It Takes a Village

The W3C VR Workshop team. See us in full 360.

After all this time, VR really is the Web’s Next Big Thing. A two-day workshop brought the Web’s best and brightest together to define the future of the medium.

TL;DR: The web community’s next big push on browser technology puts VR and AR front and center. The Immersive Web is going to happen, and sooner than we think. It will take vision, hard work, compromise, and lots of really smart people.

The New Normal

I’m not really sure how it happened, but within two years WebVR — the technology that connects web browsers to virtual reality hardware — has gone from a wacky idea to the new normal.

WebVR was hatched a few years back by WebGL creator Vlad Vukićević of Mozilla, collaborating with Google Chrome hotshot Brandon Jones, and publicly demoed for the first time at our San Francisco WebGL meetup in the summer of 2014. The demos were crude, and the tracking sucked, but it was a start, and we were excited by the possibilities.

In the year that followed, WebVR was greeted with blank stares by the VR hipster elite and outright derision by industry players. We heard familiar arguments: bad performance, because JavaScript; too much bureaucracy with standards groups; and anyway, why would you want to do something like that? To be fair, folks had a lot on their plate, and most people didn’t have the mental bandwidth think about something as abstract and forward-looking as WebVR.

But over the past year, something changed. Seed-stage investors started asking me about WebVR, wanting to know the lay of the land. VentureBeat sang its praises and touted the benefits. Microsoft announced support for WebVR in Edge and contributed to the spec to make it suitable for AR. And in a penny-drop moment, a team at Oculus approached me with their plan to get into the WebVR game in a big way. This led to WebVR being featured in the keynote at Oculus Connect 3, with a demo by my fledgling startup and WebVR prominently placed in the Oculus Developer Portal.

It appears that WebVR has arrived. In a previous post I went into some detail about why I think the timing is now. But that only covers the why. How we are going get there has been by no means clear, till now.

The Final Frontier

While all this WebVR goodness was brewing, a group from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the people that brought you the Web, organized a Workshop on Web & Virtual Reality. The workshop, hosted by Samsung in San Jose, CA on October 19th and 20th, brought together browser makers, content creators, application developers, and technical experts to discuss enabling technologies and standards for an open VR infrastructure.

The very existence of this meeting showed that the powers-that-be in W3C understand the importance of VR as the new frontier of web development. That’s a big win, in and of itself. But the reality of the event went beyond that. The technical quality of the presentations, the concrete plans shared by product vendors, and the positive energy and spirit of collaboration showed how seriously the industry is taking this initiative. In my view, this workshop was another watershed, in a watershed month for VR that included Daydream View, PlayStation VR and Oculus Connect 3.

The W3C Workshop covered broad ground and when it could, went deep. After two days of lightning talks, panel sessions and breakouts, my ears were fairly bleeding from the information overload. I am sure the organizers will post full meeting notes soon. (See the schedule page for the detailed list of speakers and topics.) In the meantime, here are some highlights.

  • Sean White keynote. An old friend from the VRML days, now VP of Technology Strategy at Mozilla, Sean White delivered a homey keynote that hearkened back to early VR and the collaboration that built the web, setting the tone for the rest of the workshop.
  • WebVR API Update and Browser Support. There are more tweaks coming in the WebVR APIs, leading to a likely 1.2 version before broad adoption. Google, Mozilla, Samsung and Oculus shared concrete plans and expected ship dates for desktop and mobile VR browsers.
  • Lightning talks. A barrage of 5-minute lightning talks covered UI design, accessibility, 360 video formats and metadata, immersive audio, multi-user networking, and declarative VR languages and 3D file formats.
  • Breakout sessions. We split the group into sessions on various topics, including high performance VR implementations, hyperlinking in VR, and extending the browser DOM into 3D.

My fingerprints can be seen on a lot of the Workshop’s content, but I take particular pride in one development that I hadn’t even planned for. glTF, the new file format standard for 3D scenes, continues to build steam, with a groundswell of endorsement from industry partners over the last several months. glTF figured prominently in many discussions over the two days. Folks even floated the idea of glTF as a built-in format that browsers could natively read and display (analogous to JPEG images for 2D), with immediate application as 3D favicons, hyperlink transition animations, and built-in layer graphics, e.g. for splash screens and heads-up displays. Whoa. Mind blown.

Rip Van VRML

As fun a time as this was for me, it was at times surreal. A generation of brilliant technologists had locked themselves in meeting rooms to design the Metaverse, along the way rehashing ideas we explored two decades before, such as 3D scene representation, VR interface design, and shared presence. In earnestness and with great enthusiasm, the kids at this workshop were reinventing wheels left and right. But how could they know? Many of them were in middle school the first time around… if they were even born yet.

A modern day Rip Van Winkle, I had fallen asleep during a 1996 VRML meeting, and woke up twenty years later in the same room. Then I began to realize that things were different. People were holding these little computers in their hands. The Internet was fast and, apparently, connected everybody on the planet. And you could fit VR equipment in your backpack! Most of all, the people leading the discussions weren’t crazy futurists on the fringe; they were sane futurists working at mainstream companies.

It was 2016, and the real world was ready for the virtual one. While most of the problems are the same as twenty years ago, now we’re looking at them through a post-Facebook, post-Pokemon Go lens, and building on technology that is thousands of times more powerful.

A Community Effort

The W3C Workshop explored a vast landscape of technologies and standards, interface design and best practices, and tools and frameworks. While it was a great kickoff, it was just that: a kickoff. There will be much hard work going forward.

