Third Time’s the Charm

How VR and the Web Have Finally Converged — In My Lifetime

Twenty five years after the first consumer VR crash, virtual reality is poised to upend human-computer interaction, the Internet has disrupted every facet of life as we knew it back then, and the two are now on a collision course. The Metaverse that we’ve all been dreaming about for decades — that shared vision of everybody connected and communicating in a web of virtual reality— is upon us.

Twice before, the industry attempted to consummate this chemical wedding… and twice now, somebody ran from the altar. Well, this time, the bride and groom are pure of heart and truly ready. The confluence of cheap VR hardware, accessible 3D development, and ubiquitous networking has set the stage for an explosion of VR content, delivered over the World Wide Web.

Why has it taken so long? And why is it happening now? I’ll tell you. But first, a little history.

The Best of Intentions

The notion of combining VR and the Web is hardly new. Tim Berners-Lee put out a request for proposals way back at the first-ever World Wide Web conference in 1994. Mark Pesce and I answered the call; the result was our problem child, VRML.

VRML was designed as a universal language for authoring 3D applications on the web, the first piece of a technology stack intended to bring Neal Stephenson’s vision of the Metaverse to life. After we made 3D rendering universal, we figured we would tackle multi-player networking and then, finally, when a new generation of VR hardware was ready, we’d connect it all together — with the assumption that these other pieces were right around the corner.

VRML was built on then-state-of-the-art tech: an open, scalable 3D infrastructure allowing anyone to create and share, with the burgeoning Internet as its backbone. We created VRML out in the open, didn’t patent anything, and gave everything away in the hope of starting an explosion of 3D creation online.

VRML captured the imagination of the fledgling Web industry. Software leaders Netscape, Microsoft and Adobe hooked up with hardware titans like Silicon Graphics, Sun, Intel, Apple and IBM to build our collective 3D future. Though a few had knives under the table, most of the big guys did their best to cooperate on standards. We created killer demo showcases. The hype train, powered by SGI’s marketing machine, kicked into high gear. Startup fortunes were made.

But there was a problem: we didn’t have a market. The processing power and bandwidth required for quality 3D weren’t in the average home. Most people with PCs didn’t even have a Web browser yet. VRML was a noble experiment, conceived with the best of intentions, that ultimately came up short. Wrong place; wrong time.

Worlds in Collision

In the 2000’s, virtual worlds like Second Life promised us the Metaverse all over again via real-time, user-generated 3D social environments, running on a new generation of cheap high-performance PCs. Second Life was, for its time, a damn good experience, much better than anything ever built in VRML.

By 2007, Second Life was at the center of its own hype bubble, hitting the cover of Business Week with the promise of a new way to play and communicate, and even make money by selling each other virtual stuff. SL gave rise to well-funded copycat startups, including one that I founded. But by 2010, most of the virtual worlds companies from that period were gone. Second Life was the sole exception, having built a solid business, though not a large one by Internet standards.

So why did the category fail?

Partly, it was because of the lack of scalability inherent in such a closed system. While VRML approached the Metaverse bottoms-up, via an open infrastructure and industry cooperation, these virtual worlds systems went at it top-down, delivering highly structured and stylized experiences, via AOL-style walled garden networks. The products provided powerful authoring for users to create their own content — but each company owned its own full stack, from client to tool to server. Without an open ecosystem it is really hard to achieve Web scale, and it’s all on the shoulders of one company to deliver continual value and growth.

Second Life and its ilk may have also floundered because open-ended worlds are inherently limited in what they have to offer compared to their achievement-oriented, MMOG cousins like Warcraft and League of Legends. It takes a lot of commitment to build a Second Life, and for many, it’s apparently not worth it, because there isn’t a big reward at the end.

But mostly, I think virtual world growth stalled because it got sideswiped by something bigger. Social networks provided 80 percent of the bang for way less effort, and ran everywhere, without needing to install custom software. Why go to the trouble of buying a gaming PC, installing a fat software package, and learning how to build 3D worlds, when you can instead sign into Farmville with a click using your Facebook ID, and grow virtual soybeans on your shiny silver Macbook?

