How does WebAssembly change web development?

alleycat code
Aug 28, 2017 · 4 min read

While advances in javascript has opened the door to many applications and experiences on the browser, it has its limitations. Not only as a language but the way that javascript is compiled and used. Within that understanding, a sleek new system is being made as an alternative, which is WebAssembly.

WebAssembly (WASM) is a compiler target. Currently if you are using a language that doesn’t have garbage collection like c++ and rust, you can run that code in the browser with WASM. Its works by compiling code in those languages beforehand to WASM and then having WASM files sent to your browser.

So what exactly does this mean for web development and experiences on your browser?

1. Advancements in game development on the browser.

“Advancements” can come off as a awkward term here. Most high industry games (AAA games) are made with powerful engines like unreal engine which uses c++. With the ability to utilize c++ on the frontend browser, games will be catching up to the rest of the AAA gaming standard of power. This means you can create products such as full scale video games in the browser with dynamic graphics. Unity provided a straightforward example of this with a basic tank game exported to the browser.

We are currently seeing interest from 3 different game engine creators, epic games (unreal engine), unity technologies (unity), and autodesk (stingray). They released a video back in march showcasing the pros of web assembly and native development.

While there are already a massive amount of well made games that use interesting engines such as playcanvas or wimi5, languages like c++ are part of an industry standard. They can bring a new form of quality to browser games and apps.

2. The way we teach new web developers will have to change.

I’m a software developer who first gained experience as an intern at a small startup. I’m about a year and a half into my career. I actually decided to switch from solely doing javascript, html, and css to learning ruby on rails. Most entry level developers see learning languages and skills as a trade off of what they are interested in and what can quickly be used to gain employment. As a result without sleek popular frameworks or inviting meetups, languages that can deepen your understanding of programming as a whole (c++) are looked over at first. But if several powerful c++ apps are going to be used with WASM in the near future we may have to change our definition of web development courses.

For starters getting a basic comprehension of c++ might be a part of advanced web development courses on major sites like cousera and edx. Likewise beginner game developers can consider creating games on the browser using already popular engines in a new way. This is a great way to expand 2 different yet already interconnected fields.

3. New experiences on the web will open up with the widespread use of game engines.

Basic methods of creating art on a webpage with javascript libraries and html canvas are pretty well known. However there are only a few cases of using game engines for anything other than games on the web. With the additional use of more powerful languages and graphic engines we will see more experiences being created for the browser. Epic games has spent a lot of time explaining and showcasing ways that its engine can be used for more than gaming. This was mostly stated during the GDC 2016 event in which epic revealed exactly how many companies have started using the engine for filmmaking and design.

This was only able to happen once unreal engine was made available to the public for free. This gave even more incentives for developers to use unreal engine as a standard in the industry.

The uses for WebAssembly obviously extend outside unreal engine and epic games desires. Obviously unity and autodesk have a lot at stake for the success of WASM. But unreal engines inclusion in frontend experiences will shake the foundation of what’s possible.

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