After a 23-Year Wait, WebVR Ships Today

I am incredibly pleased that we’re shipping the latest version of Firefox today with WebVR support for Windows headset users. It’s fulfilling a dream many of us have shared for a very long time: to put virtual reality (VR) content on the web so anyone can interact with, build and enjoy it.

Back in 1994, I remember going to a party hosted by Mark Pesce, where they had a Sun workstation running one of the first web-based VR models, a rotating virtual cube. It was a simple demonstration of an incredibly exciting moment: putting VR on the web. The year before, I had been introduced to the possibilities of VR, working with Brenda Laurel on the ground-breaking PlaceHolder project. You could interact with others, embody as avatars, and fly through worlds. It was a powerful experience — but it was limited to the machines it ran on.

That virtual cube demo and the open-source project that created it were different, because they showed how we could liberate VR content from the underlying hardware. That project was called Virtual Reality Markup Language, or VRML, and it was led by Mark and Tony Parisi. It was a tremendously interesting project to many of us, because it promised to break the constraints of how we experience content.

In spite of all its potential, VRML didn’t make it off the ground. The hardware required to experience VR was measured in the millions of dollars, and the web itself couldn’t support VR content at that point. It takes reliable performance and a lot of clever engineering to deliver a great VR experience. Graphics and audio have to stream in a coordinated way. The interface has to be able to respond to user input in real time. And the content has to display properly on a number of headsets and devices. Early implementations were problematic — especially if you were prone to motion-sickness.

Me in VR headset, PlaceHolder Project, 1993.

So kudos to Mark and Tony for believing in the concept of VR on the web, so many years before it could be deployed to a mass audience. Those two continue to push VR forward. Today, Mark is leading efforts at the W3C in Mixed Reality, which is a combination of VR and augmented reality (AR). Tony is on the cutting edge of the gaming world, as head of AR/VR strategy at Unity Technologies.

The New Champions

How did we get to the WebVR API? With a lot of work from some very talented software designers and engineers — and an active community of open-source hackers. I’m so proud of our team. WebGL creator Vlad Vukićević laid the groundwork for the initial WebVR API. Then, team members Casey Yee, Josh Carpenter, Chris Van Wiemeersch, and Diego Marcos built on top of those APIs, determining front-end and platform components and how they should work.

The Mozilla team spent two years brainstorming and experimenting to figure out how to combine virtual reality with the web platform. They started by asking themselves the same fundamental questions we asked 20 years ago: What do we love about the web? What do we love about virtual reality? Which experiences are most meaningful in VR? What should the interaction fundamentals be, so we can present VR on the web in the best way possible, for the most people possible?

In 2014, Josh and Casey’s first prototype, Hiro, proved that WebVR and Firefox could deliver a low-friction, install-free VR experience built on an open web stack. Around that time, we also started work on a VR authoring framework, to make it simple to create VR for the web. The whole team pitched in on A-Frame. In particular, Chris and Kevin Ngo did great work building on the Three.js JavaScript 3D engine and libraries. Today, A-Frame is so easy to use that my 10-year-old learned how to build a VR world in just a few days.

A-Frame had help from 177 members of the A-Frame community, volunteers who wrote and reviewed code and made suggestions we never would have thought of. Our team is indebted to Ricardo Cabello, aka mrdoob, for the time and expertise he put into creating the Three.js project. We couldn’t have done it without you.

I want to thank Kip Gilbert, who took on writing the WebVR 1.0 API with Brandon Jones from Google. It was this version of the API that got traction with other browser vendors and headset manufacturers, and allowed us to get broader adoption of a standard way to connect web-based VR to a range of hardware devices. Finally, Lars Bergstrom shepherded the implementation of WebVR 1.1 API in our browser, so it was in shape for Firefox users with VR headsets.

What’s Different Today

VR on the web has a real shot at becoming a mainstream technology today, for a number of reasons. The web is more capable today than ever before. Online video games have driven a host of improvements in the past two decades, from JavaScript optimization to WebGL and WebAssembly. We’re excited to see the pieces coming together: a complete WebVR API, multiple authoring frameworks, and a new Firefox browser that’s optimized for web VR experiences.

There’s been a sea of change in VR hardware. When I worked in VR in 1993, the headset we used cost $1 million per eye. That price point has fallen over the years, from $50,000 to $1,000 for a setup. We expect prices to continue to drop until headsets are within reach for schools and coding camps, and many households.

At Mozilla, we work closely with our technology partners, including headset manufacturers Oculus and HTC. Our shared goal is to create and implement standards like WebVR that enable us all to develop new technologies on a level — and stable — playing field.

“We believe WebVR will be a key factor in the progress toward mass adoption of VR and a powerful channel for creators seeking the broadest distribution,” said Nate Mitchell, Oculus Co-founder and Head of Rift. “Through our work with Mozilla, we’re making it even easier for Oculus Rift owners to have access to a growing collection of amazing WebVR content, whether it be the countless immersive experiences already available or an optimized 2D browsing experience.”

Across the board, VR technology is more accessible. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, research into artificial intelligence and virtual reality took hundreds of thousands of dollars. So R&D stayed locked up in labs such as SRI and Interval Research. By comparison, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can create VR experiences today. It could be a kid in a garage next door. Or a student in India, Africa or Southeast Asia.

“VR will change the world as we know it and WebVR will be a great platform for a new generation of immersive cross-platform experiences for the HTC Vive and others. We look forward to continuing the work with Mozilla and our Vive developer community to deliver mind blowing WebVR experiences.” said Rikard Steiber President Viveport and SVP Virtual Reality at HTC.

Lastly, there’s a lot of interest in VR. The 3D/VR art community Sketchfab now has more than a million members who create and share their 3D models. People are accessing VR content online. Use of the A-Frame VR library continues to skyrocket, growing from 10 million uses per month to 13 million. That’s a lot of views.

And all of these advances apply to Augmented Reality as well. Early work combining A-Frame with Argon.js and WebAR means that we can both create infinite virtual worlds and enhance the physical world around us.

It’s remarkable how many years people have been working toward this new kind of online virtual experience. For the entire history of the web, we’ve been looking at computer screens and navigating with mouse, keyboard, and touch. Now we have the tools and technologies we need to create and experience a whole new mode of interaction — with evocative, immersive content that can finally be shared on the web.

After 23 years, the wait is over. Let the creation begin.

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