WebVR Disrupts:
Have walled gardens met their match?


This past Friday, some of the main players in Web Virtual Reality gathered at the “Browser-Based Virtual Reality in HTML5" meetup at Google San Francisco, and their presentation represents a wonderful introduction to the progress and challenges of Virtual Reality on the Web.

The message is clear: virtual reality technology is finally ready for prime time; it is evolving at a pace no previous communications technology has seen; and the web-based forms of VR represent a disruptive trend bringing never-before-possible forms of expression and communication to billions of devices. Yet this all comes without the economic and monopolistic barriers we have seen to date with earlier communications technologies such as radio, televisions, computers and phones. If someone wanted a definition of disruption, this would be it.

While it is certain that WebVR will be a huge phenomena, the precise ways it will take shape are not yet predictable: Virtual Reality in a web context has been dreamed of for quite some time, but technology and standards have only recently provided the foundation that makes it viable.

Tony Parisi: “We don’t have the mouse of VR yet”

Tony Parisi provided the overall context, citing the amazing ubiquity of WebGL across 3 billion devices: the core rendition technology is here! But he immediately pointed out that while there is a 3D rendition infrastructure available to children with smart phones that adults toiling over expensive graphics workstations of the 1990s would have drooled for, and there is supporting software in frameworks such as three.js, Web VR is still uncharted territory in many respects.

Introduction and Overview of the WebVR APIs with Tony Parisi

That became one of the themes for the night: hardware-acclerated 3D is rampant across devices, but the web infrastructure is just starting to become available: there is not yet widespread enough adoption to predict how it will be implemented. How will one navigate? How do links work? It is truly uncharted territory, despite years of VR experimentation and limited forms of VR pioneered in gaming and entertainment. Yet as it takes shape, Web-based VR will inevitably disrupt the propietary status quo, which Tony politely describes:

“it is almost like console gaming and the mobile market have had an evil love child and they are replicating the kind of things we saw in app stores”

A huge step forward is the availability of VR-specific builds of Firefox and Chrome browsers, and representatives of Mozilla and Google agreed with Tony that things are just taking shape as they announced their latest progress.

Tony’s slides, available at http://www.slideshare.net/auradeluxe/an-introduction-to-web-vr-january-2015

Josh Carpenter: “Web has succeeded beyond wildest dreams”

Josh Carpenter, a UX designer from Mozilla who has pioneered WebVR, gave insight into the state of browser-based WebVR as well as the associated UI/UX challenges/opportunities.

UI/UX design for WebVR with Josh Carpenter

He pointed to mozvr, one of the first WebVR sites, and explained the state of WebVR with Firefox. When Tony asked whether WebVR was available in the Firefox nightly builds, Josh mentioned an exciting blog post, which has since been posted. Yes, WebVR functionality is now in the nightly builds of Firefox.

He ridiculed the “decline of the web” myth, pointing out that “the web has speciated: it has divided into a million life forms.” As Tony had done, Josh emphasized the “frontier” character of WebVR: “there are no roads out here.” How do you navigate, how do you link? — “how do you go from anywhere to anywhere” — unlike self-contained apps, much of the uncharted territory on the Web is the way the VR “metaverse” (a web with virtual reality territory and interfaces) will take shape.

Brandon Jones: “Quaternions don’t work that way”

The beauty of what is taking shape here is that those implementing WebVR are working together. Chrome is also seeing WebVR support, and implementing it with the aim of a common approach with Mozilla (and presumably other browser vendors as they step up to the plate). Brandon Jones of Google gave a technical talk explaining how much of this works under the hood. Fortunately, as Tony had indicated, high-level tools and frameworks are evolving that give some serious development power to those of us mere mortals that might not understand quaternions.

After explaining some of the more technical details, Brandon showed a very simple three.js example: frameworks like three.js that facilitate 3D development in Javascript are already enabling VR support as this is one of the hottest use cases for 3D graphics. Brandon’s presentation is here.

David Holz: “We’re trying to figure out what is actually going to happen”

David Holz: Leap Motion and WebVR

David Holz, CTO and co-founder of Leap Motion, presented his vision of the likely evolution of wearable displays and input devices. It is very clear that these are both advancing rapidly, and if anything like his vision comes to pass, VR will have even far more amazing hardware than what we see currently.

David spoke of three generations (with gen 1 = now), looking 5 years out for both sensors and head mounted displays

While the future of software and UX practices is full of possibilities and unpredictability, the trajectory of hardware is a bit more clear, with the fundamental trends towards smaller, faster, less expensive hardware allowing for progress along known areas for improvement. Still there appears to be no shortage of detail to work out.

Patrick Buckley — “We want to see VR be more like the Internet than a game console”

Patrick Buckley of DODOcase returned to Tony Parisi’s initial topic of the power represented by VR in a web context. He spoke of the power of low-cost WebVR, citing the example of Google cardboard.

“This is the home brew moment for VR: there are two billion people walking around with smartphones that are VR devices and they just don’t know it yet.”

Patrick spoke of the accelerated pace of adoption of new technologies. He compared the rates of adoption of radio, television, and the web, noting that each new communication technology was adopted at a faster pace. He predicted that WebVR will continue this trend.

So WebVR is moving at a very fast pace. While it is clear that there is extreme value for WebVR vs. previous forms of VR and opportunities, there is much work to be done and much to look forward to in seeing how WebVR will evolve from here.