If I had to describe the VR community in one word - it would be passionate.
People often find themselves spending thousands of hours in VR - talking with friends, playing games, listening to music, attending live events; and even when not in VR, many spend just as much time creating VR content - worlds, avatars, games, videos, clothing, posters, magazines, or even their own video streaming infrastructure for events.
I love it.
There is nothing I find more inspirational than seeing someone else creating out of passion; whether they’re experts in the field pushing the limits of their medium, or just opened blender for the first time and have no idea what they’re doing.
But there is one thing that has always irked me - and this is not just a problem with VR - for all of the personal investment we give to these platforms; for all of the content and tools we create - we own nothing. The company behind the platform has absolute control, profits off our work, and we have no other option but to comply by their decisions because the code (and often the very game engine itself) is proprietary.
Imagine the company decides to, oh I don’t know, ban all mods for their app; including the accessibility mods you rely on to even use the platform. You would be left with a choice - either break the rules and find a way to continue using the mods (if you even can), hoping you don’t get permanently banned - or leave the platform entirely, losing touch with many of the friends you’ve made on it over the years.
What if this didn’t have to be the case? What if we could have applications that were built on open standards, instead of proprietary engines? What if we could run our own servers, and host our own content? What if we could avoid the extortionate fees from app stores, who take a 30% cut of every purchase?
Spoiler alert: the tools to do this already exist on every device you own - its called the web.
The underlying philosophy of a technology has a massive influence over what is built on top of it. Linux was built on the UNIX philosophy of small, composable programs - and while not everything follows it, the culture lives on in many to this day. In the same manor, if a platform is built using a closed source, proprietary engine it will breed that same culture - leading to a “locking down” of the platform over time as invasive anti cheats are added (yes I’m still salty about mods being banned), restrictions are imposed, and user privacy is thrown out the window.
The web brings a different philosophy. In an age where mobile devices are blocking competition in their app stores; and Microsoft is continually trying to monopolize Windows - the web somehow continues on as an open platform. You do not need approval from the tech overlords to create a website.
The web is not perfect (it has it’s own monopoly problems, 80% of people use Chrome) - but I believe the open, interconnected network of self-hosted content that the web has historically been can live on in new applications built on top of it. And while the web has not historically been a platform for 3D content - let alone VR content - this has been changing over time as web standards evolve. Modern web browsers are surprisingly powerful.
The following APIs are some of the standards that enable VR applications to run in the web. I include these because it is important to understand the effects of the web philosophy - an open base layer leads to the development of open standards that benefit everyone.
The WebXR API is a cross-device API that allows browsers to run VR and AR applications. WebXR has been around for years, but it is only enabled by default in Chrome; in Firefox you must enable an experimental flag; and soon Safari is getting WebXR support, thanks to the Apple Vision Pro. VR is either already supported by your browser, or coming to it soon.
WebGPU is a powerful new API giving web applications better access to the GPU. Historically browsers have used WebGL - an OpenGL-inspired API that has become increasingly outdated. WebGPU can run on any device - both inside the web or outside of it in native applications.
WebGPU has landed in Chrome, after years of work behind an experimental flag. We don’t have much information on when other browsers will support WebGPU, though realistically it may be years away. Still, WebGPU is an exciting development that is allowing even more powerful applications to be built in the web.
WebAssembly is in use by many applications today, and the specification is still evolving with lots of work being done to improve it.
Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are essentially just websites that can be installed as native applications on your mobile or desktop device. PWAs are becoming increasingly popular, as they give web applications many of the benefits that native applications have - such as being downloadable from app stores, being accessible from the user’s home screen or desktop, as well as better support for features like push notifications.
Many mobile applications today are being written as PWAs, largely thanks to the cross-platform nature of web apps making development significantly easier; because despite the walled gardens these locked down devices try to create (looking at you Apple) - open standards are good for developers, are good for end users, and will ultimately win out in the end.
The web is awesome; it is the driving force behind powerful standards like WebGPU and WebAssembly - but there is one thing I believe more important than anything else in an application: open source.
More than any shared standard, open source software empowers users. It gives users the freedom to make changes to their application and build upon it; it gives the community the power to choose which direction a platform goes.
This is not just about taking power back from companies in some democratic ideal - open source software, freedom of modification, and everything else in this spirit benefits the community, the underlying applications, and the companies behind them. The gaming industry knows this well with franchises like Dota starting out as mods, or the massive modding communities built around games like Minecraft.
And this open spirit is why I believe the web is the future of VR. The pieces are coming together for a new type of VR application to be built - one built on an open network; one built as an open source, moddable platform that out-performs all competition because it embraces the chaotic passion of the community - instead of exploiting it while hiding behind a proprietary moat.
This dream is what I’m building at UNAVI - an open source, decentralized, web-based VR social platform. Things are still early, but I encourage you to check it out, drop a GitHub star, and leave some feedback on what you think about it in the Discord. Come say hi!