WebVR: Dive into Virtual Reality from your browser

by @thomasbalou, CTO of the WebVR company LucidWeb

A year ago, I wrote an article explaining how to use WebVR, the technology enabling to access Virtual Reality (VR) experiences directly from your browser.

2016 was a busy year for VR, and same goes for WebVR. Focusing daily on VR content distribution via the Web with my company LucidWeb, we are expected to stay at the edge of the technology, working closely with the rest of the WebVR community to stay up to date with all the frequent changes.

On the positive side, in 2016 WebVR did enjoy a relatively high visibility in the press, then again as these announcement were quite diverse and spread in time, one might easily get lost. That’s why I felt it was time to write a second article to bring you all up to speed, so here it goes:

What exactly is WebVR?

Provides access to VR devices, in your browser

For those of you who know WebVR already, you can switch to next paragraph. But for those who don’t yet know what it is about, here’s what you need to know.

WebVR is an open source API (code aimed at developers to help them use a particular system) which development is lead by major browsers’ engineers, and some independent developers around the world. The purpose of this API is to enable developers to create Virtual Reality experiences by using the Web, and making it directly accessible from a browser’s URL, with no download nor installation process.

This API makes WebVR the most ubiquitous, accessible and broadest way to create, access and share Virtual Reality experiences, from any device in a few seconds.

The best way to understand its unmatched ease & convenience, is by testing it. Please try out a Tumblr VR gallery I’ve worked on: http://www.tbaloo.com/tumbvr

Or some other experiences:

What happened in WebVR in 2016?

WebVR group photo at the end of the W3C VR workshop of October 16'

WebVR had a busy year in 2016, consumer as well as companies showing growing interest. A quick recap:

  • The WebVR specification evolved toward a clean first 1.0 version
  • Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox dev versions were already showcasing WebVR support for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift upon their release
  • WebVR experience featuring Room-Scale surfaced and opened a new world of possibilities
  • Oculus announced the development of a WebVR focused browser called Carmel
  • The W3C organized the first workshop about the Web and VR in San Jose, bringing together top engineers and designers involved in WebVR development (and also I was there ^^)
  • WebVR moved closer to a public version in most of the browsers (more info below)

Accessing WebVR from any device, a quick guide

The main interest of WebVR is that it makes any experience nearly instantly accessible from any device. Even if some experiences are dedicated to certain Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) because they need special features like room scale or hand controllers, it will be the same URL used as origin, and most of the experiences will have a fallback to give you a taste of it, no matter which device you use.

To check if you have the correct browser version, a very useful website that gets frequently updated with the implementation process from most of the major browser vendors: https://iswebvrready.org/

From a computer

If you haven’t any HMDs, but are willing to try VR anyway, it’s as simple as visiting any traditional website.

  • Access an experience’s URL from your browser
  • Navigate with your keyboard and mouse (dragging the scene with your mouse to orient the point of view, and move with keys if the experience allow it)

From a mobile

Turn your phone around to watch content around you (image credit thepockettech)

With nearly any last-gen mobile, you can try VR directly via your phone.

  • Access an experience’s URL from your browser
  • Turn your phone around (“magic-window” mode) or drag the scene with your fingers

The experience will go smoother on <2 years old phones, and support is wider around Android than iPhones, mainly due to a better support from Google towards the Web and VR.

From a Cardboard-like HMD

Look for this icon to access the “VR-mode”

If your mobile enables you to have a “magic-window” experience, chances are high that it will also allow you to go into “VR-mode”. This mode will split your screen in two, rendering the experience from each eye’s perspective.

  • Access an experience’s URL from your browser
  • Click on the “Enter VR” icon (should look like the one above)
  • Make sure your phone’s auto-rotate is enabled, and slide it into a cardboard-like HMD

From a Samsung Gear VR HMD

The Gear VR seems to be the most prolific mobile-based HMD to support WebVR. Samsung Internet browser as been supporting WebVR from the early days, and announced recently that their support became more direct.

  • Visit an experience from the Samsung Internet browser
  • Slide your phone inside the Gear VR
  • You’ll see the experience in 2D inside the Gear VR.
  • To access the experience in “full” VR mode, locate the “Enter VR” button, and tap on the side of the Gear VR while looking at it
From the Web to WebVR, seamlessly

Oculus announced the development of their own browser for the Gear VR as well. The project called Carmel was launched early December 2016. It’s a bit different from the Samsung’s one, as this one is fully built for VR, and doesn’t display traditional 2D sites yet. Experience’s developer will need to include a special link preceded by “ovrweb:”, allowing a direct access to VR mode inside Carmel.

  • Download the Carmel browser
  • Access the experience from any browser on your phone
  • Click the Carmel button on the experience’s interface
  • Slide your phone inside the Gear VR

From a Daydream Viewer

[UPDATE] This part has been updated after the release of WebVR in Chrome for Android in February 2017
Google revealed the Cardboard’s successor at the end of last year. Launched as the Daydream Viewer, the headset is only compatible with a limited number of phones (then again, this number is increasing since CES 2017).

  • Download Google Chrome or update yours (make sure it’s in version 56 at least)
  • Access any WebVR experience
  • Click on the “Enter VR” icon
  • Slide your phone into the Daydream Viewer

From an Oculus Rift CV1 or an HTC Vive

And last but not least, the high-end headsets released last year are also supported through WebVR. But as they are the least spread in terms of number of consumers, they are also the ones staying in an experimental phase — for now.

Firefox logo painted in the HTC Vive with a-painter
On Chromium, type chrome://flags#enable-webvr in the address bar and select Enabled from the drop-down menu for the Enable WebVR flag setting. Then do the same with chrome://flags#enable-gamepad-extensions and enable the Enable Gamepad Extensions flag setting, then restart your browser
  • On Oculus, go to the Settings of the Oculus Home store application, in the General section and enable an option for “Unknown Sources”
  • Load a WebVR website
  • Click on the “Enter VR” button
  • Put on your headset and enjoy the experience!

What’s next?

If you read my previous post on accessing WebVR, we can easily conclude the accessibility has definitely been made easier and the number of compatible devices has increased quite fast for an emerging technology. Well, we are only at the start of it!

The official Android Chrome version supporting WebVR is confirmed to be released this month (January 2017). It will enable full WebVR support on Android Nougat, have better performances and be directly compatible with the Daydream Viewer.

A few weeks later, other browsers should follow, and the desktop releases are expected by spring this year.

Browser vendors are working on some exciting features as well, like traversal navigation, enabling you to go from one website to a completely different one, without leaving the VR mode (somebody said Metaverse?).

Managing “personal space” is key (from Josh Carpenter’s slides)

Other upcoming cool features will be multiplayer handling, immersive audio, and user space management (we don’t want the pop-up nightmare brought to WebVR!).

WebVR is definitely moving fast, so stay tuned here, I will update this post as browsers do new announcements on accessibility and features supported, the next months will be full of exciting news!