We already have a head start, and some success under our belt. WebVR is maturing and really working now, with 90FPS head tracking and support in many browsers. glTF is a ratified standard from Khronos, with steadily growing support. Much of what we discussed at the workshop simply extends existing standards like HTML Video and Web Audio. So we’re not tackling any of this from a standing start, or from an ivory tower. The output from the workshop will be brought back to working groups at W3C and Khronos, or new groups will form to tackle new pieces of the problem.

That, generally, is how the process will unfold. But it’s not just about process; it’s about people. People were the key to the success of this workshop. The organizers, Dominique Hazael-Massieux, Anssi Kostiainen, and Chris Van Wiemeersch, worked tirelessly to put on a first-class event, extremely well-run with top-notch content. The familiar names of WebGL lore — Josh Carpenter, Brandon Jones, Michael Blix and Laszlo Gombos — have been joined by new ones, like Justin Rogers and Amber Roy of Oculus, Nell Waliczek and Adalberto Foresti of Microsoft, Ada Rose of Samsung, Kevin Ngo and the A-Frame team from Mozilla, and Shannon Norrell and other energetic community-builders. There were numerous positive contributions and, given the headiness of the subject matter, the mood remained light throughout the proceedings. There was a real spirit of cooperation and hope for the future.

If we can bring a fraction of this energy to bear in the coming months, we will make great progress. The movement is growing. We have enough people on this, with big brains, pure motivations and a shared vision. And that’s good… because it takes a village to build a Metaverse.

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Crossing the Rift

Just got back from Oculus Connect 2, the company’s 2nd annual developer conference. Maybe it’s the hangover, or maybe the contact high from spending three days with over 1,500 of VR’s best and brightest, but I’m giddy, and now feeling extremely optimistic about the chances of VR leaping the chasm to market acceptance. OC2 was La Bamba, with great talks spanning tech, design and art direction, and another round of miraculous demos that topped last year’s, something I didn’t think was possible. While there was still a pioneering world-changer vibe going through the hall, you could also feel that the industry is becoming much more real and getting down to business. Consumer VR is going to ship soon, and it’s going to rock. Walk with me…

The featured demos were transcendent. ToyBox, a multi-user game room experience, is impossible to convey– like so much VR– but it goes something like this. I was in a room-sized space with another player, a real live Oculus employee, physically located somewhere else in the building, who acted as a guide, taking me through a bunch of fun activities. I mean, stupid fun: we threw balls, blocks, stuffed toys. We played ping-pong in real time. We lit fireworks and threw them each other. My guide’s avatar was (mercifully) rendered as an abstract, semitransparent blue man with an HMD. He was just a head and hands, actually– no body. And it’s the hands that are key: this experience was created to show the capabilities of Oculus Touch, the new hand controllers for the system. The controllers are wonderfully intuitive. As for the quality of the experience, there was no latency at all for the voice or the graphics.  This is just a must-see. I wish you could be inside my head right now!

I think they’ve almost nailed these controllers. I have a few small gripes; but they’re probably nothing the design team hasn’t already heard. The other noteworthy Touch demo was Medium, a sculpting program in the spirit of Tilt Brush, but quite different in many respects. Medium was wonderful. It made me feel like I was in control and could sculpt anything. The UI needs a lot of work, but hey, this was a demo. (Shortly after my session I bumped into Tilt Brush creator Patrick Hackett and asked him what he thought of Medium. He replied, “great, now I can keep working on a painting program, and someone else can worry about sculpting!” … or words to that effect. I thought that was pretty cool.)

The talks were excellent. After Brendan Iribe’s typical corporate fare, Michael Abrash once again threw down with a keynote about perception science and the ridiculous work his research team is doing on simulating all the senses. Then John Carmack gave his usual extemporaneous standup keynote, and only went over time by 15 minutes. (Maybe a personal best.) Inspiring talk! There was also an eye-opening session by the lead developer and art director of the amazing set of demos we saw last year at Connect 1. (I’m still quaking from the T-Rex experience). The session provided insights on everything from polygon budgets to performance issues in Unreal Engine, and gave us an insider’s look into the thought process that went into the designs.

If there was a weak spot, it was the gamepad demo suite. This was a set of demos designed to show off the Rift in use with an Xbox controller. I tried maybe four of eight available games. The controller worked fine (I’m a huge fan of using a gamepad to control VR, because for many uses it’s actually far more ergonomic than waving your arms around). The issue was that out of four games I tried, only one of them felt like it actually needed to be in VR. The others could just as well have been console or even smartphone games. The lone standout was Eve Valkyrie, a space shooter where you are in a starship cockpit in the center of the action. I felt like Luke Skywalker! Kudos to CCP and team.

The dearth of must-have VR games got me slightly panicky: Oculus is betting big on gaming as VR’s wedge into the market, but I didn’t see enough titles to convince me that we are going to see an impressive array of titles at launch. And I think that would be a big problem. I talked myself down from the ledge by rationalizing that Oculus has enough resources, and enough motivated game developers wanting to partner, that this will solve itself in the next six months. It better!…

Speaking of Eve Valkyrie… A personal highlight was having drinks with my (much taller) brother from another mother Hilmar Veigar Pétursson of CCP Games, the creators of Eve Valkyrie and Eve Online. This guy has a friend for life, ever since his VRML shoutout during this year’s E3 Oculus press event (starts at 20:35). Back in the day, Hilmar and his team at OZ Interactive made some of the coolest VRML stuff ever. Though our paths wound around each other for two decades, they never actually crossed until last night. Skål, brother! Good times.

Oculus Connect 2 was a wild ride. The conference is a great resource for developers and I felt privileged to attend. And extremely hopeful for 2016.

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.