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HTML5 Drawing APIs

An interesting area of the HTML5 spec is the new drawing APIs. Canvas, SVG, and WebGL provide bitmapped, vector, and three-dimensional drawing capabilities, respectively.


The canvas element started its life as an Apple extension to Webkit, the layout engine powering Safari and Chrome, to display Dashboard gadgets and additions to the Safari browser. It was later adopted by Opera, Firefox, and related browsers, eventually becoming a component of the HTML5 specification. The beta release of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) has brought native support to all major browsers, although support in IE9 is not as complete as the aforementioned browsers.

The canvas element can be most simply described as a drawable region with height and width attributes using JavaScript as the medium to draw and animate complex graphics such as graphs and images. A full set of 2D drawing functions is exposed by the JavaScript language. Given the close relationship between JavaScript and ActionScript, a Flash drawing or animation using ActionScript can be easily ported to JavaScript with only moderate effort. Canvas will be covered in more detail in Chapter 5, "Creating Games with the Canvas Tag."


SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is a mature W3C specification for drawing static or animated graphics. The ability to inline SVG without the use of an object or embed tag was added in HTML5. Vector graphics use groupings of mathematics formulas to draw primitives such as arcs, lines, paths, and rectangles to create graphics that contain the same quality when rendered at any scale. This is a marked benefit over images whose discernible quality degrades when they are displayed at a scale larger than that for which they were designed.

SVG takes a markedly different approach from the canvas element in that it represents drawings in XML files instead of purely in code. XML is not the more concise representation of data, so a file may contain many repeated sections. This can be addressed by compressing the file, which can greatly reduce its size. As with the canvas element, interaction can be scripted using JavaScript. Prior to IE9, IE supported an incompatible vector format called VML. As of IE9, all major desktop browsers support a fairly common feature set of SVG 1.1. Chapter 6, "Creating Games with SVG and RaphaëlJS," puts SVG front and center.


WebGL is a JavaScript API for 3D drawing that enables the developer to assess graphics hardware and control minute details of the rendering pipeline. It is managed by the Khronos group and shares much of its syntax with OpenGL 2.0 ES. At the time of this writing, WebGL is not supported in Internet Explorer 6+ or the stable branches of Opera and Safari. It is available in the stable builds of Firefox and Chrome/Chromium and in development builds of Opera and Safari. Chapter 7, "Creating Games with WebGL and Three.js," dives into WebGL.

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