WebVR: rebirth of virtual reality

    Virtual reality (VR) has again come to the fore and is becoming one of the main directions of industry development. The direction of WebVR is developing more and more actively - technologies and tools that are built directly into web browsers and allow you to build three-dimensional objects without using your own hardware and software platforms. We find out how convenient this is, whether the solutions are well-developed and what is the future of VR technologies, from experts.

    WebVR can directly work with modern terminals such as Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, HTC Vive and others directly in the browser. In essence, this direction offers common standards that are followed by the creators of browsers, and developers of hardware solutions, and producers of content. This avoids the “zoo of devices”, incompatible solutions, users don’t have to worry about choosing which platform to prefer, and content developers have a single set of rules that can be easily followed. In addition, WebVR is able to work on any device, regardless of the OS and hardware platforms where a browser with WebVR support is running. Plus, you do not need to download and install applications and the content itself - everything is launched directly from the Internet in a browser.

    Of the minuses of the technology, a low speed of operation can be noted - there are a lot of extra layers in the browser, translation of instructions, etc., all this takes up a noticeable share of performance. In addition, browsers, as a rule, are less optimized for the hardware and software features of specific devices. Plus, the technology has not yet reached maturity - it is still not fully implemented and run-in, sometimes errors and incompatibilities occur. A lot of beta status, including the browsers themselves.

    We decided to talk about the prospects and prospects of Web VR with Martin Splitt and Denis Radin.

    Martin Splitt is a front and backend software engineer at Archilogic. An evangelist and an active participant in the development of open source software. He believes in web platforms and works with the latest technologies aimed at developing the web.

    Denis Radin is a front-end engineer developing “embedded” JavaScript in Liberty Global. An enthusiast of computer graphics and optimizing the performance of web applications. Organized by AmsterdamJS and React Amsterdam. He runs the blog PixelsCommander.com.

    - So far, VR technology is either a narrow industry for geeks or entertainment (including attractions in the markets, in the halls of slot machines, etc.). How growing is the use of technology by ordinary users (especially outside the game)? Is there interest among older users who have already used the technology?

    Martin Splitt:
    VR technologies are not as narrow as they might seem. On the other hand, they are not as widespread in the market as their active supporters would like to demonstrate. In 2016, sales were significantly below forecasts (according to them, the market was supposed to reach 10.7 million devices, but in reality GearVR, Rift and Vive sold approximately three million devices together). But VR technology still achieved some success. The mobile device market is developing more actively: GearVR sales reached 2.2 million units, while Google Cardboard generally sold a phenomenal circulation of 88 million units.

    It is interesting to note that mobile users use VR devices two to three times a week, but not for very long. Moreover, the main scenario is not games, but entertainment and journalism. However, the game should not be discounted - in the end, the third device in terms of sales was Playstation VR.

    Denis Radin: At first glance, it really seems that the main hype has subsided and VR is becoming a specialized technology, but let's see what these specializations are: education, medicine, the gaming industry. For example, PornHub gives a peppy report- half a million DAU in VR. It turns out that specializations are very diverse and VR occupies its niches where, most likely, it will once again launch an attack on our monitors in a few years. I still think that monitors will disappear over time. Why do we need a board with a diagonal of 27 inches, if you can get 360 degrees of working space using a mobile phone? This can be especially true for those who often travel on business trips.

    - Are there any fears that VR will repeat the fate of 3D? What are the reasons for the failure of 3D, what steps does the industry take and intends to take in order to avoid the same fate for VR?

    Martin Splitt:
    If we are talking about 3D-television, then yes, now the situation is different. Three-dimensional television failed to gain popularity both because of the lack of widespread interest of users, and because of the lack of any significant advantages over two-dimensional TV content. VR offers a much deeper degree of immersion and a wider range of applications. So it seems to me that here one more “lost market” will not work.

    Denis Radin:3D cinemas have not disappeared. VR is developing very dynamically, as for the spurt to the wide consumer market, here Daydream and PS VR are very promising. Look at the Daydream HMD: it is soft, elastic, fabric, the developers have very successfully transferred VR from the world of electronic devices to the world of accessories, clothes. It is not yet clear how much it will resonate with the buyer, but it can be easily imagined that in 10 years you will have cozy slippers, pajamas and your soft personal VR helmet in one locker.

    - Will VR elements be used (namely VR, and not just 3D) in regular sites, interfaces, etc.? Or will there remain a narrow specialized niche such as 3D models or presentations?

    Martin Splitt:
    Most likely, they will not replace the existing elements of ordinary interfaces or sites - rather, they will complement them where existing methods of visualization are not good enough: in the description of the interaction of space and data, education, science, journalism and product description. I would not say that these are “niche opportunities” - these areas of application are quite broad, and we still have to determine to the end what we can do. However, user surveys show that there are some promising prospects.