Move along; this is not the Metaverse you’re looking for.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Half a decade after the virtual worlds bubble burst, everything has changed. Today’s smartphones have way more 3D power than the workstations that originally ran VRML; everybody is connected on fast networks; and affordable consumer VR hardware is blowing up. If now isn’t Metaverse time, I don’t know when is.

A significant development got buried in the noise around the resurgence of consumer VR. 3D is on the Web to stay, with the advent of WebGL. WebGL makes it possible to deliver hardware-accelerated 3D in a browser, programmed in JavaScript and accessible to everyone — with no additional download. WebGL runs on all desktop computers and modern smartphones. At 3 billion seats and counting, it’s ubiquitous.

But thus far, with a few exceptions WebGL has been an optional add-on to commercial sites. In the end, the results are still rendered on a flat desktop or mobile screen — granted, with more speed and sizzle, but still part of a 2D experience. Well, with a stereoscopic VR or AR display, that’s not an option: you must render in 3D. So if you want to create a Web-based application for VR, you really have no choice but to use WebGL.

Now, if you’re reading this, I am just going to assume that I don’t need to convince you why people want to create VR for the Web. To me, the idea that there won’t be VR applications built on Web tech, based on Web content, well… that’s just absurd. It’s just as absurd as someone in 2007 predicting that smartphones wouldn’t deliver Web content, and mobile apps wouldn’t someday be mostly based on HTML. Well, in 2016 they do, and they are.

Market factors will force the industry’s hand on this. The desire for cheaper, easier ways to produce, deploy and deliver VR is there: not everyone can master a game engine, and labor through the deployment and maintenance process that comes with app packaging and app store distribution. And for consumers, the long tail of applications demands an open system without the friction of app store discovery, download and installation. The makers of VR hardware used the mobile app store model as the starting point to the get the industry kick-started, but surely this is just a transient stage on the way to a fully connected Metaverse.

The technology underpinnings are now in place. In addition to WebGL, we have WebVR, a new set of VR browser APIs in development since the ink was drying on the Facebook/Oculus acquisition. We also have glTF, the new portable 3D file format that is like JPEG, but for 3D. Add to these myriad JavaScript libraries for creating VR, and the Electron framework for building native apps in HTML5, and the sky is the limit. These pieces are the kindling for a wildfire; all it’s going to take are a few simple tools and killer apps to set it off.

Which tools and killer apps? We don’t know… and we don’t care. The Metaverse may have been imagined in fiction as the product of a singular vision, a Grand Architect of the Universe mapping out how, when, why and where people will be interacting socially in VR. But that’s not how it will actually get built. The Metaverse is going to be a messy, out-of-control affair, with multiple entry points, and a face and shape that we can’t yet imagine. What we do know is that it will be comprised of a billion plus people using VR systems connected via the Web. That’s all we know. And that is enough.

Don’t take my word for any of this. Google and Mozilla are leading the way by implementing VR-enabled browsers, but you will be hearing shortly from others that are going to spearhead the effort with market applications, enabling platforms and distribution networks. The dynamics I have described here aren’t just based on two decades of my own hit-or-miss insights; they are rooted in real market pain points, developer desires, and stated strategy from big industry players.

It’s finally here.

I guess third time really is the charm.

Freedom

Virtual Reality app store censorship has claimed its first (non-porn) victim. As reported today in Ars Technica, VR journalist Dan Arthur created Ferguson Firsthand, a 3D recreation of the Michael Brown shooting, packaged as a Google Cardboard app for the iOS store. The app store booted the piece on the grounds that it referred to a “specific event”, and therefore its scope was “too narrow” to be considered a valid application.

I’m sure the appnazi behind this moronic decision was just doing his job, just following orders, as they called it back in 1945. And more’s the pity. In this instance, the result was both tragic and ironic. But more, it points to a fundamental deficiency of app store models. App stores aren’t set up for timely delivery of topical information. They’re set up for apps. Um, whatever those are. In this case, Arthur created an app to package up a story he wanted to tell, which, in the infinite wisdom of the store, was deemed too insignificant a hunk of content to warrant publication. I imagine if the piece had been included in a larger pack of content, say, Tragic Stories of Policy Brutality in America, 2015, then the app store might have approved it. (Would it have?)

