Ever since the hit science-fiction film Tron first graced the world way back in 1982, people have been wandering just what it feels like to be strapped inside a lightcycle or playing disc battle within a virtual environment, minus the weird business of getting sucked into a computer and being ‘derezzed’ of course. It took more than 3 decades for technology to finally catch up with the neon-lit world envisioned by Steven Lisberger and a couple more years for it to be in reach of the general public but virtual reality (VR) is finally here and is poised to change how content is consumed and the world of website development is smack dab in the middle of the crosshair.
VR and the internet
On average, the typical Australian spent 5 hours and 34 minutes each accessing the internet and that 93% of the population access the internet at least once each day. That’s a lot of time being spent looking at pictures of cats. The internet has slowly but surely become our primary way of consuming content, we read the news over the internet, we listen to music over the internet, we watch TVs and films through the internet, and we can even explore the Moon over the internet. As VR is basically a novel way of consuming content, it’s no wonder that VR is predicted to fundamentally alter how we view the internet and if you’re wondering if this is an avenue to be considered, let me give you 4 reasons why you should:
- It’s being democratized
Back when the Oculus Rift was first released to the public, it came with a relatively hefty price tag of US$599 plus the cost of requiring a beast of a computer to run the headset itself. Google tried to increase mass adoption by showing Google Cardboard, a literal VR ‘headset’ made from cardboard cutouts, where you place your place your phone inside the cardboard to simulate a headset. It wasn’t exactly great but it did start a trend of affordable smartphone headsets such as Samsung Gear VR and Cardboard’s spiritual successor Daydream, offering an entry-level VR experience without breaking your bank, well, not too much at least.
The problem is, smartphone headsets require an actual smartphone, and both Daydream-ready phones and Gear VR’s compatible phones are strictly limited to top-shelf flagships, thereby limiting the total cost of entry to at least $500. That finally changed this year with the release of two standalone headsets, the Mirage Solo from Lenovo and Oculus Go. The Mirage Solo is the higher-end of the two, with a price of US$399 while the Oculus Go starts at a much reasonable price of US$199. That’s staggeringly close to impulse buy category and drastically lowers the barrier of entry for VR.
- It’s capable of powering different types of content
The Oculus Rift was first designed for video gaming purposes and generally, VR contents used to revolve around two things, video game and, ahem, let’s just get this out of the way, things of a pornographic nature. Right now though, VR is being used in a lot of unique and interesting ways. Take a look at Google’s Expedition program for example, which started as an educational tool for classroom to explore significant places without leaving their desk that has now been opened to the public. The documentary Notes on Blindness, a documentation of experiences by the theologian John Hull as his vision gradually deteriorates, was released with a VR companion app, for an immersive journey into a glimpse of a world without sight.
Journalism and VR isn’t something you would normally hear side-by-side but this is exactly what The Guardian has done in 6×9, a collaboration between the paper and The Mill, a visual effect studio based in London, that explores the experience of being locked in solitary confinement within a cramped room devoid of any human interaction peppered with stories from those who’ve been there before. It was an unsettlingly powerful experience and it highlights the possibilities the medium is capable of.
- It’s where the $$$ is going.
The Oculus Rift first started as a small-scale project with funding primarily sourced from the crowd-founding platform Kickstarter but that changed in 2014 when the social giant Facebook bought Oculus for US$2.3 billion. Samsung itself partnered with Oculus in 2015 to develop its Gear VR headset. The phone maker HTC collaborated with Valve, the company behind the popular digital platform Steam and the equally popular video game Dota 2 in developing the Vive headset while Sony developed an entire ecosystem with their PlayStation VR headset for their PS4 console. Other than the Oculus Go and Lenovo’s Mirage Solo, the HTC Vive Focus is scheduled for release later this year, signaling just how standalone headset is growing in 2018.
If those examples weren’t enough, Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed and very much in vogue adaptation of Ready Player One pushed the conversation surrounding VR into the mainstream. Together with augmented reality (AR), VR is poised to become a US$1.8 billion market in 2018, which while mainly being driven by video games is still going to enjoy mainstream coverage thanks to examples from the point above.
- It’s being integrated with the browser
The team over at Mozilla paved the way with the release of WebVR, an API that supports the use of headsets for web apps, basically enabling VR contents to be distributed through the web without having to download them first, akin to the way the usual webpages work. That in itself is a good thing but what’s even better is what sprung up from the foundation WebVR has laid upon, one of which is A-Frame. Okay, so the wise guys at Mozilla pushed out WebVR, which is great for distributing and viewing VR contents but not so much for creating them, so they came up with A-Frame, an open-source framework used to create 3D contents using HTML.
The other development revolves around the core nature of the browser itself. As you know, the conventional browser is designed around 2D content. Sure, we’ve moved from static webpages to multimedia webpages and to full-blown web apps, but the core experience remained the same, just better and flashier. VR basically upended the whole game and no amount of tool can change that fact so the result is now we’re seeing full VR browsers like Supermedium out in the public. As the amount of VR content available worldwide is still relatively small, Supermedium only offers a selection of curated contents instead of the open-ended browser experience but it is still an important milestone in VR web development.
Like artificial intelligence (AI), the other big tech talking point of 2018, the development of VR is being observed with one eye open. As a way to complement and enhance existing experiences, it is definitely something to be welcomed as the sheer immersive nature of VR can provide users with the kind of experience no other medium can but the fear is that it might provide too good of an escapism, giving us a dystopia like the kind Ready Player One shows. Still, such far-reaching discussion is for another time, what’s clear is that VR is going to have a big 2018 and it is completely up to you to decide whether to be a part of that or not. The only constant in this world is change and web development is not immune to that fact.