WebGL and glTF at Work in the NORAD Santa Tracker
Every year in December, millions of people get in the holiday spirit with NORAD Tracks Santa, the website that lets you track Santa’s magical midnight voyage through the sky on Christmas Eve. Part of what makes the NORAD Tracks Santa website possible are Khronos standards WebGL and glTF. Today, over 22 million people follow Santa’s journey on a 3D map built with Cesium. Before glTF and WebGL, Mr. Claus’s delivery route was much harder to trace
How did NORAD Tracks Santa begin?
The now famous website has its roots dating back into the 1950s when, in an attempt to contact “the man with all the toys,” a child accidentally crossed wires with North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD). NORAD monitors the airspace above the United States and Canada, and responds to unknown, unwanted, and unauthorized air activity to protect North America against air attacks. So naturally, this would be the agency to contact with questions about Santa, right?
Inspired by the child’s ambitious phone call, NORAD created NORAD Tracks Santa to help all curious children of the world see Santa’s legendary Christmas Eve delivery path for themselves. What began as a simple telephone hotline has, over the years, developed into a sophisticated, digital surveillance system — thanks to groups like Cesium, Analytical Graphics Inc., and the Khronos Group.
Santa’s helpers: WebGL and glTF
Cesium, an open-source project started by Analytical Graphics, Inc., is a map engine originally designed for aerospace applications where visualizing precise geographic and temporal locations is critical; clearly, it has the technological prowess to follow the trajectory of Santa and his reindeer on their whirlwind Christmas Eve mission.
Moreover, Cesium’s map engine is built on WebGL, a standard maintained by the Khronos Group that renders interactive 2D and 3D graphics in a web browser. Cesium was an early adopter of WebGL, as the developers recognized its value in making interactive 3D graphics run in a web browser without a plugin. For NORAD Tracks Santa, this platform allows children to see Santa’s current position in the air at any given time as he flies around a 3D globe, complete with global terrain and satellite imagery. The website even shows billboards that indicate where Santa has already visited; when clicked, these billboards prompt videos of Santa and Wikipedia articles about the selected area.
In addition to precise geographic accuracy, NORAD Tracks Santa broadcasts Santa’s delivery in shiny, crisp 3D. Artists first created models of Santa and his reindeer in Modo, which were then converted to glTF 2.0; this allows the images to render efficiently on the web and to sustain the high volume of viewers that tune in each year. The GL Transmission Format, glTF, is an open-standard runtime asset format developed by the Khronos Group and the Cesium team — during the Christmas season, however, it’s one of Santa’s most important helpers.
This Christmas, watch every stop of the magical Christmas Eve journey with NORAD Tracks Santa.