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Why A Virtual Reality Web May Never Happen

A leading creator of VR web standards gives a no-nonsense interview on what’s standing in the way of the future.

What if you could browse the web in virtual reality? Just imagine the potential. Hyperlinks could take you not to Wikipedia pages about history, but right to the landscapes of ancient cultures, immersing you in plagues and art and war. Recipe sites could give you smell-o-vision cooking simulations. Message boards could become face-to-face chats. The web as we know it could become tangible, interactive, and more immersive than ever.

In fact, you can browse a VR web today—if you own an Oculus, HTC Vive, or Samsung Gear headset. But there’s a catch. It’s not very good. And it's not what you'd call a "web."

Casey Yee, UX design engineer at Mozilla, is the first to admit its shortcomings. His six-person team has created the WebVR standard, a JavaScript standard that allows normal websites, with the push of a button, to transform into incredible 3-D landscapes that you experience in VR.

Imagine being on Amazon, tapping a button, and loading a virtual shopping mall with clothes you can actually try on. The potential is obvious, but we're not there yet. No major websites are using the technology. And the sites that do—which are basically tech demos—aren't yet woven together through hyperlinks like our web is now. Instead, there just discrete interactive experiences that you can really only find at very specific URLs.

So why are we even talking about it? WebVR actually works very well, and it's quickly becoming the industry standard. Google has adopted the technology for a reason: These VR experiences load instantly, and they're smooth. One second you're looking at a normal website. The next, you're riding a 3-D roller coaster that can make your stomach drop.

But as Yee explains, we’re still a long way from a turning these individual demos into a true, interconnected web you can surf in full virtual reality. And unless more people get involved, it’s possible we won’t ever see such a thing.

The UX Needs A Whole New Set Of Metaphors

The web is a UX challenge that’s mostly been solved. You have web pages. Hyperlinks. Videos. Each piece of media clearly understood by users to allow mindless browsing.

Right now, developers of web VR have mostly just transferred those metaphors to a headset. Consider how this looks on the Samsung Gear VR. A totally typical web interface floats one window in front of your eyes—like a pixelated monitor—and you can aim your head and tap to change the URL, go to a site in your history, and visit links. Searching is particularly well handled, made even easier since the system allows voice search in lieu of typing.

It feels normal! That alone is an incredible accomplishment of the user interface. But it also feels, maybe, a bit too normal? There’s nothing inherently amazing about browsing the same web you know just because you’re inside a virtual reality headset. In fact, it’s inherently worse. The virtual screen is no larger than your real one. The type is actually quite a bit more pixelated than it is on any modern monitor. The experience is a lot like trying the Oculus Netflix app: Fun that it works, but also, inferior to just watching a movie on your laptop or TV.

But a real VR web would look different, wouldn’t it? Because you could walk around, touch content, and see information in 360 degrees of view.

"We’re wondering, what is a link going to look like in VR—the blue underlined link in text works on a page. That’s the status quo. But what does that look like in VR?" Yee asks. "Is it a portal? Is it a bounding box around an object. Do you walk up to it? Do you touch it? There are all sorts of questions around what that looks like in VR."

Right now, you can only get the slightest of tastes of this future. On some websites enabled with WebVR, a button will appear that says "view in VR." Tap this button, and, instantly, the 2-D page will fill your vision with a complete 3-D, interactive world. It’s remarkable. Even though my butt was in an easy chair with my laptop burning hot on my thighs, I still felt pangs of stomach drops as I rode backwards on this silky smooth, yellow roller coaster surrounded in pixel art trees and skyline. Of course, this demo wasn't on any site you'd know; it was buried in a directory of demos.

However, if you dig for the handful of pages on the web that are actually enabled with this technology (read: none you know), it can be hugely gratifying. In another demo called Cubes, I was stuck inside a giant black hangar. Around me, colorful boxes floated around at random—captivating, even though I couldn't do anything more than sit there and appreciate the technical wonder of this giant 3-D screensaver.

But the cognitive divide between this VR web—of crazy 3-D simulations that might one day be hyperlinked together like magical, connected universes—and a 2-D version of Amazon.com that floats in front of your face—is a massive creative valley to cross in the development community.

