DIYVR

Patrick Buckley is a cowboy, in the best way.

Seven weeks after seeing Cardboard VR at Google I/O, Buckley’s company DODOcase, makers of luxe iPad and Android tablet cases, had already put tens of thousands of their own Cardboard VR units into production. Instead of having to source individual parts, cut them to spec, and tape and glue a bunch of pieces, an enthusiast could one-stop shop a DODOcase kit and – quite quickly – assemble a VR viewer. Just add smartphone and voila! virtual reality in your pocket.

A month after shipping their first Cardboard units, DODOcase contacted me to talk about software. Patrick and co-founder Craig Dalton believe, as do I, that VR will reach the masses through low-cost hardware, free and open source software, and the blooming of a thousand content flowers. No proprietary application stacks, walled-garden app stores, and game development teams with million dollar budgets – just good old fashion HTML and a text editor.

We began to explore this idea of Cardboard VR apps built in WebGL, shared via hyperlink, and instantly accessible to consumers. Combined with DODOcase’s low-cost VR hardware– or cardware, if you will– we thought this maybe had the potential to spark a revolution in consumer virtual reality. And so, DIYVR was born: cheap hardware and free and open software so that anybody can build and experience VR.

We just launched a Kickstarter to help us realize this dream faster. 100% of the campaign proceeds will go to adding VR modules to my WebGL software project, GLAM. GLAM (GL And Markup) is a way to create 3D content using markup, CSS, and the DOM. Making VR applications should be as free and unfettered as developing web sites, and making the content should be as easy as creating a web page. GLAM has the potential to be to VR what HTML was to publishing: a great equalizer, a leveler of the playing field… a disruption of the first order. If you fund the Kickstarter, you’ll also get a nifty VR stocking stuffer in time for the holidays. (Patrick, ever the cowboy, wanted to have the campaign ready in time for Christmas. So, here we are, with 21 days left…)

Though they won’t admit it, Cardboard probably began as Google flipping the bird at Oculus VR. Why get a $350 dev kit and an expensive PC setup, and wait a year (or more?!) until Oculus ships a commercial product, when you can use a couple of bucks worth of parts and your mobile phone and get in the game now? Moreover, why tie your future to a closed platform when there’s an open alternative? I’m not sure they knew what they were starting with this; regardless, Google has sparked a full-fledged revolution. Buckley has dubbed it the “homebrew moment for virtual reality.” I say, let’s get cooking.

Big Data

[text of my emcee rant from tonight’s cocktail social at HTML5DevConf]

I’m not actually here right now.

You’re seeing an incredibly powerful simulation, crunching petabytes of data at teraflops speeds. Combined with the right sensory hardware, we’re able to create illusions of size, shape, color and sound… even touch. Go ahead: touch me. Realistic, isn’t it?

This simulation is the product of the longest-running R&D experiment we know: evolution. Evolution: the first lean startup. Brought to you by the most powerful technology we’ll ever see: reality. Collisions of atoms, and sprays of electromagnetic radiation. Big data meets bright light.

So as we gather tonight to celebrate how freaking smart we are, let’s just remember where we came from. The internet is everywhere, on everything, in everything. But this is just the beginning. We have a lot farther to go before we can say that everyone and everything are truly connected.

BUT until then…

They said it couldn’t be done. They said HTML couldn’t be used for serious applications. First, they said it couldn’t do what Flash does. They were wrong. Then, they said it would never work on mobile. They were wrong again. As more new features hit native platforms, I’m sure they’ll say it again: HTML can’t do it; JavaScript isn’t fast enough; standards committees move slowly and stifle innovation. Yada yada. And they’ll be wrong again. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Video, audio, 2d graphics, 3d graphics, databases, threads, sockets… HTML5 is *the* platform for building content and apps across operating systems and devices. Not controlled by one vendor; write an application once, in one programming language, with one set of system services. What developer doesn’t want this? Coming soon, the browser will have virtual reality, new input devices, bluetooth networking, and real-time control – the *next* platform to power mind-blowing new experiences, new user interfaces, new control systems for connected devices.

