state of vr and webxr in 2020

In this blog post I share my learnings over the past couple of months about developments in virtual reality.

VR Today

The fastest growing VR hardware company in terms of consumer adoption is Oculus.

Sony, HTC and Valve also create VR hardware. Sony has the most devices on the market with its PSVR system (5M), though it is a limited experience which depends on the user having a PS4. The HTC is most popular in Asia while Oculus dominates the North American market.

https://twitter.com/ZhugeEX/status/1214353738175057920

A brief history of Oculus:

Facebook acquired Oculus in March 2014 for US$2.3 B, two years after Oculus’ Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $2.4 M in 2012. Oculus, now a part of Facebook Technologies, shipped two developer kits as pre-production models, and the very first consumer-ready product, the Oculus Rift, was released on March 2016. Facebook dabbled in mobile VR in 2015 through its partnership with Samsung, which led to Gear VR. In May 2018, Oculus released the predecessor to the Oculus Quest, called Go. It was the first standalone VR device released by Oculus, with one controller and 3 DOF, which limited immersion and movement.

2019 was the year manufacturers gave up on smartphone-based VR.  Samsung’s latest phones (Note10, Note10+) no longer support Gear VR. Google killed project Daydream in November 2019, a mobile VR experience delivered through its Pixel phones. Though Samsung and Google look like they’ve folded their hands, mobile VR wasn’t a complete failure; it was an important stepping stone towards the Oculus Quest. The no-PC-required Quest runs on the same core hardware as the Pixel 2. It will be the main hardware in focus in this doc.

Aside from the job-to-be-done of the Oculus Quest primarily in gaming, applications such as BigscreenVR, Netflix, Amazon Video, Skybox, and YouTube enable more immersive forms of content consumption.

It is interesting that Facebook’s V2 of its first consumer product, the Oculus Rift S, does not have a built-in browser. Users need to install a third-party browser such as Supermedium. It was made clear that Oculus will most likely not continue to work on PC-only VR hardware after the Oculus Link was announced, which essentially makes the Quest a Rift-equivalent. Hand-tracking capabilities were also only made available for the Quest and not the Rift S.

Looking forward, Facebook does not seem to be giving up on its AR/VR efforts. Oculus recently announced plans to have 4,000 people work exclusively on AR/VR, at another HQ miles away from its main campus. It is also building its own operating system to sever its dependence on Android OS.

WebXR

In addition to native VR experiences built using Unity or Unreal, the goal of WebXR is to make VR accessible to the Web.

WebXR is a Device API Specification written through the W3C which enables VR and AR devices to access immersive content on the Web. It defines standards for how to think about sessions, spaces, frame loops, poses, inputs, as well as instructions on handling sensitive information. As of December 10, 2019, Chrome 79 and Oculus Browser 7.0 and up have released support for WebXR. Combined with the device penetration in the consumer market of the Oculus Quest, we are excited by the future possibilities of the immersive Web that will be enabled through this API.

Developers who wish to build for WebXR have a few choices to choose from when it comes to web frameworks. A-Frame, initially started at Mozilla, is by far the most popular, with 10.9K stars on their main Github repo and used by 2.6K packages. Babylon.js, which is maintained by Microsoft, is a close second, with 10.6K stars on their main Github repo and used by 1.5K packages. From our experience working with A-Frame, we have found it to be a simpler and more accessible option for beginners who wish to release something quickly for WebXR-compatible browsers. The alternative to building for WebXR is to use a library such as three.js, which has direct bindings to the WebGL API. Three.js requires the developer to write more verbose code, but provides finer control over different aspects of the graphics.

There are a fair number of experiences that have been built out for WebXR, most notably Mozilla Hubs, which is pushing the boundaries of the kinds of social experiences that are possible on the Web. Hubs enables its users to share a URL, through which others can join using a headset or from a phone or computer.

We believe that for WebXR to be able to grow into a vibrant, self-sustaining community of creators and consumers, there needs to be an economic infrastructure which powers it. This economy can be powered through donations, advertisements, sales of digital goods, etc.

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