The DIYVR Manifesto

Patrick Buckley and Tony Parisi

Virtual Reality has the potential to be the most powerful medium ever devised. The ability to be transported to other places, to be fully immersed in experiences, to be really there– present– with others in real time, opens up unimagined ways to communicate. This is the beginning of an entirely new chapter of collaboration, one that has the power to reshape our culture much the way radio, television, the internet or mobile phones did before. The promise of this technology is so compelling that it has spawned an entire industry and fueled the imaginations of millions worldwide. Virtual Reality is the next revolution in computing and human communication.

Unlike the big companies vying for control of this new medium through high-end hardware and closed software, we in the DIYVR movement believe that smartphones, low-cost viewers, and open source software are where the Virtual Reality revolution should and will catch fire. The smartphone is to Virtual Reality what the PC was to the internet in 1991: a critical mass of adopted technology that only needs a novel component to turn it into something far more powerful. For PC’s, it was a modem to get onto the web; for smartphones, it is a box with 2 lenses to get into Virtual Reality.

There are close to 2 Billion smartphones in use across the world. A marvel of modern technology, these devices are packed with more processing power and sensors than the first computers we put into space. They have high resolution screens and the motion tracking sensors needed to create a virtual reality experience, and they are getting better and better every month. With a cardboard box and two lenses your smartphone can be transformed into a Virtual Reality device. That is amazing! 2 Billion people could get started experimenting with VR tomorrow– if this knowledge was evenly distributed.

Oculus and Samsung are doing awesome things by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with Virtual Reality. However, their products are either far away in terms of when they will ship– Oculus will not have a commercial product for at least another year– or not affordable by the average consumer: the Gear VR headset costs a few hundred dollars and only works with a Note 4, which is an $800 phone that few people own. They are building Lamborghinis, when what the market needs is a model-T Ford. These systems also require serious expertise to develop apps for, essentially requiring professional game development teams with high-end graphics programming knowledge and deep pockets.

We think VR should be for everyone:

  • Affordable headsets that work with any smartphone NOW – 2 Billion of them.
  • An open technology stack, based on web standards like HTML5 and WebGL.
  • Tools that make creating VR apps as easy as making a web page. There are over 8 million people who know how to use web development tools like HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.
  • Built on an open, democratic and inherently collaborative foundation like the Internet, so VR experiences can flow into each other seamlessly and anyone can publish their work without gatekeepers.

Virtual Reality is too important to be a closed system.

Imagine if the Internet was owned by AOL and we were all still getting CD-Roms in the mail with our allotted online minutes. Imagine if Gutenberg’s family controlled what got printed on paper. These are things that could have come to pass if people never fought for those technologies to be open platforms. The Internet and the printing press started as technology for the few, but became fundamental mediums of human collaboration, communication and creative exchange because they were inclusive, open and democratic with no single entity controlling them. Virtual Reality has the same potential, maybe even greater. But if the platforms are controlled by a small number of players, and the costs out of reach for most consumers, then VR will either remain stuck in its current technology novelty phase, never to cross the chasm to the mainstream, or– far worse– it will become just another corporate channel for blockbuster entertainment. Either way, it will fall far short of what it could become as a medium.

We have already lost major venues of communication to closed, locked-down proprietary systems (radio, television, mobile phones). You need to be a multibillion dollar company to afford the cost of entry to these mediums. Let’s not lose Virtual Reality. Let’s not enter a dark age where we let a couple of companies with a lot of money own Virtual Reality, and become the gatekeepers of what gets made, who gets to play, and who doesn’t. No one company or person should wield this much power. Virtual Reality is for everyone.

Takin’ It To The Streets

Back in September, I was privileged to attend the first Oculus Connect event, the developer conference for the flagship VR headset, and get a hands-on demo of the new developer kit, code-named Crescent Bay. Crescent Bay is hands-down the most awesome thing I have ever experienced with a computer. But even as I was being transported into other realms, the earth-bound part of me was wondering where they kept the cooling room for the massive PC under the hood, and sniffing for the smell of burning wires. Combine that with the specs John Carmack and team are laying down as the baseline experience, and it seems to me that this device is headed straight for the living room. It’s not cheap, it’s not mobile, and it’s not something just anybody can build for. The Oculus Rift is destined to be the next console: the experiences will be created by high-end game and film studios, and delivered as paywalled apps via some future equivalent of the app store.

Perhaps anticipating a read guard maneuver by mobile phone makers, and maybe a bit spooked by Google’s introduction of CardboardVR, Oculus has also entered into a partnership with Samsung. The GearVR is a sleek mobile VR headset, and the demos I’ve seen are also stunning. But at a $800 cost of ownership, it’s also not a device for the masses. And Samsung, too, has already set the expectation that apps for the GearVR will go through its own app store.

You probably know where I’m going with this.

Last week, DODOcase and I took our mission of an open virtual reality Metaverse to the streets. Our DIYVR Kickstarter hit its funding target in just over 3 days and it’s headed for more. So far we’ve done it all with social media: our friends, their followers, and the people’s broadcast medium, Twitter. To me, the speed with which we hit the initial target says more about folks’ desires to keep VR open and affordable than it does about the size of our respective networks. VR, after all, is a movement of the people. This is how Oculus got funded in the first place.

DIYVR is about two things: affordable mobile VR, and the open software to build it. Twenty bucks gets you viewer hardware that works with your existing smart phone, and you can have that VR dance party, literally, out in the street, right now. And you don’t need a PHD in graphics or pro tools to build something. With software like GLAM and Three.js, all it takes is a text editor and mobile browser. Sure, Unity is awesome for creating mobile VR apps, but not everybody has the budget and time to master a pro tool, or pay a pro game development shop. Let’s say you’re the web team at the Museum of Science in your favorite city. I doubt you have a half million dollars to throw at creating a VR planetarium exhibit. Nope, you’ve got two people, two months and basically no money.

One piece of collateral damage of the current wave of VR development is that many startup shops who want to get into the VR game have to justify their existence with a business model, answering questions like “what’s the killer app?” from a pre-approved list of MBA filter questions – when all they really want to do is create great experiences, albeit perhaps for very small, niche audiences. But the resources required to learn pro tools, master the 3D skills, staff up, and market and sell through app stores is just too capital-intensive to support most of these endeavors. As a result, these teams either fall into the collapsed design space of zombie shooters and VR shopping, or they give up and go home.

What’s the “business model” for a VR fly-fishing site? A 3D generative art piece? A shrine to the goddess Isis? Who the fuck knows? More importantly, who the fuck cares? If making VR becomes as cheap, unfettered, and out of control as building web pages, then nobody will worry about this stuff. Or, as Automatic Jack famously observed: “…the street finds its own uses for things.”

This is the story the big players don’t want you to hear. Time to take it to the streets.

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.

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