"Early on when we started the WebVR product at Mozilla, a couple years ago now, we were literally seen as the crazy people. People couldn't wrap their heads around why we’d want the web in VR. They just imagined the browser tabs floating in front of you. And that seems to be the view people took of it," Yee says. "You have to tell people, that’s not what it’s going to look like. If you wanted to look at the web in 2-D in front of you, you’re better off with your tablet or laptop. We imagine the VR web as, you’re not viewing a web page, you’re in it. That’s fantastic."

Most Web Developers Don't Have The Skills To Create VR

Assuming you can convince an HTML web developer that they should be building virtual reality websites—simply by sheer awe factor—there’s still a big problem: The expertise needed to build a conventional website is totally different from that needed to building an interactive environment.

"You have a huge population of developers that understand and know how to work 2-D webpages. But none of these people are particularly well suited for developing VR content," Yee says. "That’s a major issue. That skill set is very new to these people. Whereas for gaming [developers], it just sort of fits them."

In turn, the Mozilla team has released a platform called A-Frame. A-Frame is designed to accommodate web developers who are versed in HTML and CSS, but have yet to delve into 3-D models and OpenGL.

A-Frame has had some early success, with thousands of interested people on Github, and the Washington Post recently used A-Frame to build its interactive demo of the surface of Mars. But tools don’t automatically equate to skill sets. Even understanding A-Frame, there’s no reason why the way information flows through 2-D space holds all that much similarity to how it operates in 3-D space. So developers could still have a lot to learn.

A VR web requires web developers—formerly worried about which TypeKit font will work best for a client—to be game designers, 3-D modelers, sound designers, experience designers, and more. Unless there’s a market for these experiences, there won’t be investment. Unless there’s investment, there won’t be skill. And, in a full ouroboros, unless there are skills, there won’t ever be a market.

Apple, Google, And Facebook Have Already Lured Us Away From The Web

So let’s assume we reach critical mass of 3-D-ready web designers—what then? We face yet another problem to creating our VR web. Namely, that the web as we know it is largely disappearing.

"A lot of companies, like Google and Apple, have their own ecosystems—and they want native apps because they can control the whole value chain," Yee says. "Whereas with the web, it’s a little more open than that."

Yee isn’t wrong. The best recent example may be Facebook’s Instant Articles. When you read one of these articles on Facebook—maybe by the New York Times or BuzzFeed—you aren’t browsing the quirky open web that we all know. You’re reading content that’s been published natively, on Facebook, both cached and monetized inside its own little mini web. You’ll read content from other Facebook users. And you may even read other articles suggested by Facebook. But you’ll never leave Facebook, and less and less will you ever be visiting the web outside of it.

It’s no surprise that Facebook has even hinted that it sees a metaverse in our future—a fully interactive VR world, with real streets and people, something akin to what an open VR web might look like. But crucially, that would be Facebook’s metaverse, not a web ruled by democracy. And given that we’re all hanging out in Facebook’s app anyway, will we put the energy into building another VR world where our underutilized web once stood? "I see that, yes, the WebVR Metaverse should happen," Yee says. "Whether it will is another question."

Indeed, we’ve already given up control of our open news to the taste-making algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. We’ve already given up our open software to the tightly controlled app markets of Apple and Google. In this modern world, there’s little impetus for a painstaking effort to rebuild the web in virtual reality, because we're all going to opt to be part of whatever VR experience the bigger companies are coordinating instead.

And that’s a shame. Because as I try various VR site demos on this Gear VR, even as many won’t load because Samsung sort of botched the rollout, I’m still entering environmental simulations faster than most YouTube clips need to buffer, with objects that feel more real than anything I’d ever seen on my old desktop web.

Suddenly, it’s so painfully obvious: Once about 1,000 different problems of user interface design are solved, and once we learn how VR can break the old browser "window" metaphor, surfing the Internet really will be a trip again. If anyone remembers what the Internet was like when that day comes.


Will Oculus Rift and other VR companies ever be about more than just fun and games?

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