WebGL Text - HTML

This article is a continuation of previous WebGL articles. If you haven't read them I suggest you start there and work your way back.

A common question is "how to I draw text in WebGL". The first thing to ask yourself is what's your purpose in drawing the text. You're in a browser, the browser displays text. So your first answer should be to use HTML to display text.

Let's do the easiest example first: You just want to draw some text over your WebGL. We might call this a text overlay. Basically this is text that stays in the same position.

The simple way is to make an HTML element or elements and use CSS to make them overlap.

For example: First make a container and put both a canvas and some HTML to be overlaid inside the container.

<div class="container">
  <canvas id="canvas"></canvas>
  <div id="overlay">
    <div>Time: <span id="time"></span></div>
    <div>Angle: <span id="angle"></span></div>

Next setup the CSS so that the canvas and the HTML overlap

.container {
    position: relative;
#overlay {
    position: absolute;
    left: 10px;
    top: 10px;

Now look up those elements at init time and create or lookup the areas you want to change.

// look up the elements we want to affect
var timeElement = document.getElementById("time");
var angleElement = document.getElementById("angle");

// Create text nodes to save some time for the browser.
var timeNode = document.createTextNode("");
var angleNode = document.createTextNode("");

// Add those text nodes where they need to go

Finally update the nodes when rendering

function drawScene() {

    // convert rotation from radians to degrees
    var angle = radToDeg(rotation[1]);

    // only report 0 - 360
    angle = angle % 360;

    // set the nodes
    angleNode.nodeValue = angle.toFixed(0);  // no decimal place
    timeNode.nodeValue = clock.toFixed(2);   // 2 decimal places

And here's that example

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Notice how I put spans inside the divs specifically for the parts I wanted to change. I'm making the assumption here that that's faster than just using the divs with no spans and saying something like

timeNode.value = "Time " + clock.toFixed(2);

Also I'm using text nodes by calling node = document.createTextNode() and later node.nodeValue = someMsg. I could also use someElement.innerHTML = someHTML. That would be more flexible because you could insert arbitrary HTML strings though it might be slightly slower since the browser has to create and destroy nodes each time you set it. Which is better is up to you.

The important point to take way from the overlay technique is that WebGL runs in a browser. Remember to use the browser's features when appropriate. Lots of OpenGL programmers are used to having to render every part of their app 100% themselves from scratch but because WebGL runs in a browser it already has tons of features. Use them. This has lots of benefits. For example you can use CSS styling to easily give that overlay an interesting style.

For example here's the same example but adding some style. The background is rounded, the letters have a glow around them. There's a red border. You get all that essentially for free by using HTML.

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The next most common thing to want to do is position some text relative to something you're rendering. We can do that in HTML as well.

In this case we'll again make a container with the canvas and another container for our moving HTML

<div class="container">
  <canvas id="canvas" width="400" height="300"></canvas>
  <div id="divcontainer"></div>

And we'll setup the CSS

.container {
    position: relative;
    overflow: none;
    width: 400px;
    height: 300px;

#divcontainer {
    position: absolute;
    left: 0px;
    top: 0px;
    width: 100%;
    height: 100%;
    z-index: 10;
    overflow: hidden;


.floating-div {
    position: absolute;

The position: absolute; part makes the #divcontainer be positioned in absolute terms relative to the first parent with another position: relative or position: absolute style. In this case that's the container that both the canvas and the #divcontainer are in.

The left: 0px; top: 0px makes the #divcontainer align with everything. The z-index: 10 makes it float over the canvas. And the overflow: hidden makes its children get clipped.

Finally .floating-div will be used for the positionable div we create.

So now we need to look up the divcontainer, create a div and append it.

// look up the divcontainer
var divContainerElement = document.getElementById("divcontainer");

// make the div
var div = document.createElement("div");

// assign it a CSS class
div.className = "floating-div";

// make a text node for its content
var textNode = document.createTextNode("");

// add it to the divcontainer

Now we can position the div by setting its style.

div.style.left = Math.floor(x) + "px";
div.style.top  = Math.floor(y) + "px";
textNode.nodeValue = clock.toFixed(2);

Here's an example where we're just bounding the div around.

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So the next step is we want to place it relative to something in the 3D scene. How do we do that? We do it exactly how we asked the GPU to do it when we covered perspective projection.

Up through that example we learned how to use matrices, how to multiply them, and how to apply a projection matrix to convert them to clipspace. We pass all of that to our shader and it multiplies vertices in local space and converts them to clipspace. We can do all the math ourselves in JavaScript as well. Then we can multiply clipspace (-1 to +1) into pixels and use that to position the div.


// We just got through computing a matrix to draw our
// F in 3D.

// choose a point in the local space of the 'F'.
//             X  Y  Z  W
var point = [100, 0, 0, 1];  // this is the front top right corner

// compute a clipspace position
// using the matrix we computed for the F
var clipspace = m4.transformVector(matrix, point);

// divide X and Y by W just like the GPU does.
clipspace[0] /= clipspace[3];
clipspace[1] /= clipspace[3];

// convert from clipspace to pixels
var pixelX = (clipspace[0] *  0.5 + 0.5) * gl.canvas.width;
var pixelY = (clipspace[1] * -0.5 + 0.5) * gl.canvas.height;

// position the div
div.style.left = Math.floor(pixelX) + "px";
div.style.top  = Math.floor(pixelY) + "px";
textNode.nodeValue = clock.toFixed(2);

And voila, the top left corner of our div is perfectly aligned with the top right front corner of the F.

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Of course if you want more text make more divs.

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You can look at the source of that last example to see the details. One important point is I'm just guessing that creating, appending and removing HTML elements from the DOM is slow so the example above creates them and keeps them around. It hides any unused ones rather than removing them from the DOM. You'd have to profile to know if that's faster. That was just the method I chose.

Hopefully it's clear how to use HTML for text. Next we'll cover using Canvas 2D for text.

Questions? Ask on stackoverflow.
Issue/Bug? Create an issue on github.
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