The Web Is Virtual Reality’s New Playground

Does the future of virtual reality depend on the web? Many see in this practice a way to popularize VR with the general public.

The web and virtual reality (VR) could become increasingly intertwined in the coming years, according to giant Oculus. In a presentation given during the F8 Developer Conference in California, the Facebook subsidiary recommended that creators adapt their VR content for web browsers to the extent possible.

The company also warned web developers that a new concept would soon be emerging: adaptive VR web design.

WebVR: a means to reach more users

Even though VR is increasingly the talk of the town, it continues to garner limited success with the general public. In waiting for the emergence of this technology, a standard that was launched last year could very well become an acceptable compromise: WebVR.

WebVR makes it possible to create experiences that can be lived by users wearing a dedicated headset, such as the Oculus Rift or Google Daydream, or yet again on a smartphone by using the mobile device’s touch screen and sensors, and on a desktop computer, where the mouse is used to move around 360 degrees.

“Offering one’s virtual reality content on the web is a means to reach people other than initial users,” explains Andrew Mo, product manager for Oculus.

Oculus considers that WebVR could very well become a sort of Trojan horse. “When the content is accessible from anywhere, it is easy to share it with your friends who do not have a headset. That way, they understand what they’re missing out on,” states Mo, who believes that a virtuous circle could then form and increase the popularity of VR.

Another advantage of WebVR is that the standard is easy for developers to use. That is even more the case of ReactVR, a new open JavaScript library available on Facebook that automatically adapts a VR experience to the device it is being played on, whether on a dedicated headset, a desktop computer or an Android or iOS mobile phone.

A few experiences have already been designed using ReactVR, such as an interactive visit of the British Museum and a 360-degree news report by New York Times.

Strengths and shortcomings of WebVR

Content is easy to develop in WebVR, even by novice developers, and the application can be used to reach a larger audience than VR headset owners. However, the technology does have its limits and it does not necessarily represent the best option for all projects.

“In the case of photos and videos, WebVR content is just as efficient as content created using video game development tools, but that’s not the case of scenes rendered in three dimensions," specifies Mo.

Thus, a complex scene rendered in real time could be less fluid in WebVR than it would be in a dedicated app created using tools like Unreal or Unity.

“3D scenes are also more difficult to develop in WebVR until further notice,” adds the product manager. Whereas 3D video game development tools have reached a stage of maturity, 3D development tools designed for the web are still in their infancy.

In short, all projects can be designed using WebVR, but the technology is not quite up to par yet when it comes to complex VR experiences rendered in 3D.

For the emergence of an adaptive virtual reality web design

WebVR makes it possible to adapt VR to the web, but Oculus is also at work developing new standards to achieve the exact opposite, i.e., to adapt the web to VR.

The Facebook division thereby hopes that current 2D web content can be displayed adequately in VR and is also seeking to “create a more immersive web experience,” explains Justin Rogers, head of web browser engineering for Oculus.

A good part of the work is carried out behind the scenes to ensure, for example, that the web pages display at the correct refresh rate, the controls are intuitive, and the text is easier to read than it currently is.

Other features forthcoming will, however, require a certain amount of work by web developers. For example, a 360-degree image could be added to websites and displayed around pages consulted in VR. “Another way to improve the immersive experience is by adding sound,” claims the engineer. Facebook is also developing more advanced concepts such as 3D objects used as VR shortcuts.

It could still take months, or years in certain cases, for three-dimensional objects to make their way to the web. This will lead to the emergence of a new form of adaptive web design, in which pages will need to be adapted not only to a given computer, tablet or phone but also to VR.

“It’s a vision that we share with Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and Samsung, and we hope that we’ll be able to turn it into an open standard,” adds Rogers.

Maxime Johnson
Maxime Johnson is an independent journalist who specializes in the analysis and observation of new technology. He writes a column for the Métro newspaper and for L’Actualité magazine. He also collaborates with several magazines including Protégez-vous and can be heard on the radio, namely during ICI Radio-Canada Première’s La sphère show.
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