While we were distracted with VR hype cycles and the “when will VR go mainstream?” debate, the understated and overlooked WebVR snuck up on us.
If you are wondering why you’ve started seeing more and more discussion of WebVR in the headlines, you’re not alone. This year alone, we’ve seen major announcements from Google and Firefox, as well as the continued growth of independent WebVR communities, such as JanusVR:
This is just the beginning; there will be much, much more from here. The roots of WebVR actually started 23 years ago with the conceptualization of Virtual Markup Reality Language (VRML) which ultimately did not take off, but paved the way for the burgeoning VR web as we are coming to know it.
What is WebVR?
In its ease of use and lack of friction for consumers, WebVR presents a glimmer of hope for the mainstream adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
While there is certainly a place for high-end experiences and hardware, not all VR needs to function as a “high-end” experience. In fact, for many use cases (things like going to basic websites), it’s much more important that these experiences be accessible than it is that they sport cutting-edge graphics. Ultimately, it’s these experiences that will drive mass-adoption of immersive technologies.
The ‘Casual VR’ Phase
Why and how? While we move through what some call the “trough of disillusionment,” for VR, WebVR—what we can call “Casual VR”—paves a way for consumers without state-of-the-art hardware to experience VR, through the web on multiple platforms. In fact, this could prove to be the best way to democratize VR in the long run.
Web developers have been quietly developing and building this new Web for the past few years. The beauty of building without the hype is that developers get to focus. WebVR is a “code once, work on multi-platforms answer” to VR, hence it has proven itself to be a cost-efficient tool for developers to build quick VR or AR prototypes and launch products.
“The importance of the term ‘technology agnostic’ is something I have been stressing for many years, based on the early experiences of the 1990s [developing for VR] when we saw various organizations suffer —fail even—from standardizing on one rendering or modeling toolkit solution,” said Professor Bob Stone, Director of the Human Interface Technologies Team at the University of Birmingham (UK) and a VR pioneer of over over 30 years.
With the software platforms such as Virtuality, Division’s dVS/dVise, Superscape’s VRT and Sense8’s WorldToolKit back in those days, VR developers had to go about creatively creating and porting their assets to ensure the longevity and staying power of what they were building.
“Even today, we still maintain the technology-agnostic policy,” said Stone. “[We archive] our models, textures, code and so on in open or industry-standard formats so that, should one company disappear, our sponsors and collaborators will not be left empty-handed.”
“What we’re seeing is lots of companies, big and small, using A-Frame as a rapid content authoring tool and publishing it on the web as a low-friction content distribution method,”said Dietrich Ayala, Technical Evangelist for Mozilla. “Our position is that tools like A-Frame lower the barriers to entry for content authors and ease distribution for everyone.”
Besides A-Frame, other WebVR frameworks include React VR, Argon.js, PlayCanvas, JanusVR and Primrose. Google, Oculus and Samsung Internet also published their WebVR and open-source developer resources.
A WebVR Community Group to decide on WebVR standards was formed by Mozilla, Google, Samsung, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft and other major tech players, with Apple recently joining the community in July this year.
“The more web there is in the VR ecosystem, the better the chances that VR will thrive and grow as a place where creativity and innovation can happen,” said Ayala. “With most major browsers implementing WebVR and Apple signaling some interest, the standards side looks really positive.”
On the browser front, browser vendors are developing or enhancing their browsers to make them VR-friendly: there’s Chrome for Android, Firefox Nightly, Samsung Internet, Microsoft Edge, Chromium, Servo and Oculus Carmel. All you need is a desktop or mobile browser and Internet connection to view a VR-enabled website with a VR headset or just view the VR content casually in 2D, without a headset.
Mozilla recently announced a new VR enhancement: it’s the first desktop browser to support WebVR for all users.
Content and Education
In the midst of a dearth of content for VR, WebVR content creators are coming together to create and collaborate. Over a million creators are sharing their 3D models on Sketchfab’s 3D/VR art community platform. Virtuleap also organized the first global WebVR hackathon.
“For application domains such as education and heritage, developing VR scenes and experiences for the Web is highly important,” said Stone. “[This] promotes accessibility by many beneficiaries without the need (necessarily) for expensive and sophisticated computing or human interface hardware.”
This democratized approach opens up possibilities in education far beyond what we’re seeing today.
Creating VR/AR content for WebVR vs native apps
So you saw the ‘Made with ARKit’ portal demos that have taken the internet by storm. Similarly, for WebVR, Mozilla’s A-Frame allows for that albeit with ‘link traversal’. Here, you can create separate universes to explore, go in and out of it on the mobile or desktop web — no app is needed. The best part is you get to stay within the website itself. This is ‘universe’ (or portal) traversal on the open web. With an app, you have to leave the constraints of the app to open a new one.