HTML5 isn’t a technology so much as a mindset and a process. A mindset of sharing to create opportunity: grow the pie, and each slice grows bigger. A process of open collaboration and open development: stand together or fall apart. Without a standard platform, we’re trapped in silos of experience, and fall short of our true potential. With a standard platform, we’ll connect everything to everyone, and hit new heights. Big data meeting the bright light.

Virtually Anywhere

OR, how the Web will eat everything in its path – again.

Now that WebGL is truly everywhere, the close-knit, doggedly persistent and technically masterful group of folks who made it happen over the last several years can take a collective bow. From Vlad  Vukićević, WebGL’s creator, to the countless engineers and working group members on browser teams who created a great spec and world-class implementations, to Ricardo Cabello Miguel, aka Mr.doob for the amazing Three.js, to us camp followers and blogging faithful: congrats, felicidades, and kudos on a job well done!

But we can barely pause to enjoy the moment, because there’s a new game afoot: Virtual Reality. From the Oculus kickstarter to the Facebook acquisition, this surreal ride has already turned the industry on its ear. New products will be forged, new markets will appear out of nowhere, and new fortunes will surely be made.

And a new war begins.

Ultimately, hardware like the Oculus Rift will become a commodity. That’s just the way of it. In the long term, the big winners will be the applications and content that run on VR hardware. And those applications will need software.

But what software? Whose software?

Do a web search for “Oculus Rift demos.” You will find many portal sites featuring amazing experiences. All of the demos are native code applications for PC or Mac – solitary, wall-garden experiences; massive downloads; not integrated with the Internet. Earlier this month, I was privileged to speak at the first-ever Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference. The demos on the show floor were also all native “silo” applications. Given my purview, I naturally asked several of the startup founders  at the conference about their plans to use WebGL and other web technology. The reactions ranged from blank stares to outright truculence: it’ll never work, it’s too slow, and why would I want to do that? It’s a familiar tune I’ve been hearing for years.

I imagine we’ll hear it for a while longer. In the rush to snag millions in venture money while it’s popping fresh, developers have flocked to proprietary tools, closed systems, and native apps. It’s hard to blame people. This is the easy way, the obvious way. But we don’t do these things because they are easy; we do these things because they are hard.

The hard way, the right way, the way that will win in the long haul, is to build virtual reality on the Web. Using HTML5, WebGL and CSS3, we can create VR experiences that run virtually anywhere, instantly accessible, with no downloads. Integrated. Connected. Social. Mashable. Hackable. Shareable. You know: the Web. Yes, it is early. And we’ll need some extra support in the browser itself to make it work. But that’s coming.

Last night I presented early demos of WebGL applications running in Oculus VR using various browser extension hacks. It’s not great yet, it’s still very early, but it’s promising. I also gave a great talk – but Mozilla’s Josh Carpenter (@joshcarpenter) stole the show. Josh threw down about how in 5 years’ time we won’t be navigating flat pages any more, that the whole interface to information will be in 3D, experienced through virtual reality display technology and new interface paradigms. An inspiring few minutes (dude, you had me at “psychedelic”)!

Josh’s manifesto wasn’t just idle speculation. He’s already working on it. In fact, today Mozilla shared that they are working on building Oculus Rift support directly into the Firefox nightly builds. Carpenter and Vukićević gave a live talk on Air Mozilla that outlines their plans. Josh actually dropped the bomb at last night’s meetup, and then was joined by Brandon Jones of Google, who is also playing with doing the same in Chrome. There are no time frame commitments yet, but knowing these teams, it won’t be long. (Odds are they’ll probably have great support for the devices long before Oculus or anybody else actually ships a commercial headset.)

While these developments roll out, I imagine we are going to continue to see the bulk of VR development on closed platforms using proprietary tools, and active resistance, nay-saying and political posturing. For a while, it will be a war, resembling the fracas over HTML5 on mobile. But ultimately, the Web will win VR as it did mobile, and this, too, will pass.

The language of Metaverse will be JavaScript. The platform will be the browser. To paraphrase Vukićević : the Web is the Metaverse – just with a 2D interface. Well, it’s time for those walls to start tumbling down. It’s going to be amazing to watch.

In the meantime, native app devs: go forth and build silos. Create your mind-blowing Oculus demos. Stick them in front of investors – and have your checkbook ready to sign before their eyes uncross. Godspeed, I say!

