Google MapsGL for a deeper experience
Written by Ian Elliot   
Thursday, 20 October 2011

Google has brought a new immersive dimension to Google Maps. To experience it you need a browser that supports WebGL - and that list now includes Opera as well as Chrome, Firefox and Safari, making IE users conspicuously left out of the fun.

Google MapsGL is the result of adding the power of Web Graphics Library (WebGL) to Google Maps. This marks a turning point for WebGL because while it has been used in "experiments" and web pages that showcase its potential this is the first time it has made it into a standard and high profile web applications. Put simply Google Maps is used by a lot of people and now WebGL will be in use by the same people. It really is the moment for Microsoft to reconsider its position in not supporting WebGL in IE9 and 10.

Google MapsGL is available to try out as long as you have the right combination of graphics card and browser, that is  Chrome 14+ or any WebGL-supporting browser, i.e. not IE 9 or 10. At the moment it is an opt-in beta service, but it seems to work reasonably well.

As well as having richer graphics and smoother transitions, by using vector graphics, MapsGL offers some facilities that are completely new for desktop browsing, although already available on Android devices. It adds 3D depth for buildings,supports rotation of the map and you can drag the pegman from the zoom bar into the scene to activates street view where available.

Follow the tour at Google MapsGL to try it out or watch Google's video to experience the transition from an ordinary bird's-eye view to Street View with shadows appropriate to the local time of day and the 45-degree aerial photography views Google offers in selected areas such as Rome.



For any armchair tourist, this is obviously an innovation worth having and puts WebGL support high on the list of user priorities. Thus Microsoft's point-blank refusal to embrace it faces developers with a dilemma. Incorporate WebGL into apps and delight users who have upgraded their browsers but alienate anyone who has stuck with IE, not just now but in the foreseeable future.




With WebGL making its way into mainstream web applications like mapping Microsoft's refusal to adopt it within IE 9 or 10 is looking increasingly silly. Users aren't going to respond well to being told that they cannot view 3D buildings and have to settle for a substandard experience simply because Microsoft has "problems" with supporting WebGL. The real issue for programmers is do we jump on the WebGL bandwaggon and simply say to end users - download Chrome/Firefox or whatever? Or do we hold off from using WebGL simply to avoid the complaints of the users who can't or wont move from a non-standard's supporting browser?

Further reading

Microsoft no WebGL support - it's insecure

WebGL 1.0 finalized - the state of play


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Last Updated ( Thursday, 20 October 2011 )