The Advent of Virtual Reality Web Applications

Does virtual reality have any application on the web, or in web design? The answer, according to most bloggers and tech enthusiasts in the past few weeks, is overwhelmingly yes. The release of a new web API that supports virtual reality headsets has the internet buzzing with excitement, with some calling it the beginning of the dawn of a new internet, one that is more immersive and interactive. Virtual reality web applications are a relatively new phenomenon, but Web Developers in Toronto and elsewhere need to start thinking about updating their skill set to add this particular category of web development to their repertoire.

Mozilla is one of the most notable Silicon Valley companies embracing and pushing the idea of VR-on-web experiences, releasing a limited version of their Firefox browser to support such applications. More specifically, VR support for the browser was added through one of Firefox’s “Nightly Builds”,” called “WebVR,” which can be downloaded and added to Firefox – an API that that establishes a link between the browser and the Oculus Rift, with no support with other VR headsets as of yet.  This decision, according to Yashaswi Bhardwaj of The Tech Portal, is not suprising considering the device is one of the more likely candidates to be used both commercially and personally for virtual reality web browsing.

The existence of WebVR actually dates back to the early 1990s, with the creation of VRML (virtual reality modeling language), which facilitated the creation of virtual worlds such as the popular game Second Life. The language had a large shortcoming, however, requiring heavy-duty graphics workstations not typically found in the home. The advent of relatively inexpensive VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift, resolves such a limitation.

Susan Kuchinskas of Scientific American, suggests that WebVR will ultimately make virtual reality more accessible, allowing people the opportunity to experience digital worlds in 3-D using head-mounted displays connected to browser-enabled devices. The true beauty of an API like WebVR, according to Janko Roettgers  of Gigaom, is that it adheres to the ‘write once, run anywhere’ principle, enabling developers to build their VR experiences in HTML, and simply have them run in a browser or app.

Bhardwaj makes an excellent point, arguing that the major challenge involved in developing such VR web applications involves “synchronizing your head movements with the screen responding to them. The reaction time between the two should be as low as it can go.” In essence, website responsivity must now take into consideration the movement of one’s head, which in actuality, opens the door for many opportunities for creative uses of space on web pages. Google employee and VR enthusiast Boris Smus, was quoted in a blog post as saying:

“Responsive web design promises content which automatically adapts to your viewing environment by using fluid layouts, flexible images, proportional grids; a cocktail of modern web technologies. Similarly, WebVR experiences need to work even without VR hardware.”

Smus is busy working on a WebVR boilerplate open source project, which will allow developers to create HTML-based VR experiences that work with both Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, as well as with no VR headset at all, using a phone’s gyroscope to allow users to tilt the display to explore worlds. To access, developers are required to download a special build of Chrome, similar to Firefox’s offering.

Jason Quintal | February 19, 2015

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