WebVR Explained and How It Affects You

Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox now both offer out-of-the-box support for WebVR. This open virtual reality standard is designed to enable virtual reality from within a browser. In this article we will explain what WebVR is and how it affects you.

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WebVR is an JavaScript application programming interface, or API, designed to allow browsers to communicate with virtual reality devices. Since web browsers are the most widely used applications in the world, this has the potential to dramatically expand the opportunities for virtual reality experiences. By removing the need for special applications, more content producers can distribute virtual reality content at a lower cost.

It works by exposing new interfaces between virtual reality headsets and the web browser. The API can detect VR devices, check device capabilities, poll the device’s position and deliver appropriate frames based on the VR environment.

For full immersion, hardware is still required. For a true virtual reality experience, users will still need some kind of virtual reality headset. The standard is compatible with all the current popular virtual reality platforms. This includes HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Google Daydream, Playstation VR, Samsung Gear VR and Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

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Users without a dedicated virtual reality headset can use Google Cardboard. Cardboard is essentially a cleverly folded piece of corrugated cardboard (hence the name) that you can strap to the front of your face. The Google Cardboard smartphone app shows a dual-lens image on the smartphone screen. Users then slide their smartphone into this makeshift headset behind the eye holes and strap it to their face with velcro or other straps. It’s not the most comfortable or immersive of the virtual reality experiences available, but it enables broadly accessible virtual reality without a massive hardware investment.

On some sites, however, it will be possible to use WebVR without a headset, but it isn’t really what we think of as true virtual reality. It’s more like an interactive 360-degree panorama. Users can still interact with the virtual reality environment in a limited way. They can navigate through the virtual reality world and look around in 360 degrees, even while using just a flat screen.

WebVR is currently available on major browsers, but it’s still classed as an early development build. That means it’s unstable and subject to change without notice. To see an updated list of compatible browsers and devices, check out webvr.rocks.

Firefox supports WebVR since version 55 and is available without any modification.

Use in Chrome requires enabling a Chrome flag. You’ll need to enable the following: chrome://flags/#enable-webvr and chrome://flags/#enable-gamepad-extensions.

Paste those URLs into Chrome’s URL bar, then click the “Enable” hyperlink.

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If you find that performance on Chrome is limited or non-functional, you can download an experimental build of Chromium, which is Google’s open-source version of Chrome.

Once you have WebVR enabled, you’ll need to visit a site that uses the API. a-frame.io and PlayCanvas¬†are great experimental sandboxes to play with.

WebVR is currently in experimental stages, but it shows potential as an open standard for virtual reality environments. When it expands to all browsers, we might start to see more developers taking advantage of its capabilities.

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