With WebGL software, transitions are smoother and streetview no longer requires Flash.

Google Maps just got an upgrade.

The new version, Google MapsGL, incorporates WebGL 3D rendering technology to improve 3D graphics, make movements and rotations appear smoother, and add a few new features. The improved imagery makes navigating the maps feel that much closer to navigating through the real world.

The new level of 3D sophistication normally requires special software. But Google’s added Web-based Graphics Library (WebGL) technology, developed by WebGL Working Group, is an API for 3D graphics that’s hardware-accelerated so you don’t need a plugin. WebGL gives desktop browsers the vector graphics already enabled on Google Maps for Android. The result are transitions that are far smoother than the previous method which loaded the map image tiles sequentially. The 45 degree view looks a bit more realistic. And not only is the new 3D look of the buildings in Streetvew better, but by dragging “Pegman” – the locater icon – onto the map in Satellite View you swoop down seamlessly from space.

To use Google MapsGL you’ll need the latest version of Chrome (16+) or Firefox Beta and a supporting graphics card. If you have these and you go to Google Maps a prompt will appear asking if you want to “try something new.”

Hardware acceleration 3D graphics software like WebGL offer a number of benefits for web browsers including faster performance and decreased battery consumption. The first WebGL specification was released only this past March. But the young software is quickly becoming popular. The online game Team Fortress 2 uses WebGL to run straight on the browser and isn’t dependent on plugins like other games. For Google, MapsGL is just one project of many exploring the possibilities of combining WebGL with Chrome. One example, “Plink,” is a multiplayer program with which users can created music simply by moving their mouse.

In the end the changes that MapsGL brings are not going to overwhelm you, but the added smoothness is a significant improvement over the previous choppy navigation. You’ll feel as though Google is that much closer to their goal of creating a 3D mirror of the real world.

video: MapsGL

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.