    Denis Radin:In general, it seems to me that it is wrong to raise the question of some narrow niches. Yes, now there are much fewer VR devices in the world than mobile phones, but there are already more of them than PCs in the early 90s. Those interfaces that we know will be forced to adapt to VR, in the WebVR web you can expect in the form of Progressive Enchancement . For example, when displaying a site selling scuba gear on a device with VR, we submerge the user under water, launch VR fish, VR algae, VR surface flare ... I will talk about this in my report on HolyJS.

    - How mature are WebVR technologies today? So far, the impression remains that WebVR is in the status of not even beta, but alpha. Which way is the development of technology in general?

    Martin Splitt:
    As for the readiness of technologies, we are gradually approaching this. There is still work to do, however, browser developers have already adopted the technology, they are actively working on the WebVR 2.0 standard, and version 1.1 can be called relatively stable. I was responsible for implementing WebVR based on earlier versions of the API, and I can say that even then there were few difficulties.

    However, WebVR has the same problem as VR in general - we are still trying to find the best ways to use it. The question is not in the technology itself, but in such things as usability (UX), the actual presentation of history and interfaces (UI). For example, now there are new ways to interact with the user, as well as new ways to expand WebVR relative to the "traditional" 3D-content on the Internet.

    Denis Radin:The technology itself is working, now its successful use rather limits the lack of effective development tools and the low prevalence of devices compared to the same smartphones. Of course, it’s much easier and more efficient to make an HTML / CSS website and display it on smartphone screens to billions of potential users, but the second side of the coin is that these billions already have access to a huge array of products. Therefore, to stand out, you need to look for new means of expression and interaction models.

    - How developed is the ecosystem: browser support, features, capabilities, libraries? Do these web applications or technologies rely on browser capabilities (or external libraries)? How strong is the community? How do major commercial market players support?

    Martin Splitt:
    I have said before that both the ecosystem and the standards have become strong and sustainable. Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, Samsung and Facebook are working together to implement WebVR in their browsers. Technologies already exist in Google Chrome for Android, are at the final stage in Firefox and already work in Firefox Nightly, Microsoft will soon implement them in Edge, Samsung’s GearVR browser has been supporting them for a long time, and Facebook is implementing them in their Carmel browser. They are even in Mozilla’s experimental Servo browser engine.

    One of the largest market players that wants to use WebVR outside the browser itself is Facebook. As part of ReactVR, they want to make it easier for React developers to start using WebVR.

    As for the communities, we have a great active community with Mozilla A-Frame , so you can join WebVR right now.

    Denis Radin: Browser support is not as good as we would like, but overall sufficient: Firefox, Chrome + full-fledged WebVR in Android Chrome (!), And this is in the long run the entire Android segment. It is very curious what Apple will answer. After all, in the end, they will also have to implement support, nowhere to go.

    If we talk about libraries, then Three.js with its plugins has no competitors. Unity also uses Three.js when exporting to the web. The ecosystem there, of course, is not bad, but, I hope, one of the alternative engines can save us from the monopoly in the long run.

    - It is assumed that WebVR will allow to unify work due to uniform standards. Earlier, similar attempts were already made, however, they only led to the emergence of several competing or completely incompatible standards. Is there any chance that it will now be possible to implement the plan?

    Martin Splitt:
    Recent technologies, such as CSS grid, WebGL or Web Components, have clearly shown that we have already passed the period when it was necessary to work with incorrect, incompatible implementations in different browsers. Most browser developers have reached an understanding, and given that things like Web Assembly are waiting for us soon, in the future we will have more and more opportunities to create different versions of virtual reality that work in all browsers.

    It’s unlikely that we will be left behind, and the experience of Facebook, which is developing both WebVR and React, inspires me with the hope that we will have a powerful platform sooner rather than later.

    Denis Radin: Well, why? The Web has kept its promise and has become the most versatile environment for creating interfaces. I think WebVR will share its success, but it is more tied to the enthusiasm of big players, the public and developers. Since now all parties are interested in success, I think that everything will work out. A small conflict occurred around WebGL, because this standard does not imply the use of an interface other than OpenGL (for example, Direct3D), however, this moment was quickly taken by WebGPU by a working group that includes representatives of many companies.

    - Is there a war of standards? How much does WebVR bring together content developers, or do they prefer to create products for proprietary platforms of equipment manufacturers?

    Martin Splitt:
    Content is always the foundation of everything. Many content producers have already expressed the opinion that they will be happy to create content for WebVR, as this allows them to gain a wider audience. And those who prefer Unity or another proprietary system will also not be left out - Web Assembly will enable content producers to retain the ability to work with their tools, while their content will also work on web platforms.

