Step Inside the Virtual Universe—How VR Will Transform the Web

A little over a year ago, a small team was formed within Mozilla’s research arm with a mandate to explore the intersection of virtual reality and the open web. What would the combination of the two look like? Would the web perform well enough to drive VR experiences? And would users care?

In June of last year, we began our work by publishing a new WebVR API and special builds of Firefox. With just a browser web developers could plug in an Oculus Rift, type some JavaScript, and create an experience that users could step inside. Not web sites, but web worlds. All built and hosted on the open web, accessible by typing in a URL into the address bar.

The response from the web community exceeded our expectations.

The technology is early and rough around the edges, but the raw fun of building immersive worlds motivated a cadre of early adopters to create a fascinating collection of WebVR experiments. Today, if you visit or search for #webvr on Twitter you can fly from a drone high over Arctic glaciers, manipulate an iridescent fluid with your hands, or guide an animated avatar through a surreal musical world.

The enthusiasm of both developers and users, plus the growing momentum of consumer virtual reality, has our team more bullish on the virtual reality web than ever. We believe that it is viable, that it will be incredibly fun, and will be an important part of the web’s future.

In a world where there’s never enough resources and still much to be done on the desktop and mobile web, it’s worth unpacking why we’re this committed to a field as nascent as VR.

To start with, we believe that virtual reality is real this time, and that it is amazing. After many false starts, it appears that affordable consumer VR has arrived, made possible by low-cost elements from the smartphone supernova.

Within 12 months the largest technology companies in the world will roll out competing virtual reality platforms, from Facebook to Google to Sony. And even in the first generation, they will astound. This past spring our team visited the nondescript offices of HTC in San Francisco and tried their Vive headset. Later that day, still buzzing, I typed the following to my colleagues at Mozilla:

I stood in a scratched up robotics repair shop and reached into the innards of a giant mech, using my actual hands to grip and rotate gears as instructed by a gorgeous holographic Iron-Man style interface. Grinning like a madman. Every tiny nuance of my body, head and hands captured so perfectly that I instantly forgot I was a simulation at all. Hyper-accuracy making me fearless (no need to worry about the system glitching) and playful, eager to explore what I could do. Diego dropped a steak on the ground in the cooking demo and instinctively stepped wide to avoid squishing it.

This technology is going to change the world. I’ve intellectually believed that for a year now, based on the quality of current HMDs and an understanding of how they will ride technology trend lines (price, performance, miniaturization). But what I saw today made me feel it.

My reaction was not atypical. As anyone who’s had a great VR demo will attest, the medium’s unique ability to make you believe that you are truly in virtual worlds is genuinely amazing. Like the first time you tried a graphical user interface or saw Steve Jobs scroll through a playlist on the iPhone, it feels like a breakthrough in human-computer interaction, with the same potential as those examples to upend computing as we know it. And by this time next year, the hardware will be on store shelves.

The second foundation for our enthusiasm in WebVR is simple: we believe that the web will make virtual reality better.

Early VR is amazing, but it has some frustrating limitations. Experiences need to be downloaded and installed. App stores and platform fragmentation limit volume and diversity of content. You’re probably out of luck if your friend doesn’t own the same headset as you. And if you want to build your own experiences you need a game developer skill set.

VR without the open web feels unnecessarily limited. It could be a revolution in computing. It feels today more like a revolution in console gaming.

Now imagine a more webby virtual reality. To experience a new VR world, you click a link, and the scene loads instantly. No install, no friction. The volume and diversity of content is astronomical because you’re accessing the full web with billions of units of content. The rest of your digital life is there as well, from Facebook to Twitter to the BBC.

You can access it regardless of the headset you own, or even have shared experiences with people who don’t own headsets. Your friend on a laptop types keystrokes that manifest giant typographic blocks smashing into the virtual ground around you, while a spectator watches the livestream on their iPhone.

All of this is beautiful and smooth because the web platform has gotten fast, driven by JavaScript engine arms races and several years of concerted effort to make browsers capable of high-performance 3D gaming. Perhaps most importantly, you can create and easily share these worlds yourself. The tools are open, the know-how is shared, and there there are no gatekeepers.

The great power of the web is emergence. Creative and complex solutions arising from simple building blocks and low friction conditions. By bringing emergence to virtual reality, while also connecting it with the rest of our digital lives, we believe the open web will be a catalyst for its maturation beyond narrow quasi-console-gaming origins into something much bigger.

Finally, our commitment to VR stems from a sense of strategic imperative.

The web today is more ubiquitous than ever, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. On mobile, in particular, the web is hidden behind native apps, services and operating systems. It’s there, but it’s plumbing.

We believe the web is better when you can touch it directly, without intermediaries. Fast enough, capable enough, compelling enough. The imperative for those of us who love the web and want to see it flourish is to be proactive about embracing new technology early, ensuring that wherever there is a new frontier, the web is there from day one. And it is amazing.

We are extremely bullish about the next few years.

If we’re ever going to get the “metaverse” we’ve been promised by science fiction, we believe it will be built on the open web. In a sense, we’ve already done the hard part. The web is everywhere. Now we just have to step inside.

As product design lead for Mozilla VR, Josh Carpenter works full time on the design and development of the virtual reality open web. His background is in user experience design, motion graphics, and architectural visualization. He was previously the interaction design lead for Mozilla’s Firefox OS project. Tweet to Josh @joshcarpenter, learn more about Mozilla VR, and check out MozVR open source code on GitHub

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