VR for Web Developers

So you’re a web developer, and you’ve been hearing things about VR. I’m also a web developer, and I’ve also been hearing things about VR! And I’ve been blogging about it. Not just VR – but how VR is very likely to soon become both a crisis and an opportunity for web developers. So what are the prospects for VR for web developers?

The dawn of virtual reality.Today is April 8, 2016. The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive both tried to start shipping in the last couple of weeks – and it’s been a bit of a mess. But even so, eager early adopters have raved up and down that this revolutionary technology finally actually works.

Here’s a fun article raving about, and comparing, the Rift and the Vive:

http://blog.tojicode.com/2016/04/oculus-rift-and-htc-vive-review.html

So far, the gaming industry has had by far the most involvement with this revolution. The tools they use, the experiences they create, all are fundamentally closer to VR than any other industry.

But according to Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research, plenty of other fields are likely to invest in VR – combined, they will dwarf gaming:

The case for VR for web developers - Chart showing predictted market size of VR/AR software for different use cases in 2025

Image source: www.businessinsider.com

And here’s an even more immediate article, not talking about 10 years in the future, but practical applications today:

Is virtual reality finally ready for business use?

Virtual Reality may finally be ready. Business, not so much.

But what does this have to do with VR for web developers?

Everything.

The web is a conduit for all manner of media. And I do mean, ALL. We use it to stream music and videos, to chat, to upload content for others to see. The idea of media, that’s not on the web, is almost absurd. (The only reasons media doesn’t make it to the web is that it’s too obscure, like my great aunt’s book on beekeeping for seniors, or too demanding for “web surfing” hardware, like a cutting edge video game that exploits the hardware of a specific gaming system)

Content will be developed for this new medium. And the web is the global communication tool through which content in all digital media is available to everyone. Fair enough?

I read a very pessimistic article about all this the other day – Why A Virtual Reality Web May Never Happen – that seems to place the blame for a future without a VR web squarely on the shoulders of web developers who are unable to create it. From the article:

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.

There is a great deal of truth in that – and there is also a degree of oversimplification. Most developers would tell you they don’t worry about which TypeKit font will work best – that’s more within the realm of a web designer. Could a web designer become a 3D modeller? Why not? Could a developer who is formerly concerned with getting some font to load without slowing down the load time of the page also work to bring 3D models efficiently into an online VR experience? Again, why not?

Content and Code – VR for Web Developers

Web developers know about content, and they know about code. And they know how to spin those things together, to create something that gives good UX on the web.

Content can come from a lot of places. It can be text. Text can be “marked up” and presented beautifully in any font. Content can be photos. Photos come from cameras, and are re-touched and optimized for the web. Simple code makes photographs look good on computers or phones. Graphics are treated similarly, but are created from scratch with software suited to the task. Videos are also created with cameras, edited, and then scrunched up to stream real nice on the web. Simple code allows a player to play a video on a web page.

Similarly, content for VR comes from somewhere. It can be captured with a camera – it can be scanned with a 3D scanner – or it can be created from scratch in a 3D content authoring tool. The big open-source 3D authoring tool is called Blender – think of it as the Photoshop (or Illustrator, or Flash) of 3D content.

So, instead of using GIMP to create a JPEG file – you’d use Blender to create a COLLADA file, or some such. Exact same idea, one extra dimension.

Virtual Reality Web prototype hyperlinks at Beloola.com
Virtual Reality Web prototype hyperlinks at Beloola.com

HTML5 and the NO PLUGINS paradigm

The idea that 3D modelling, and the files you produce with the software that does that, is the 3D parallel to graphics files we’re used to making and deploying is pretty simple to understand.

But it can be a little intimidating to imaging how you might code up some VR for the web, even if you have tools and files like that to work with.

Especially without the use of plugins.

Believe it or not, a number of tools exist, many of them for years, that allow you to put 3D content and virtual worlds on the web. Without plugins. That’s the tagline of this site: “3D CONTENT & VIRTUAL WORLDS ON THE WEB WITHOUT PLUGINS.” There are a fair number of experiments with these technologies here on this site. These technologies exist. They work. And they’re not too complicated, compared to the technologies we’re already using for the flat web.

I encourage you to explore these technologies, if you’re curious.

  • MozVR
  • Three.js
  • WebVR
  • Babylon.js
  • Blend4web
  • A-Frame
  • X3DOM

There are more. Check them out.

(I found A-Frame to be a very easy and gratifying way to make VR content for the web. Easy peasy.)

But the problem is still the content paradox. Almost no-one is hiring anyone to use these technologies. And almost no-one is familiar with these technologies. Almost no-one is hiring anyone to use these technologies, because almost no-one owns hardware that can truly exploit content made with these technologies.

The paradox will be complete and self-perpetuating if no-one buys the hardware because no-one will hire people to make content for it, and if no-one hires anyone to make it, no-one will learn to do it, and if no-one learns to do it, no-one would be able to make it even if someone wanted to pay them too. So if no-one buys the hardware because there is no content and no-one who can make the content – well, you get it. That’s the content paradox.

So if you are interested in VR for web developers – and, really, to have found this post and read this far, you must be interested in VR for web developers – I suggest exploration and patience. Experimentation and playing. Read what people are saying and check out what people are doing. Have ideas about how to parlay what you know about the flat web, into the 3D web. Dream big.

And don’t quit your day job.

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Author: Pete

Editor-in-Chief, Lead Software Developer and Artistic Director @ 3dspace.com