Ferguson Firsthand is really a news story. But it’s packaged as an app for technical reasons: at the moment, the only way to get virtual reality delivered to people on a mobile device today is to package an app. With all due respect to its creator, this should never have been an app. It should be a web experience, instantly published, and instantly accessible without restriction and without app store gatekeepers. This is an issue of consumer convenience, but more importantly, it’s an issue of journalistic freedom.

Imagine news sites in the early days of the web. What if, back then, to get your daily news, you had to download a PDF? The web wouldn’t have happened– and you wouldn’t be reading this story right now. Information needs to be free, and the web is the key to that freedom. The Ferguson Firsthand incident is a sad outcome, and a perfect illustration of why we need WebVR, DIYVR, and an open ecosystem for VR in general.

The Metaverse is too big for an app store.

The VR Headset Nobody is Building

 

Let’s just put this out there right now: the future of VR is mobile. Morpheus, Vive and Rift will make a big splash in the living room, but for sheer numbers we are going to see maybe 10x the number of mobile VR headsets in the next few years. I’m not here to debate the point. It’s just the way I think it’s going to play out. If you don’t agree, then nothing to see here, feel free to move on.

Still with me? Then riddle me this: why isn’t anybody building the “iPod Touch of VR?” That is, a separate, dedicated, fully contained VR device capable of running apps, games and videos, retailing for $300–500. It seems to me that this is what the world needs, and I have to wonder out loud why it doesn’t exist.

The Cardboard VR approach, where you can put your existing phone into a cheap housing, seems SO sensible. The total cost of ownership is next to nothing, as low as twenty bucks, and you don’t need to get a new phone. The cardboard box will likely be succeeded by evolutionary advances like the plastic Wearality Sky. It’s more durable, has a wider field of view and maybe most importantly, it folds nicely and fits in your pocket. Gizmos like this cost a bit more, but they’re still under a hundred bucks, and therefore could become a wildly popular phone accessory and, as advertised, be the entry point to VR for most consumers.

Problem is, with Cardboard VR, quality is all over the map. Only the highest-resolution phones provide a decent experience. And until Google and Apple unclog the awful refresh rate of the built-in accelerometer, even the best Cardboard VR will start making you motion sick after a couple of minutes. That development looks like it’s a year or so out. So for the moment, Cardboard is still Street VR: the stuff of parties, promotions and live event giveaways. And a nice stocking-stuffer.

Then there’s Gear VR. I love Gear VR. It’s the closest thing I have seen to realizing the true promise of VR, and I believe I’ve tried them all. Gear VR is not at the fidelity level of the Vive or the Rift CV, but so what? It’s lightweight and comfortable, the apps are plentiful and cheap, and the experiences are good enough to keep me in there for an hour or more. Oh and look ma: no wires.

Gear VR has shown the path to usable, mobile VR. However, it only works with two phones. These are phones that, before I wanted to play with Gear VR, I didn’t own. Of course I went out and bought them, but I don’t think most people are going to buy a different phone just to do VR… especially at the price point. I do think that Note 4 and S6 owners will find the Gear VR to be a nifty accessory, maybe even a must-have in the next few years. And perhaps prospective Samsung phone buyers will view Gear as part of a Samsung ecosystem and yet another reason to make the purchase.

What I would buy, and what nobody seems to be building, is a dedicated VR appliance: the display, headset and brain are all in one unit that’s basically a phone without the 4G. It can’t make calls, but it can do WiFi to download everything. It has sensible, ergonomic input accessories bundled with it. Under the hood, it’s probably just Android or iOS (or Windows 10 mobile, maybe? hint hint) with a VR shell. And it just works. I would lay out a cool $500 for this product. I’m sure many, many other early adopters would. Then, a few years out, legions more would take the plunge when the price drops to $300.

Note to phone manufacturers: this wouldn’t replace phones, or cannibalize sales in any way. In fact, app developers could design products that use the VR headset and the phone together, with the phone as a controller or input device. It’s sort of like the way watches and phones are starting to work together now. So this could sell more phones, in addition to selling another VR device. Oh and by the way, I don’t want my primary phone to be stuck in a VR headset. I want it to make calls, and all the other stuff it already does. So I’d rather have another device anyway. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this.

So what I’m saying is, phone people: this is a new product you can sell.

So why isn’t anybody building it?

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.