VR and the web experience

Will 2016 be the year brands harness virtual reality?


If the announcements made at E3 earlier this year hold true, 2016 is going to be the year Virtual Reality (VR) hits the homes.

It’s already impacting the digital / tech innovation industry with the first press conferences being streamed in VR last month and taking place on VR social networks like AltspaceVR, albeit with mixed reviews. Certainly VR is set to have a massive impact on the gaming industry, but one aspect I’ve been interested in is how VR might affect the web and marketing communications.  

In its current state, the web might not seem all that well suited for VR. Nor would most consider VR a sensible choice for navigating the Internet. However there are interesting developments coming from Google, Mozilla and others suggesting that VR could in fact play a significant role in the evolution of the Internet. The difference here, is the move toward VR-enabled experiences on the Web. In other words, rather than creating browsers that work in VR, the focus is on making VR experiences that work in the browser. 

On his blog, Brandon Jones, Chrome WebGL Implementor at Google at Google writes:  

Picture this: You are browsing Amazon and find a jacket/TV/bike/whatever that you're interested in. If Amazon's developers took advantage of the WebVR API they could add a button that says "View in VR" which let you view the item through a VR headset in 3D at 1:1 scale. In the case of a piece of clothing you could see it on a virtual mannequin, walk around it, lean in and examine the stitching, and so on as if it were actually sitting right in front of you.

One obvious barrier to this is the number of people who will actually own VR headsets, so first let’s consider the main VR devices on the horizon. 

The Oculus Rift 

Originally a Kickstarter venture, and bought over by Facebook for $2billion in March 2014, the Oculus Rift is a VR headset which connects to a PC to deliver high end state-of-the-art Virtual Reality experiences. Expected release date for this is Q1 2016, and people are already raving about the next innovation – the Oculus Touch – where users control their virtual experience with their hands rather than controllers. 

Sony Project Morpheus

A VR headset for the PS4 which has some seriously breath-taking looking games on the horizon, Sony is gearing up for an impressive launch. Complete with a strong library of titles to play including Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, and the medical sim, Surgeon Simulator, Project Morpheus is due to be released around mid 2016. 

Microsoft Hololens 

The Hololens uses an augmented reality approach to give the appearance of holographic style graphics displayed among your surroundings. While the product has come under scrutiny due to the narrow field of view, it does present neat opportunities for fun such as projecting Minecraft onto your coffee table (jump to 2:25 for the cool bit). The Hololens has enormous potential in education, manufacturing, engineering and entertainment, and is also due for release in 2016. 

Put simply, these devices aim to deliver a high-end intuitive user experience, and will be accompanied by a similarly high end price tag. While the price won’t deter enthusiastic gamers, it might be some time before headsets of this calibre become common place in households. And as such, brands will most likely take even longer to consider how to harness VR at that level to improve user experience or better engage customers. 

Google shook things up in June 2014, launching Google Cardboard to the masses. This fun, affordable product requires nothing more than an existing smartphone and a cardboard kit costing less than £10. There are over 1 million Google Cardboard units in the world right now and Version 2 was announced in May 2015 providing some refinements to make it compatible with larger smartphones. Also, of significance, was the release of an iPhone version of the Google Cardboard app (previously it was Android only). 

Google Cardboard is never going to compete with the performance or immersive experience offered by high-end headsets. However for an inexpensive VR device, it punches well above its weight and offers huge amounts of fun. 

VR in action: What now, and what next? 

So what are the opportunities for brands and users? Can we feasibly deliver VR experiences on the web? And will brands grasp the VR opportunities to create compelling, totally immersive experiences for fans or customers in their own homes? Will they begin to use VR as a tool to further enhance experience, open up revenue streams or to create brand experience campaigns in similar ways to 4D augmented reality brand engagement events? 

Leading betting and gaming company, William Hill, has already prototyped its ‘Get in the Race’ VR initiative to bring live horse racing to customers via the inexpensive Google Cardboard device. Showcased at this year’s Digital Shoreditch event, ‘Get in the Race’ uses the latest GPS technology and a databank of tracks, horses and jockeys to recreate real time races in a 360 experience in which customers can become the jockey. The brand clearly sees the potential for better engagement with customers and expanding its customer base through immersive VR betting experiences, so we’ll watch this space for developments in the near future. 