— Diego (@dmarcos) July 6, 2017
— Diego (@dmarcos) August 9, 2017
With ARKit, there has been a mindshift as to the possibilities of content creation for VR and AR, making content creation powers accessible to the masses. It has unlocked more creative minds to explore creating VR and AR for the web.
It was only a few weeks before we saw people hacking ARKit into WebViews.
— David Lyons (@davidscottlyons) July 28, 2017
— alban denoyel (@albn) June 15, 2017
There are a number of other experimentations around AR on the web: the integration of Argon.js into A-Frame, a Chromium extension that works on Tango (now ARCore) devices, and AR.js.
Another exciting development for WebVR was Google’s announcement of ARCore this week.
The web will be key for AR. To kickstart things, we built experimental AR-capable browsers for iOS & Android: https://t.co/OiLV3s7TzX
— Clay Bavor (@claybavor) August 30, 2017
“By the end of the year all key global mobile phone brands would have announced their support for WebVR, and will have devices to support it out by Q4 2017 or Q1 2018,” said Christopher Gomez, XR industry advisor and angel investor. “And with ARKit and ARCore in the mix, we will have a vibrant mix of platforms and ideas. Immersive technologies are here to stay—it will be a reality for everybody. The ‘Metaverse’—it’s real.”
Experimentation is Key
Experimenting is needed in this phase of VR—the creative power of communities is huge. And if you are a Unity developer, it is fairly seamless to integrate and embrace developing for WebVR.
“I like the workflow of Unity, there are lots of support and tutorials online and if you get stuck searching any question about it will probably give you a useful answer,” said Uve, Samsung Internet developer advocate. “A-Frame, one of the popular WebVR frameworks has a similar object component system to Unity and good documentation so most Unity developers will be able to switch over and get to grips with it relatively fast, if they want to try it out.”
Unity as an integrated development environment (IDE) and graphic engine is a versatile tool that enables various types of experiences built quickly. Developers are able to compile or export assets into different native or web platforms.
“Nowadays it is possible to use WebVR in Unity with a plugin, and support for WebVR will be integrated into Unity WebGL, making Unity projects work without modifications,” said Diego González-Zúñiga, developer advocate for Samsung Internet. “It is a matter of time until the engine will be able to create VR experiences running on the WebVR implementation of a browser.”
“Augmented City” #ARCity
As WebVR content creators and developers start to converge worldwide, in Singapore, the community assembled at an ‘Augmented City’ experiential xLab in July. This xLab, organized by the XR Alliance in partnership with Mozilla and the VR AR Women in Asia Society with the VR AR Association, is the first of its kind globally with the kickoff of this first xLab installment supported by Intel.
Disclaimer: I’m a founding member of the XR Alliance and founder of VR AR Women in Asia Society.
Using A-Frame and the prompt: “How can we augment or virtualize our experience of Singapore in ways that are interesting, engaging and fun?” participants, comprised of technical designers and developers, came together to prototype and build VR/AR content for the web, telling the history and their experience in the city in an engaging way.
The projects, built by the workshop participants, the AsiaXR group and the WebVR Asia community and group, like any WebVR builds, allow for anyone on the web to take the code from the repository and build and mix on top of it for their own creations.
“The xLab was developed to encourage creative exploration of tools in the immersive technologies space,” said Gomez. “The lab itself was designed for portability as plans on expanding it is to other cities globally, is underway. In this series, WebVR tools for VR and AR content creation were the focus. Both Mozilla and Intel have been great partners in this, and with their continued support, we know the future for VR and AR is a bright one for all of us in the industry.”
Projects churned out from the one-day lab (which included an ideation session followed by a hard coding session) include a VR/AR simulation of a flood in a city (featured image), building of bucket lists, experimenting rotating 360 images in VR and AR, tracking objects in AR, and “We Built This City” — metatags of people’s memories of the city, among others.
We are moving towards experiencing everything in 3D: the web, entertainment, apps, global meetings and the like — hence, companies and developers need to get up to speed or be left behind. WebVR allows for exploration of imagination, experimentation and collaboration. Content creators, independent artists and developers are hungry to create and waiting out the VR tech to develop would just not be feasible.
WebVR allows for creativity of expression, democratization of VR, and an app-free experience. At least for the foreseeable future, it’s the path of least resistance that allows for the propagation of VR and AR content and a vibrant, democratized ecosystem.