    Denis Radin:The standard is all that JavaScript + WebGL, and then the developer decides for himself as part of the task. We can expect that WebGPU being developed and WebAssembly just released will have its impact, but these are all implementation details. Displaying content in a browser through the OpenGL / Direct3D context will not go anywhere, although data formats for models are developing very rapidly. There are several groups working on data formats, which could be called "JPEG for 3D models." This is also facilitated by the development of 3D scanning technologies, in particular Tango . Let's see what happens…

    - “Traditional” VR technologies require glasses or a helmet to interact with them, which creates some difficulties - you need to put on a helmet, and sitting in it for a long time is not very comfortable. Ease of use is lost. With WebVR, the situation is similar. Will this have any effect on the further development of technology?

    Martin Splitt
    : This problem is not WebVR, but VR in general. Here I can’t say much, because I’m not developing hardware platforms for VR, but just think - if you look at laptops, say, five years ago, then they are much heavier and thicker than modern models.

    Denis Radin:  Ease of use is determined by the quality of the devices. Yes, of course, the Oculus Rift was a big step compared to the helmets of the first wave of the 90s, but they are still very bulky and far from being invisible when worn. The soft, compact Daydream, which I already mentioned, seems to be a serious step forward, and this is only the beginning.

    “Watching is good.” What are some ideas on how to manage your browser in VR in the future? To wave hands? Or how?

    Martin Splitt
    : If you look into the past, we always predicted such things disgustingly. Think of Google Glass. But if you have to deal with predictions, I would say that input should be done using hand movements - maybe with gestures. Maybe hand tracking ... it's hard to say. Input using a beam (such as a laser pointer) - while in the fog, because this can work both with controllers (daydream controller, hand-held controllers from Vive / Oculus), and without it (using the user's eye).

    Denis Radin: In the picture above we see a small remote control with an accelerometer. You can wave them, you can press buttons, you can fishing rodthrow up .

    Each type of helmet has its own controllers, working on a similar principle, but with a different number of functions and different ergonomics. Alas, there is nothing more reliable than such boxes with accelerometers, although, of course, the Leap Motion controller deserves mention . It is still significantly dependent on installation and lighting conditions, but has made a big leap forward over the past 5 years. It can be used in WebVR through the JS API, which allows you to read the position of the fingers.

    - What is your vision of WebVR if the technology is technically successful. What tasks of ordinary users (except for entertainment, this is short-lived) will it solve? One example is the possibility of virtual shopping, are there any others? And what changes will it bring socially? Will VR become a competitor of our reality when ubiquitous?

    Martin Splitt
    : Well, I don’t know how much this will help us in making ordinary purchases. I rather see the main benefits of using VR where it is difficult for us to do something in the real world.

    For example, although the world is turning into a global community, I cannot jump on a plane every two days to fly to my parents, and phone calls and even video calls are not the same. In this regard, VR can help me get impressions that are not available in real life.

    It seems to me that the main direction will be communication and entertainment, as an option - a virtual tour of places we ourselves cannot get to, or watching films or courses that are not available to us.

    Such usage scenarios will be easier for society to accept than "just hanging out in VR together." But over time, everything can change. At one time, older people considered messaging to be antisocial and stupid, and it became the main form of communication among young people. Who knows, maybe instead of constantly staring at the phone, we will someday wear helmets that will allow us to spend time with friends in VR, for example, while traveling to work.

    And I do not think that these technologies will compete with real life - rather enrich and complement it.

    Denis Radin: A virtual workspace, training materials, selling real estate and travel services via the Internet - this is what comes to mind first. Huge markets, saturated with conventional web applications that are waiting for fresh, effective solutions. And, of course, communication in virtual reality ... Usually it is precisely interests in this area that explain Facebook’s decision to buy Oculus .

    Someone will call this the beginning of a classic anti-utopia, where everyone is sitting at home and communicating in the virtual world, but looking at things like that is at least boring, and biased. Let's look at the near past ... Over the past half century, we have received computers and a huge number of sedentary jobs, but nevertheless, on the contrary, a cult of health flourishes in society, and it has never been more athletic and healthy, and has never lived as long as now.

    There is no doubt about the need for technology. I look forward to new developments in the development of tools, browsers, devices. I really want more developers to start working with WebGL and three-dimensional spaces in the browser, because it is the presence of talented specialists that primarily determines the potential of the technology.

    It will be possible to dive deeper into the topic of virtual reality in St. Petersburg at the HolyJS conference , where both experts will make interesting presentations. Denis Radin will talk about “how to integrate existing web-applications into the world of virtual reality”, giving users new opportunities and UX, and a dose of fun for themselves.

    And Martin Splitt already talked about WebVR at the previous HolyJS, and this time he will speak with another topic, “Rendering performance from the ground up” - about “performance by steps”: how markup turns into pixels, how they assemble into a whole page and how we We can help the platform in speeding up our sites.

    A more detailed description of interesting reports can be found here., and the entire program of the conference is presented on the official website of the event .

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