Making sense of Firefox Reality VR browser on non-VR ready Windows 10 PCs
Browsing the web in virtual reality has been long sought after a feat, way before the term “VR-ready PC” joined the pantheon of tech buzzwords.
In 1991, Silicon Graphics laid the foundation for VRML implementation in common browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer, with the Inventor Graphics Toolkit, to allow developers to quickly create 3D graphics for websites that could be viewed through a browser plugin. VRML was indeed a proper markup language that could have been loosely compared to HTML, but its development never reached widespread popularity, considering the non-existent availability of VR gear for the masses, as well as the requirement for third party plugins in browsers.
Times have changed dramatically ever since, and some 30 years later, VR headsets are not only common, but quickly saturating a market that is struggling to keep up with consumers demand. Also, thanks to smartphones and tablets, Augmented Reality (AR) has also become another very profitable sector, with the added bonus of being able to serve content without requiring the user to wear VR gear at all, or at the very least, $25 worth of Google Cardboard VR, ready to assemble at home in a few easy steps.
Introducing Firefox Reality
A few weeks ago in April, Mozilla has announced its upcoming Firefox Reality VR browser, which promises to deliver VR content straight from the Web, regardless of your available hardware.
Aside from Mozilla’s announcement, the company has been surprisingly skimpy on details, but what we do know is that most popular VR headsets are supported, including Daydream, Gear VR, Oculus Go and HTC Vive Focus.
Five things we hope to see
Mozilla’s previous attempt to introduce VR through a web browser, was its Midnight Build, which is still available for download. However, such build is notoriously unsupported, unstable and generally glitchy, with users reporting severe letterboxing, and streaming issues on most devices, including powerful ones like Surface Book and Macbook Pros.
1. Using a computer in VR
For VR Web browsing to truly become a thing, Mozilla is expected to understand the fundamental shift in mindset required when operating a device that forces you to stop relying on a keyboard and a mouse.
When wearing a headset, you simply cannot operate your mouse and keyboard anymore, and instead, you must rely exclusively on your available controllers. Without a proper way to enable these controllers to allow advanced interaction with your operating system of choice, the whole purpose of VR-based web browsing falls apart like a house of cards.
Using your computer through a VR headset should work just like it would driving a car. You are expected to issue commands, work, and communicate, without taking your hands off the wheel, not because it is unsafe if you have any food, drink in glass containers, or blunt objects on your desk or near you, but because unless you are a professional touch-typist, getting anything done is next to impossible.
The way to accomplish this in VR is remarkably simple: voice commands.
Firefox Reality should, at the very least, provide with outstanding dictation and voice commands support, to be able to type addresses, and navigate within a page, and through several pages, with enough accuracy to match or exceed the accuracy of your fingers on a physical keyboard.
2. VR-Ready content
If you are browsing the Web in VR, access to actual VR content should be expected, and put front and center. The only problem is that there isn’t a whole lot of VR content on the Web, at least not enough to justify a web browser built specifically for such content, however the dilemma here is not whether we should bring “Mohammed to the mountain”, but whether it is possible to bring the mountain to Mohammed, by taking the current, existing, two-dimensional content available on the Web, and automatically parse it to return a 3D version of it, which we can walk through and browse.
For instance, social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter could be loaded into a VR browser, and converted into interactive 3D environments for users to access through VR headsets, by physically pushing buttons, pulling drawers, and scrolling through file cabinets and other visual metaphors compatible with available touch controllers, in order to interact with friends and family.
Chat apps like AltSpaceVR have already demonstrated the viability of VR as a social communication platform, and offering web users capable VR representations of their favorite social sites could become extremely beneficial to the Internet as a whole, not to mention profitable to advertisers.
3. VR-Scalable content
Not everyone has at their disposal powerful graphic hardware capable of rendering massively detailed virtual worlds in VR. a Web browser like Mozilla Reality should yield to the need of scaling content quality in the same way we already do with multimedia content like video and pictures. 3D gaming engines provide settings that scale up or down the user experience, with the goal of a smooth interaction with the surrounding environment. The simple implementation of rendering quality settings, as demonstrated by 3D viewer apps like Second Life, goes a long way to promote Web browsing in VR as a popular option to 2D browsing.
4. Beyond avatars
Avatars in most VR applications are simple representations of us as users, and serve mostly the purpose of visually establishing self-awareness in the virtual space, which is a crucial aspect of experiencing VR. When you see your hands move in the virtual world, you are more likely to accept virtual reality as a comfortable and safe place in which to interact with other people as well as available services.
With that said, Avatars should do more than just provide clues of one’s existence in the 3D space. They should represent actual identities in cyberspace, in the same way as our physical driver’s license does in the real world. This is especially true when making online purchases, or when signing up with social networking websites. The biggest problem in the traditional 2D Web, is fake identities that can be generated with ease. In VR our guard is even lower than it would be in any other scenario, because we are invested in a world that we perceive as entertaining and fun first, and potentially dangerous second. By offering the option of registering a “universal avatar”, Mozilla would be able to create safe spaces and an easy way to identify less reputable users who may try to impersonate other people in order to gain a user’s trust and identity information, in new, more elaborate forms of “phishing”.
5. A different approach to fighting VR spam
Spam in VR is still a distant concept, but should Mozilla really hit the perfect recipe for making a VR browser, spam should be a prime concern. Spam in VR could be imagined as even more aggressive than in 2D, as spam messages could reach you in a variety of visual, and non-visual ways, including unsolicited audio messages, forced teleporting, and malicious scripts embedded in free 3D objects, potentially capable of injecting malware in a user’s device.
This is where the Firefox Reality team may want to get creative, and go beyond the typical “block and report” approach. Web filters are great, but they don’t work every time, which is important for Mozilla to come up with countermeasures to protect users who browse the Web in VR.
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