For a market like eSports, which is perhaps perceived to be a niche market, but one that is worth a reported $3.6 billion dollars, growing at breakneck speed and has a community of tech early adopters, there are real opportunities. Twitch – the videogaming streaming platform – reported 1 million peak concurrent users during ESL’s Intel Extreme Masters event. This four day event welcomed 104,000 visitors, but the online audience was in the millions over the course of the four days. Imagine the potential for sports properties and sponsors to engage with fans, those sought after target audiences, in their own homes with compelling VR content experiences. Even if campaigns included physically sending branded VR headsets to influential fans, engagement and reach could potentially deliver a real value added experience and ultimately commercial impact. 

In terms of sponsorship and revenue streams from live events, the potential for VR in both standalone content and browser experience is huge, and we’re already beginning to see brands stand up and take notice. 

The technical bit.

From a technical standpoint we already have JavaScript APIs for detecting the tilt and direction of a mobile device. And we can use a technology called WebGL to render and animate 3D models onto a web page. If we split the screen in two and display a left and right camera view in each side, we have a working VR experience running right in the browser. There’s a great example of this here. However, while this works, it lacks the high precision and low latency required to give users a worthy VR experience. 

In the quest to deliver high performance compelling VR experiences to the web browser, Mozilla has been drafting up a new specification known as WebVR. One of the ways this is achieved is by giving us purpose built interfaces to the VR hardware. There are already WEBVR enabled nightly builds of Firefox and Chrome. The hope is that once sufficiently mature, WEBVR will become part of the main Chrome and Firefox releases as well as adopted by other browsers. 

Possibly the biggest barrier is the interface. Existing browsers were built for displaying two dimensional websites controlled by keyboard and mouse or touch. How would someone navigate using a VR headset? 

First let’s consider the methods of input a user is likely to have at their disposal. Oculus announced the Rift will work with an Xbox One controller. Combined with the head movements that provides quite a nice set of input options which should cover a range of scenarios. Google Cardboard has a magnetic switch on the side which can be used to trigger selections similar to a mouse click. This is extremely useful, but other than that there is no secondary controller. It’s also worth noting that standard Google Cardboard devices are not strapped to your head, so your hands are busy holding it up to your eyes. 

It’s not unfeasible that future versions of Google Cardboard could be fixed to the head allowing for a bluetooth controller to connect to the phone for more advanced control similar to the Oculus Rift. Or perhaps wearables such as the Apple Watch could play a part in becoming secondary input. 

Nonetheless there are some emerging interface conventions while using apps in Google Cardboard.  

  • Selecting Menu items:  Stop and focus on an item for 5 seconds. A target appears indicating that it is about to select this item, giving you time to look away and cancel if you like. 
  • Back to Main Menu 1: Tilt the VR device 90 degrees. 
  • Back to Main Menu 2: Look directly down and hold for several seconds. 

Interface conventions which work for Google Cardboard might not translate so well to other VR devices. For example, tilting 90 degrees is easy on Cardboard because it's not fixed to your head, but it would be pretty inconvenient for an Oculus user. 

One thing VR on the web will need to do is provide an experience which works across all popular VR devices and this might mean a graceful degradation approach, just like we do currently for older browsers. So if your device supports a click selection input you can use it. Otherwise stopping and focussing on an option for 5 seconds will achieve the same job. 

Taking the evolution of the web toward full VR experience, to help envision what a full VR web browsing experience might look like for users, JanusVR is an interesting project which attempts to transform the existing 2D web into a 3D environment where pages are rooms and links are portals. 

Mozilla have also been working on a similar project called Hiro, which they describe as:  

A prototype pure VR browsing experience that enables developers to browse from site to site seamlessly in VR, without taking their headsets off. Hiro presents the ‘browser’ as a heads up display that appears and disappears at the user’s command, with movement between sites rendered as teleportation between worlds. The team is currently prototyping new interactions such as navigating via URLs, parsing browsing history, selecting links etc.

Video on the web is also getting the VR treatment. In March 2015, Youtube announced that their video streaming service will support 360 degree video. The GoPro Spherical film (for Google Chrome) which lets you drag the video to pan round while it’s playing back. There’s no side-by-side VR mode to accompany this in the browser yet, but it seems a likely future addition which could open up the opportunities for sports and entertainment brands. 

The future of the web is unpredictable, but there’s plenty going on to suggest VR will play an important role in its evolution. Technically it’s possible to create web based VR content right now using WebGL. As Mozilla and Google progress further with the WebVR standard, and brands continue to invest in developing prototypes, we’re hopefully going to be able to deliver even better, more immersive experiences, benefiting both users, and those brands striving to connect with them.

Here at Dog we're keen to explore the ways in which VR can be applied for the benefit of clients and their customers. We've been playing around with technology in DogLabs, and will share any worthwhile findings / prototypes / products as we go along. Watch this (virtual) space...