Is Virtual Reality Finally Ready To Be Social?

Maybe…no, not really. Perhaps. I don’t know. Read on.

I’ve been going back and forth on virtual reality’s “has arrived” moment for well over a couple of decades.


This picture, incidentally, was taken back in 1989. That’s not me, btw.

Today, I’m much more optimistic than I once was. This is primarily due to a couple of recent developments:

  1. The emergence of non-PC tethered VR experiences, which reduce production and purchase costs.
  2. The steady rise of web-based technologies that will further reduce production costs and increase innovations through the use of more accessible development tools.
  3. The rise of hybrid virtual reality (VR) + augmented reality (AR) headsets (ie, Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens), but that’s worthy of a separate post and is in a really nascent stage of development.

The original concept for this post had something to do with the battle between VR hardware providers. Let’s be clear, all eyes, where it comes to VR hardware, are on Google, Facebook, and China, in general. Whereas the US has been focused primarily on high-end, PC-based VR experiences (ie, Oculus Rift @ $600, HTC Vive @ $800, and PlayStation VR @ $400), China has really been pushing lower cost options that don’t require a user to be tethered to an expensive PC. Google Cardboard ($20) and Samsung Gear ($99) also play in this space, but they are not selling anywhere near as many units as, say, Baofeng Mojing, which has sold over a million units of its various fifth-generation headsets. So, there is a battle amongst hardware producers, but it feels like that will happen on the lower end of things since that’s where usage is happening, where units are actually being sold in volume, and where brand new features are released practically almost daily.

Which brings me to my second point regarding how this can potentially tie into social experiences. As things shift towards more inexpensive hardware, experiences won’t, in the short/mid-term, be as vivid as the PC-tethered ones. We will see the rise of web-centric technologies created through the use of tools that more people already know and use, like javascript. These will attempt to get us a little closer to those high-end-ish experiences, but on the web, and this is where we’ll see lots of innovations at a much more rapid pace, including unlocking the ability to build social experiences.

The folks at Facebook/Oculus sensing this shift, recently announced its forthcoming web browser, Carmel, which is supposed to bring virtual reality to the web through the use of applications built in a javascript library called ReactVRReactVR is sort of a misnomer in that it’s just Facebook’s existing React javascript library that works within browsers that support the WebVR API.


Carmel will be an Oculus-only browser, which will be accessible via Samsung’s Gear headset. React is open source and the WebVR API is steadily being adopted by various web browsers, so we’ll see ReactVR’s use in non-Oculus browsers sometime in the future. In fact, the Chrome browser is set to add WebVR API support this year, so you won’t necessarily need Carmel to view web-based VR experiences. You will need a device to view them, though, so use one of the cheaper headsets listed above. Thing’s are moving on the WebVR front at a fast clip, here’s some recent chatter from the WebVR Slack group for your reading pleasure:

@jaakko: @karthik.kannan Samsung S7 and a good Cardboard does the job, using Chrome for Android with WebVR enabled in chrome://flags. We also use the Rift and Chromium VR a lot lately in content creation. When Oculus comes out with their browser, I suspect GearVR will have the best playback performance until Chrome catches up. I expect Firefox on desktop to be great pretty soon. :slightly_smiling_face:

On iOS you won’t see the same support or performance anytime soon, unfortunately

@jaume.sanchez: Support is limited and/or experimental, spec is still a bit in flux, there are few tools, the general public is still not fully aware, for most commercial work clients just want cardboard… pick yours

All that to say, expect lots of exciting activity in the WebVR space soon, along with interesting social media experiments. Because of this, I am definitely, sort of, perhaps, kind of, semi-optimistic that social experiences will be integrated into VR.

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