Virtual reality on the open web

“This is good news for journalists working with VR: Billions can access their content, not millions.”

In 2015 and 2016, we saw news organizations interested in new impactful ways of telling stories take on the virtual reality challenge to create good content. Anyone who has experienced virtual reality in an Oculus, Samsung Gear, HTC Vive, or even a Google Cardboard headset understands the allure. With its 360° views, stereoscopic depth, and, in some cases, the ability to change in real time based on the users’ actions, it creates an unparalleled sense of “being there.” Before VR, you watched a journalist explore a place. In virtual reality, you explore the place. With a range of content from a solitary confinement prison cell to data visualizations, viewers can gather information in entirely new ways.

sarah-wolozinBut the most known virtual reality technology has many challenges for any journalist trying to reach audiences and for many journalists wanting to create it. People’s lack of access to headsets is the most familiar and glaring issue and Google Cardboard is part of the solution, but it offers a limited immersive experience. VR content creators must choose which headsets can work with their content and adapt it for each headset. Another hindrance is that VR content must be downloaded and installed, requiring an extra step. And finally, creating VR experiences beyond 360° video requires a specific skillset that few people have.

But what if VR experiences could be made and experienced directly on the web, a platform where billions of people create and consume content every day. A platform where people already are. Or another way to put it is what if the web could be experienced through VR. It is possible. It exists. It is called WebVR.

WebVR is a JavaScript API that allows you to create VR on the web with web technologies such as Three.js and on top of WebGL, an open source language to create 3D environments. WebVR works across most devices, ranging from your desktop to your mobile phone and on most existing headsets. It even allows you to connect your devices for a multiuser and social experience. One VR project could be experienced on any VR headset but also as a 3D experience on your computer or mobile phone.

This is good news for journalists working with VR: Billions can access their content, not millions. Existing digital teams in news organizations or anyone who has web development skills can make VR. If you don’t have a headset, you can still see the content — WebVR content lives on the web.

WebVR is rapidly evolving. VR and web developers are now working together to develop tools, make it more compatible with video and game engines such as Unity and fix bugs. It already works much better than most people realize. Here are some examples and there will be many more as more people become aware of WebVR. It doesn’t have the marketing campaign that other VR technologies have, but I anticipate many more journalists will integrate it into their storytelling repertoire this coming year.

3D and virtual reality have come and gone before. There are certainly plenty of VR skeptics. But with the convergence of VR and the open Web, VR seems poised to stay.

Special thanks to Brian Chirls, Cindy Bishop, and Brett Gaylor for their input.

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