windows nightly build; Safari 4.0.3 (531.9.1) is installed and working OK, but when I run the run-nightly-webkit.cmd script I get an error message:

    The application has failed to start because its side-by-side configuration is incorrect. Please see the application event log for more detail.

    Someone else I know is seeing exactly the same problem, so it’s not just my machine.

    OS is Vista, I’ve tried both SP1 and SP2.

    Has anyone seen anything like this? Is there a workaround?



  5. Chris Marrin Says:

    “So if you’re running Leopard or Snow Leopard you can try it out for yourself”. For now it’s Mac only

  6. Chris Marrin Says:

    Follow the progress of the Windows implementation here:

  7. giles Says:

    Ah, thanks. That’ll teach me to read your posts properly… I’ll track the bug.

    That said, it looks like there could be a general problem installing Windows nightly WebKit builds into Safari regardless of whether WebGL is included in them. But maybe tracking that down isn’t a high priority for the team ;-)