But word to the wise: learn JavaScript and HTML5 too. You’re gonna need it.

 

The Domino Effect

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly…

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 7, 1954, on the rise of communism

It’s taken a while, but it looks like the final domino is about to fall. The global onslaught of WebGL was already unstoppable – once Microsoft got on board with IE 11 last year – but now it’s official, at least on the desktop. Today at WWDC, Apple announced that WebGL will turned on by default in Safari on the upcoming Mac OS X 10.10, code-named ‘Yosemite’.

Now, for the 5+% of web users who browse this way, it’s good news. I would assume that this takes desktop WebGL adoption to near 100% – blacklisted cards and ancient desktop hardware being the exceptions.

But of course, the $64B question on everybody’s minds is: what about mobile Safari? That’s what most people care about. Well, Apple didn’t say anything at WWDC, but the site HTML5 Test, a browser capability testing site, reports that WebGL is running on iOS 8.0! If you’ve got the beta installed, please go try it out and confirm this. I haven’t done yet. Also here is an independent confirmation by Jay Moretti, tweeted by AlteredQualia.

So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences...

 

Virtually Anything

VR is back, baby. With a vengeance.

In 1994, Mark Pesce and I worked with the world wide web development community to create the Virtual Reality Markup Language, aka VRML. The goal was to develop a standard way to represent 3D virtual worlds connected via the burgeoning Internet:  Habitat cum  Snow Crash as front end to a potentially world-encompassing Web. It didn’t matter that the modems were 14k dialup, the computers ran at 60Mz (that’s with an “M”) and that the “Web” at the time was AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy. We had a vision, and nothing could stop us. We roped in big companies like Netscape, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft and IBM to come along for the ride.

Fast-forward to 2004. VRML had gone bust years earlier, but I managed to sell my VR startup before the crash (yay irrational exuberance!). I took an extended break from pushing 3D rocks up virtual hills,  and moved on to other things. Then, possessed by God knows what, I dove back into a 3D project. This time it was X3D, the successor to VRML featuring “modern” graphics and XML (because everybody was doing it). The idea was that broadband infrastructure and hardware had caught up to the vision. We still needed a plugin because 3D didn’t come natively in a browser. But, no problem: we were up to the task. We built some cool demos, including a kick-ass shopping experience in partnership with eBay.

We spent the next two years pitching investors who didn’t get it. I could barely see through the blood streaming past my eyes from beating my head against the wall so hard. And then, something wonderful happened: Second Life made the cover of Business Week, and a new virtual world land grab ensued. I wiped the blood off, dusted off my pitch, brought in a hotshot Valley CEO and promptly raised $10M from top venture firms to fund Vivaty, a browser-based virtual world. Good things come to those who wait I guess. Ultimately, Vivaty came up short, a victim of internal misalignment, strategic misfires, and goofy product decisions… but mostly timing. 2009 was a bad year to try to raise a B round. The VCs were all jumping out of their second-story windows over the recession. We sold our great technology to Microsoft and moved on.

(Little known story: during those lean years, we pitched Accel, who had just  pumped $13M into Facebook. During due diligence, they put us in front of Zuck, who promptly threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping in eBay. “Why is this better?” Why indeed? Needless to say, that deal died stillborn. But no matter: we eventually got our funding from people who got it.)

Fast-forward again to 2014. WebGL is here, there, everywhere. Phones and tablets do kick-ass 3D. There are no more reasons to not build great shared 3D experiences. We have the rendering, the broadband, and a huge base of multimedia-savvy developers. Oh and Oculus VR is now Facebook. In one stroke, virtual reality has been validated, vindicated, and safeguarded for a new generation of entrepreneurs. Those of us with a passion for creating anything virtual are now free to try virtually anything regarding new types of user interaction and out-of-the-box business models. And I’m back at it, thinking about how to launch a VR startup.

What a difference a decade makes. Er, two decades.

 

Are You Serio.us?

I was pretty excited last night. At long last, Famo.us was going to release its public beta at the April 9th launch party in San Francisco. I couldn’t make it to the party, but I was one of the early signups, so I figured the code would be available online.

