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  • 04.13.17

VR Is Still Nowhere Near Its YouTube Moment

Google’s new web VR portal highlights the medium’s promise, and its shortcomings.

VR Is Still Nowhere Near Its YouTube Moment

Right now, if you want to try VR, you almost always have to go to a store and download an app. But what if you could just pop on your VR headset and load a game or experience as easily as going to a website? What if VR could be democratic, distributed organically without big business in the way–just like the web?

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That’s what the WebVR standard–built by Mozilla, and part of browsers like Chrome–hopes to enable. And now, Google is showing more support for WebVR creators through its new site, WebVR Experiments.

Rather than an app store, WebVR Experiments is really just a nice website full of links. Go to the page on a Google Cardboard, Daydream (or Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, coming soon), and Google will link you to several WebVR experiments–ranging from ping pong you can play with your head, to a room that rains apples and bananas all around you–that are no harder to try than opening a tab.

Well, in theory.

Even with Google’s support, WebVR still has some problems. The lagging frame rates and response times of these apps are one; you’ll often feel the sort of disconnected experience looking around in WebVR of playing Pac-Man drunk.

But that’s all forgivable, in a way, if you only want to spend a few minutes trying out some gag app or viewing some virtual art installation. And boy, it’s so quick to load these little VR apps in the browser–it takes only seconds–that you’ll be left wanting to try more. I get how it can be addictive, the same way YouTube’s low-fi clips, that were so instant to load, found a foothold that gave the sharper, bigger images of TV sets a run for their money.

No, the bigger problem for WebVR continues to be the entire UX of using a browser in VR. You’re supposed to load the page in your mobile Chrome browser with your fingers on the screen, then slap on your Cardboard or Daydream headset. That sounds easy. But when you slip your phone into the Daydream headset, its NFC automatically loads the entire Daydream experience–the whole VR app loading area where Chrome, and thereby these WebVR experiments, are inaccessible.

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(I was only able to try WebVR after going into my settings, disabling NFC, and essentially tricking my way in–a hack I discovered only after going on message boards. That also means your Daydream motion controller no longer works.)

Google built Daydream for normal people, but it failed to merge Android, as you use it on your phone, with Android, as you use it in your VR headset. There’s no simple affordance to say, “Hey, I just want to try this thing in the browser–don’t load all those crazy virtual worlds just yet.” Samsung’s Gear VR headset has suffered from the same problems. And that’s largely because Google never finished the job with optimizing Android (also Samsung’s OS of choice) for VR. Instead, it kicks you to a separate app.

Which makes me realize, while Google supporting these WebVR experiments on a dedicated page is great–and can help the world of VR stay as weird and as democratic as the web itself–the company still needs to optimize a way for users to hop in and out of VR fast from the mobile Chrome browser if WebVR is ever going to have a chance of taking off.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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