W3C WebVR workshop 2016

On October 19 and 20 I had the amazing opportunity to take part in the W3C WebVR Workshop in San Jose. The event affirms VR as a major direction for the future of the web.

At Coherent Labs, we create HTML renderers so it was great to meet so many other browser developers that work on the same problems we do and share a similar mindset.

The first day, the event was scheduled to start and 8.30. I and my colleague George are in San Francisco, so this meant an early wake-up at 5 o’clock. After a succession of trolley bus, CalTrain and Uber we arrived at the Samsung offices in San Jose. The content more that paid off the early wake and travel.

I take the opportunity to thank Samsung for hosting the event and organizing it flawlessly with the W3C folks.

The event was packed with browser and VR developers including people from Mozilla, the Chrome team, Oculus, Samsung, Valve, the Edge team and many others. Everybody was really open to share ideas. Browser developer shared current state of VR support in their products along with their short-term release plans.

The workshop was divided in 2 days with the highlights being a starting and ending keynote, many “lightning” (5 minutes) talks and “breakout sessions” the second day. In breakout sessions different groups discussed ideas in many areas of VR integration with the web.

Currently most VR-related work in browsers is in the WebVR standard. This is an extension over WebGL allowing to interface with HMDs and render to them via WebGL. This approach opens a many opportunities to content creation as developers don’t need to learn using a game engine. They can use their familiar JavaScript and web development skills. The web also simplifies content distribution – users just have to navigate on a web page and be immersed.

Of the lightning talks I was most interested in the one by Josh Carpenter from the Chrome team and the ones from Justin Rogers from Oculus. Josh shared his vision of the future of the web in VR, while Justin accented more on technical aspects and performance – many of the problems are similar to the ones we tackle in Coherent Labs’ products.

In the “breakout” sessions, I attended a very interesting one initiated by Tony Parisi (who is now Head of AR/VR at Unity) on an eventual future declarative 3D standard for the web. The idea was met with a lot of enthusiasm in the meeting, although people had different reasons they believed it was important. Half the people attending believe that it’ll ease authoring, a smaller percentage stressed the importance of homogeneity between platforms, while ~15% believe performance is the most important reason. Coming from game development I also voted for the performance reason.

The workshop ended with a recap and the commitment to reconvene soon (at least by W3C metrics ~ 1 year). All the materials from the meeting are public and available here.

The discussions identified many areas in which to work and there are still many open questions. WebVR requires writing a complete new website. While this might be feasible for new sites, it doesn’t solve the need to meaningfully display the billions of pages that are currently on the web. The DOM is still completely separated from the VR world so all the usual layout, styling etc. are still off-limits in VR.

Performance is an open problem, especially on mobile, where battery drain and overheating can make the experience particularly unpleasant for the user. The current browsers do a lot of things besides just rendering the scene and that can introduce stuttering and break immersion.

Last but not least, there is no solution for AR. Bringing all the AR-specifics – spatial interactions, real world elements etc. will be a real challenge in the following years.

The discussions opened some interesting questions for me personally as well. Our Hummingbird HTML renderer is super fast on mobile, equipping it with a WebVR renderer is a way forward that it will bring amazing benefits to VR users who will be able to stay immersed for longer and with better visuals.

Hummingbird scales great on modern mobile platforms, so overheating and stuttering will not happen.

Overall the W3C workshop was an eye-opening experience for me. The lion’s share of the work however is still ahead of us as a community. I’m very happy to be part of it!