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Next-gen OpenGL initiative announced, bridging desktop and mobile APIs

The Khronos Group has unveiled its next generation OpenGL initiative, which aims to unify the OpenGL graphics API across mobile and desktop platforms.
August 11, 2014

The Khronos Group, the non-profit group behind the popular OpenGL ES graphics API for mobile devices, has just detailed the specification for OpenGL 4.5 and has released SPIR v2.0 (OpenCL C intermediate representation). For us mobile users, Khronos has let out a few more details on OpenGL ES 3.1 and WebGL, and has announced its Next Generation OpenGL Initiative, which looks set to be a big game changer for the world of mobile graphics.

Mobile APIs

Firstly, let’s take another look at what Khronos has in store for mobile graphics with its new OpenGL 3.1 API and existing WebGL technologies.

Back in March of this year, the specification for OpenGL ES 3.1 specification was released, which details how hardware manufacturers can implement this graphics API used for games and other graphics related processes. Since then, a wide array of mobile SoC and graphics manufacturers have achieved full conformance with the new API version.

Tessellation is an example of an API dependent feature.
Credit: IVIS Tessellation brings smoother looking details.

You may recall that OpenGL ES 3.1 is an integral part of the new Google Android Extension Pack (AEP) that was announced with Android L. This includes a set of OpenGL ES 3.1 extensions, and new OpenGL functionality taken directly from the desktop version of the API. This includes improved detail through tessellation, geometry shaders for details and shadows, and a load of other high-end graphics effects, such as deferred rendering, physics based shadowing, global illumination, and improved particle effects. The results of which were shown off in the impressive looking Rivalry demo built on Epic’s Unreal Engine 4.

OpenGL ES 3.0 was a big jump in terms of mobile graphics features, and required a new generation of hardware. Fortunately, the new features available in OpenGL ES 3.1 are backwards compatible with the vast majority of graphics hardware that supports OpenGL ES 3.0. That means flagship smartphones with newer ARM Mali or Qualcomm Adreno GPUs will be able to benefit from the new features.

The other half of the Khronos Group’s mobile approach comes through WebGL, which is used to provide GPU access to HTML5 websites and apps. WebGL is already available on a wide variety of web browsers, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 11 and Apple’s upcoming iOS Safari 8 browsers will finally also support the standard.

WebGL support by browser
WebGl support by browser version. Source: caniuse

With support for the API now almost universal, developers should have a much easier time developing content that works across all mobile operating systems, as well as more HTML5 apps, which happen to play quite nicely with Android.

Next generation OpenGL initiative

Ok, so here’s the big announcement – Khronos is busy laying the groundwork for its next generation OpenGL initiative, which will unify desktop and mobile implementation of the API for modern GPUs.

This next implementation will be a complete ground up re-design of the current system, offering up high-efficiency access to graphics and GPU compute across desktop and mobile platforms. This will be the first fully cross-platform and cross-vendor API, which has big implications for more reliable graphics application development. However, this also means that the new API will not be backwards compatible.

The new API will be focused on making the most out of modern high-end and mobile GPUs, such as extensive multithreading support for multicore CPUs. The API will also grant explicit application control over GPU and CPU workloads, more transparent/lightweight drivers for improved performance, and improved shader reliability and portability.

Next Generation OpenGL

There are numerous motivations behind the new initiative, including keeping Khronos’ API up to date with the latest technology, improving reliability, and improving performance. But the key motivation is unifying the world of graphics technology and doing away with archaic closed platforms, thereby helping developers share their creations with as many consumers as possible, regardless of the user’s hardware or platform of choice.

With mobile hardware continuing to improve year on year, and using more and more familiar architectures, there is a growing need for, and ability to produce, streamlined APIs that can be tested and implemented across a greater number of platforms. The next generation of OpenGL aims to unify mobile, desktop, and web development, and there is a lot of support for this from the wider industry.

As well as the familiar line-up of hardware vendors, such as Qualcomm, Samsung, and Intel, Khronos now has some of the AAA gaming industry’s biggest players on board, including Blizzard, EA, Epic Games, and Valve. The Khronos Group is still looking for new members to share their thoughts on the initiative too.

OpenGL partners
Gamers are sure to recognise a few new names amongst the growing list of OpenGL partners.

After listening to developer needs, the next version of OpenGL for mobile should bring some sweeping changes that benefit hardware and software developers, and consumers alike. For us smartphone and tablet users, in the future the lines between desktop computers and mobile content look set to blur further still.