17 March 2021

Animation / WebGL – Exploring the 3rd dimension in web development

Intro

We explore the new wave in animation technology – WebGL. How this technology is progressing the way we conceptualise & design websites, and how it could play a key role in online VR & AR experiences. But first, we will discuss the impact and importance of animation, its impacts on user retention, how it creates a long-lasting impression for your brand, and how it can be cleverly used for storytelling and web navigation. The progression of web browser-based animation capabilities is expanding the horizons of web design.

The influence of animations on user retention

Achieving a high user retention rate up is becoming an increasingly difficult task with the expansion of websites and apps competing for customer attention. Yet, there are methods you can implement that can significantly increase your chances of retaining your users. One of the most successful of these methods is the use of animation. Animation can bring a website and it’s content to life, it can provide guidance to users and increase interactivity substantially. Here are some key elements animations can bring to your website:

Creating a fluid experience

One of the main reasons for losing user retention is the “stop/start” factor. These brief pauses of interaction between pages or elements of a website can kill users interest quite rapidly. The use of animations to bridge the gap between stagnant parts of a website is a clever way to keep users engaged while processing or transitions occur. The feeling of continuation provided by these animations provides a much more fluid experience that users are less likely to disengage with.

Provides Direction

Animations can be cleverly used to direct users’ attention towards a predetermined element or function. This is particularly useful in forms, tutorials, lessons and other interactive features. These animations can provide the basis for including complex functionality and navigation, without adding extra complexity to the user. Using animation to provide direction is a clever way to enhance your website’s accessibility too.

Level of description

A picture can paint a thousand words, and animation can paint even more! As well as providing a third dimension, animations provide movement, flow and interaction. These elements give users more detailed insight into the message that visual content is pertaining to. It brings visual content to life, making it more realistic and increases engagement, reaching a level of detail a still image cannot.

How animations make your brand stand out

In recent times animations have been playing a big part in brand storytelling across the web. Video content has always been preferred to static content, but personalised animations have the ability to communicate complex ideas into a simple, comprehensible format. Animation allows businesses to introduce products and services in a creative, descriptive & fluid way. This is most notably useful in brand storytelling, where the primary objective is to get your clients, investors, and or stakeholders to have a clear idea of the values and direction of a brand. This can be a complicated thing to achieve, made a lot easier through the use of animation. Personalised animations provide a long-lasting impression by evoking emotion and providing entertainment. This is how your brand will stand out against its competitors.

Making websites unique & more memorable

Impressions are everything with web design, from first impressions to creating a lasting impression, how the people who visit your site remember it will define how they interact with your brand or business in the future. To create a lasting impression you need to have a unique, impactful front-end design. Animations created specifically for business, using their branding, logos, & colours, will leave a more lasting impression that those individual components.

What is WebGL?

…and now, for the technical part!

WebGL is a JavaScript API used to render 2D & 3D graphics in a web browser. This API integrates seamlessly with the HTML5 <canvas> element and utilizes a devices GPU capabilities to process physics and render images and 3D shapes.
It has the following features:

  • Cross-platform and Cross-browser: It will work on a range of devices, operating systems and browsers
  • GPU 3D acceleration: It renders 3d graphics and animations using graphics specific hardware – it will target a computer’s GPU instead of its CPU, resulting in better performance
  • Native API with GLSL support: a lightweight application programming interface that can be used on all platforms. It has GLSL support which means you can programmatically alter shaders, expanding the capabilities from a development perspective
  • Works inside a canvas: Canvas is an HTML5 element widely used across the web
  • Integration with DOM interfaces: Dom interfaces are used by HTML and Javascript to provide structure, meaning its compatible with most web technologies
  • Open-source: meaning it will be consistently developed and improved
  • Written in Javascript: so you can programme with the world’s most popular language and include all your favourite JS libraries to work seamlessly with WebGL

Performance

Performance is a considerable factor in the progression of WebGL. There is a combination of technologies at work to achieve such performance within a browser:

  • It’s client-side rendering capabilities mean that it takes the processing load away from the server and places it on individual users’ machines.
  • WebGL uses hardware rendering over software rendering, this means that graphics are rendered using graphics cards, instead of the entire processing load being placed on the CPU.
  • WebGL uses automatic memory allocation, taking advantage of Javascripts already constructed memory allocation capabilities. This provides slimmer code and already optimised memory performance.

Browser compatibility

Web browsers with JavaScript capabilities are installed in smartphones and tablet devices by default. This means you can leverage WebGL across a vast ecosystem of desktop and mobile devices. This makes webGL a great option for programming animations, flexing its versatility across a range of devices, browsers and platforms.

A new way to design websites

The progression of web browsers capability and the integration of WebGL and other animation technologies has opened up new avenues of exploration when it comes to web design. Web designers are now thinking outside the box when it comes to the traditional layout and navigation of websites.

Here are some examples of how designers & developers are enhancing their websites interactivity, user engagement and user experience through the use of animations and 3D technologies:

The future of AR & VR

With client-side rendering paired with javascript based animation, webGL is pushing the boundaries for what is possible within a browser. Augmented and virtual reality is not a new concept but has been dragging its heels due to the hardware and software capabilities it demands. This has made it quite niche and therefore hasn’t been as widely adopted as was previously imagined. WebGL could be seen as the bridging of these technologies to a larger audience, through one of the most widely adopted platforms out there, web browsers! This expanded audience will provoke designers to incorporate AR and VR into their websites, providing a more immersive experience to their users.

Conclusion

Animations are a versatile utility, for aesthetic, impressions, branding, but most of all communication. Too often we overlook the 3rd dimension when it comes to graphical content when it provides a far more realistic and impactful viewing experience.

The progressive development of these browser-based animation frameworks is creating a shift in how we conceptualise and design our websites. Simply put, we are capable of doing more now than we once were. Designers & developers were always heavily bound by the ties of performance and device and browser compatibility. The unshackling of these constraints has given rise to new ideas and ways of designing websites. There are certainly some brilliant minds availing of this new way of designing, and I expect to see animations and 3d experiences become the core of new design concepts for the future.