What is GLTF? And why is it important?

When you think of web content you probably don’t think of 3D. When the internet started all the content was text. Soon people started making the “Graphical web” with images. Years later, creators started using video online in ways text and images could not. All these content types have one thing in common, they are two-dimensional. But computers and smartphones are capable of more than 2D. They can handle three-dimensional content, as evidenced by many games. So why does the web lack 3D content compared to 2D? Because there are many file formats for doing 3D, and GLTF promises to change that. But what is gLTF?

Mock ups of websites running in browsers

Some History

When you think of image formats you likely think of JPEG, PNG, or if you like memes, GIF. These are ubiquitous because everything, from your camera to image editors, to browsers supports these formats. That wasn’t always the case. The first browsers in fact didn’t support any images. They only showed text on web pages, typically with only simple formatting. Looking at the list of image formats, we can see some which are used but discouraged. That’s because, in the early days of the internet, those formats were used, and are still on the internet.

Videos experienced a similar situation early in their adoption. There were many video formats for different applications. Initially, the first video support built by browsers depended on the underlying operating system. If the proper codecs were installed, you could play the video. If not, you couldn’t. Many sites showing video provided several formats to watch videos and put the burden on users to know which one worked. Now there are many formats available, and many are natively supported by browsers.

3D is a young technology compared to images and video. It is where images were 30 years ago, and video was 15 years ago. There are many different specialized formats for many different applications. Web developers have needed to build custom implementations for showing these file formats on the web. Kronos group, the maintainer of many 3D standards, proposed a new general-purpose format to standardize tools and workflows to ease the process. That format is gLTF.

3D wireframe and rendering composition

So what is gLTF?

gLTF is a standardized 3D file format optimized for applications running over the internet on consumer devices. The format is intended to be small to make delivery work over slow or intermittent connections. The format is royalty-free, meaning businesses and developers can build applications without having to worry about licensing fees. Importantly, the format is intended to be rendered on consumer-grade hardware like that found in smartphones.

This translates to either more features or lower costs, maybe even both.

What’s the big deal?

A 3D file format with all those qualities didn’t exist before. Web developers needed to build custom formats or use existing formats with limitations. Now, with gLTF, applications have a very ideal off-the-shelf format available to them. This means less time developing, and more time delivering. This translates to either more features or lower costs, maybe even both. And that is a win-win! It is now the de-facto format used on the web.

At Frame Push, we use a variety of formats but use gLTF most commonly in web apps featuring augmented reality and virtual reality.

Frame Push builds augmented and virtual reality apps, web apps, and experiences to help your business succeed. Contact us to integrate our expertise into your plan.