The web component

Adding 3D models to a website can be tricky; <model-viewer> is as easy as writing HTML.

Joe Medley
Joe Medley

Adding 3D models to a website is tricky. 3D models ideally will be shown in a viewer that can work responsively on all browsers including smartphones, desktop, or even new head-mounted displays. The viewer should support progressive enhancement for performance and rendering quality. It should support use cases on all devices ranging from older, lower-powered smartphones to newer devices that support augmented reality. It should stay up to date with current technologies. It should be performant and accessible. However, building such a viewer requires specialty 3D programming skills, and can be a challenge for web developers that want to host their own models instead of using a third-party hosting service.

To help with that, the <model-viewer> web component, which just released version 1.1, lets you declaratively add a 3D model to a web page, while hosting the model on your own site. The web component supports responsive design and use cases like augmented reality on some devices, and it includes features for accessibility, rendering quality, and interactivity. The goal of the component is to enable adding 3D models to your website without understanding the underlying technology and platforms.

What is a web component?

A web component is a custom HTML element built from standard web platform features. A web component behaves for all intents and purposes like a standard element. It has a unique tag, it can have properties and methods, and it can fire and respond to events. In short, you don't need to know anything special to use any web component, much less <model-viewer>.

In this article, I will show you things that are particular to <model-viewer>. If you're interested in learning more about web components, is a good place to start.

What can <model-viewer> do?

I'll show you a few current capabilities of <model-viewer>. You'll get a great experience today, and <model-viewer> will get better over time as Google adds new features and improves rendering quality. The examples I'm provided are just to give you a sense of what it does. If you want to try them there are installation and usage instructions in its GitHub repo.

Basic 3D models

Embedding a 3D model is as simple as the markup below. By using glb files, we've ensured that this component will work on any major browser.

<!-- Import the component -->
<script type="module" src=""></script>
<script nomodule src=""></script>
<!-- Use it like any other HTML element -->
<model-viewer id="mv-demo" shadow-intensity="1" src="./spacesuit.glb"
alt="A 3D model of an astronaut" auto-rotate camera-controls

That code renders like this:

Adding motion and interactivity

The auto-rotate and camera-controls attributes provide motion and user control. Those aren't the only possible attributes. See the documentation for a complete list of attributes.

<model-viewer src="assets/Astronaut.glb" auto-rotate camera-controls>

Delayed loading with poster images

Some 3D models can be very large, so you might want to hold off loading them until the user has requested the model. For this, the component has a built-in means of delaying loading until the user wants it. That's what the poster attribute does.

<model-viewer src="assets/Astronaut.glb" controls auto-rotate

To show your users that it's a 3D model, and not just an image, you can provide some preload animation by using script to switch between multiple posters.

<model-viewer id="toggle-poster" src="assets/Astronaut.glb" controls
auto-rotate poster="assets/poster2.png"></model-viewer>
    const posters = ['poster.png', 'poster2.png'];
    let i = 0;
    setInterval(() =>
            `assets/${posters[i++ % 2]}`), 2000);

Responsive design

The component handles some types of responsive design, scaling for both mobile and desktop. It can also manage multiple instances on a page and uses Intersection Observer to conserve battery power and GPU cycles when a model isn't visible.

Multiple spacesuit images representing responsiveness.
Multiple spacesuit images representing responsiveness.

Looking Forward

Install <model-viewer> and give it a try The project team wants <model-viewer> to be useful to you, and wants your input on its future. That's not to say they don't have ideas. So give it a try and let us know what you think by filing an issue in GitHub.