Out of breath from running to my browser, I logged in to my Famo.us account. This is what I saw – an actual screen shot from my account page.

whatthefrell

My number in line?

LINE?!

Oh wait, I get it: they’re going retro. I expect to see my shiny new shrink-wrapped CD-ROM in the mail any day now. I hope it comes with 100 free minutes of API use!

Are they fucking serious?

Unsubscribe… oh wait. There’s no button.

 

Infamo.us

I don’t like using this blog as a bully pulpit. I really don’t. Especially since my kid is now attending mandatory anti-bullying classes. I know it’s not the fashion. But in this case I have decided make an exception.

Unfortunately I had to miss last night’s Famo.us “launch event”– dubbed #launchalready and announced, like everything else they have done, with much fanfare– because I had to stay home to take care of my sick wife. (And watch the US continue to flail in Sochi but that’s another story).

As it turns out, according to an anonymous source who shall remain nameless, it’s OK because I didn’t miss anything. Yet again, Founder Steve Newcomb cavorted onstage showing info-viz demos mislabeled as 3D, took potshots at the DOM, CSS, basically anything a browser actually does today. He also poked his cattle prod at AngularJS and PhoneGap for good measure. (Guys maybe I missed that class in startup school, but I don’t see how maligning the technology your prospective users rely on to earn their daily bread is a viable strategy for winning them over.) According to my source, the event was “underwhelming,” came off as “arrogant,” and Newcomb came off more like the “Justin Beiber of the Internet” than a serious player.

At the end of the day, code talks and bullshit walks. I might forgive all of the above if they had actually released the product. Go to their site right now http://famo.us/c/ and you’ll see the same message I have been looking at since I signed up for the beta nearly two years ago:

sign up for the beta

Go ahead, sign up. Maybe in two years it’ll actually be out.

In the meantime I will continue to ask Why Do We Need This? Especially when you can render D3 to WebGL and use Three.js to create CSS 3D presentations without having to throw out everything else you know.

And I only have one thing to say to Steve Newcomb at this point:

Your lunch money. And I’ll be back tomorrow.

Sweet Sixteen

WebGL just had its big coming-out party.

At last week’s San Francisco HTML5 Meetup, All about WebGL, a quartet of speakers plus lightning presenters wowed a record crowd of 500 plus at Google San Francisco, and many more via the livestream.

After my typical opening talk introducing WebGL to the uninitiated, Don Olmstead of Sony showed how to make WebGL really work in a constrained environment like the PS4; Goo Technologies’ Victor Sand showed content creation made easy with the company’s new tools,  which Peter Moskovits from Kaazing promptly wired up to mobile controllers using the company’s web sockets tech. Finally, Isaac Cohen Leap Motion’s Isaac Cohen found his happy place with WebGL and the Leap, and blew minds in the process. And there was more. The program was too big to go into detail here; check out the event page for links to the live stream and all the presentations.

But it was big, the biggest ever SFHTML5 meetup. And it was all about WebGL.

The Tipping Point

2014 is the year WebGL tips. Do we need more proof than:

  1. Microsoft is on board, with WebGL in both desktop and mobile Internet Explorer.
  2. Amazon built WebGL into the Silk Browser and WebKit for Fire OS. At $229, the 7″ Kindle Fire HDX is probably the best multimedia device deal on the planet… thanks in part to WebGL.
  3. Sony built the whole PS4 user interface out of WebGL. 4.2M seats in one whack… and growing.
  4. The NORAD Tracks Santa site saw 48.8% WebGL success across all browsers & platforms for 20M visitors, an increase of 146% over 2012.
  5. And next week, we’ll be talking WebGL at one of the best-ever-attended SFHTML5 meetups. We broke the group’s record for wait list (over 500)!
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you – then 3D is everywhere.

WebGL On Fire!

Thanks to some friends at Amazon, I was fortunate enough to get hold of a Kindle Fire HDX the minute they hit retail. Naturally, the first thing I did was pop open the Silk browser and, hoping against hope, opened a web site with WebGL.

It JUST WORKED. Fast JavaScript; beautiful rendering.

Apple, Google: take notes.

This changes EVERYTHING.

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