How can we ensure WebVR is not an off-ramp for the web?

The way we look at things can make a massive difference to our lives, and this has never been more “literally” self evident than it is with WebVR.

If you haven’t heard of WebVR yet, then you’re definitely going to. Or, if you’re already on board with WebVR then you know what an amazing step forward it is. It’s having a big impact on the web and VR. And it’s already making VR more accessible to both web developers and users.

Unfortunately, many people still look at web browsers as clunky applications that are used for page based sites. Over the last few years all the major browsers have added support for amazing new standards like WebGL for 3D graphics, Web Audio for processing and creating audio, WebRTC for realtime video, audio and data streams plus all the different sensor based APIs. They have refactored their browsers into stream processing machines! Machines that are finely tuned for real time media.

The problem we see at the moment is that it seems WebVR has ended up being positioned as a whole, separate world. One that people can only access by strapping a mask to their face.

The traditional “unwearable web” is left positioned as a second class citizen that’s left to be “covered by the polyfill”.

We don’t believe this is an intentional strategy, and it’s natural that the explosion of cool new VR goggles would seduce browser graphics developers. But we do think it would be good if the benefits from WebVR were also focused back into existing API’s rather than always striking out in a new direction.
We believe that there is a real opportunity in front of us right now, and that the decisions we make will define the strength of the web platform in the future. This opportunity involves extending the positioning of WebVR to place it as a seamless part of the “whole web” of the future. As a stepping stone in the drive toward delivering a full and rich “mixed reality” through the web. Part of a new goal architecture for the web. Mixed reality is clearly the future of user centered computing. If the web doesn’t grasp the opportunities this brings, then surely it will be left behind…and possibly even fragment and die.

The web has a lot of unique advantages. It enables direct and deep linking. It enables instant publishing and sharing with massive audiences. It’s pervasively available everywhere. It’s soaked into almost every digital device available. It continues to engage the biggest developer, designer and user communities in the world. And the most modern web standards already show how mixed reality can be supported.
Our goal is “VR & AR on the web, using any device”. It’s the vision statement for the new platform we recently released. We’ve been working on this platform for 7 years and we still have a long way to go. But right now this makes flavours of VR & AR available to billions of capable browsers — all using existing browsers with existing web standards. This includes both viewing and creation on any device.

I’ve been evangelising this vision for 7 years now and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have the first generation of our new platform out in public. It’s amazing to watch people really use what you’ve been visualising and working on for so long…even if it’s taken a lot longer than I imagined!

But our goal is not to siphon users out of the traditional web and into a new virtual space. Our goal is to create one extended information space. To let web users seamlessly glide from a page based model to a spatial model and through all combinations in between. Our focus is on giving users the power to easily link this information to the physical world using diverse streams of sensor data, in ways that add real value and meaning. To us, this seems like the natural marriage of the web and mixed reality.

We support and fully endorse the WebVR movement. We want to make it 100% clear that this is not meant as a negative criticism of WebVR. We think the work being done is important and contributing real momentum and value.

Our point is that the way we look at the problems we’re solving literally shape our solutions. If WebVR literally only looks at the world through a mask, and if it’s developer community is lead to see the unwearable web as a second class citizen, then our solution will be poorer for it.

Instead we want to ensure we all keep our eyes on the broader mixed reality landscape. We want to create every opportunity possible for the whole web standards community to see what’s really possible with what they’ve already created. And we aim to take a lead by demonstrating how these standards can be integrated into a beautiful, seamless, mixed reality whole.
This post was written to fulfill a number of goals:
First, it was written as a position paper for the upcoming W3C WebVR Workshop.
Second, it is intended to be an open letter to the web standards community across all the related working and community groups.
And lastly, perhaps we think most importantly. This is intended to start a conversation that can help re-position the general perception of the web, away from “clunky and page based” towards “how mixed reality goes mainstream”.
We’re looking forward to hearing what you think…