VR web browsing needs revolution more than evolution

[This story from Digital Trends is a realistic, and in the end hopeful, look at what it’ll take to turn browsing the web into a presence-evoking experience; the original version includes a second image and two videos. –Matthew]

VR Web Browsing Needs Revolution More Than Evolution

By Jon Martindale
September 9, 2017

Virtual reality has given us new ways to play games, and has the potential to bring us closer to loved ones around the world, but it’s yet nail down how to let us browse the internet properly. We’re still far from having a VR headset replace an entire desktop work machine, or be a better conduit to online video than your smartphone.

Books and movies from the early days of computing romanced us with the possibilities. Neuromancer, Johnny Mnemonic, and many of their techy-contemporaries imagined a future where the internet was something we moved through with physical motion and gestures. While some aspects of their predictions seem silly now, an argument could be made that they’re a better interpretation of what VR web browsing could be than the rehashed 2D internet we can view in VR today.

There are many companies looking to move us towards an overhauled VR internet future, but as it stands now, the experience is barebones and far from what it needs to be. As VR web browsing becomes more comfortable, it seems more apparent than ever that we need an entirely new way of accessing information online.

Getting online with today’s VR headsets

Getting online in virtual reality is possible today, but it certainly isn’t easy.

While there’s some support in browsers like Firefox’s Nightly build, and Chromium, no browser currently supports full virtual reality integration. If you want to browse any site from the comfort of your virtual sofa, you’ll need a third-party application.

Fortunately, there are a few that make this possible. The two that we found most comfortable in our testing were BigScreen and Virtual Desktop. Both have existed since the early days of consumer VR, and are well fleshed out applications. While each has its unique quirks, they use the same technique — mirroring your desktop screen(s) into a customizable, virtual panel (or two).

Once you set the distance and size of the screens right, so that text is legible, it’s a simple experience. You can browse websites as you would normally, and access all the same content you would without a headset strapped to your face. Most of this article was written while looking over the cityscape of BigScreen’s balcony environment, in relative (virtual) comfort.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Let’s start with the obvious – you can’t see your keyboard, which is still essential to browsing. Your success in VR will depend on how familiar you are with typing by touch. We’re still far from the dream of gliding through websites with the wave of a hand.

The resolution of current VR headsets also leaves something to be desired. While text is legible at a reasonable distance, fine interface icons and small fonts can be hard to read. And then there’s the pesky “screen door effect,” which is caused by the visible gap between pixels. The name is self-explanatory. In VR, every webpage looks as if a screen door was placed in front of a monitor.

The web isn’t designed for VR

The most apparent problem with the current state of virtual reality browsing is that the internet just isn’t designed with it in mind. Beyond white web pages and small text, the content itself is 2D. All of it. That is with good reason, as the internet has evolved to its current state because we view it on a flat monitor or phone display. Virtual reality, however, is an entirely different beast.

We are starting to see how the web might change in the future, though. The WebVR Javascript API is helping to make some segments of online browsing VR compatible. Supporting sites display information in different ways, building virtual environments to impart knowledge, rather than the pages of text and images we usually see. Perhaps in the future, we’ll need to figure out different ways to write articles such as this, because you’ll be consuming it through the lenses of some future VR goggles.

That’s the future, though. Right now, the web is entirely designed for PCs and phones, so we have a chicken and egg problem. Websites will only slowly begin to adopt virtual makeovers as and when needed, as and when they discover the best practices for doing so. The web we know is still figuring out how to simultaneously handle large-screen computers and small-screen smartphones with one design, so there’s no reason to think it won’t take an equal, or even longer, time for VR browsing to mature.

To fix the future, improve the hardware

The first step in making VR browsing comfortable is to make it viable now, with current web browsing standards. That’s going to require a hardware upgrade.

Low pixel density makes extended VR web browsing a literal headache, on both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Higher resolution would make text much easier to read for hours at a time. The field of view could also do with expansion, as without the distractions of virtual worlds and interactive characters, the limited field-of-view supported by modern hardware becomes obvious.

Once the hardware is sorted, the next goal must be the creation of a new type of website. As it stands, most humans consume information from 2D mediums, whether from traditional print sources or in some sort of digital form. That is incredibly lackluster in a virtual world.

What we need is an internet that’s built around exploiting the near limitless possibilities of a virtual, three-dimensional space. We’re going to need to borrow some ideas of how we consume information in the real world, but add a digital spin on it. Perhaps websites of tomorrow will be more like virtual museums that we move around in, or will rely more on audio sources and video that we can grab from the air around us.

Initiatives like WebVR give us a hint of what that future may be like, with in-browser virtual reality environments rather than web pages. Information is all around you rather than in 2D panels. In Windows on the HTC Vive, though, WebVR is only compatible with the Firefox Nightly browser, and we experienced a lot of input lag in some of the settings.

Taking another angle on the VR web browsing problem, JanusVR is an application which looks to overhaul the internet all by itself. It re-imagines it as a collaborative, 3D space, with physics and interactive elements all linked by a physical portal system. It’s interesting but still in their very early stages. Performance is inconsistent and it’s hardly convenient, with slow, meandering movement that means it takes far too long to access new content.

Although its widget system is designed to make it easy for web developers to turn their sites into virtual worlds to explore, the end-user experience is far from what it needs to be to offer a viable alternative to current browsing standards.

The VR web will be a long haul

Whatever the method of information delivery ends up being for VR web browsing, it needs to be better than what we have now. VR web users need to have faster and more intuitive access to Wikipedia articles and Facebook posts than they do now on a 2D screen and that’s a tall order. The internet as we know it today is the fastest way of accessing information that has ever existed. It’s intimidating in its complexity and size, yet billions of people navigate through it with ease.

That’s the big challenge facing web developers in the future. While it might seem insurmountable, consider that — within the span of a decade — billions of people around the world transitioned from viewing the web only on big desktops with big displays, to handheld devices that are far more convenient, more portable, and easier to learn.

It’ll happen with VR web browsing, too. It’s just going to take time.

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