New Companies, and the Oculus Carmel Browser
The big announcement from Oculus in recent weeks is their combo of ReactVR (from parent Facebook), plus the new Carmel Web browser (developer preview by the end of 2016).
In short, the announcement boils down to:
- Facebook is interested in the WebVR API for browsers
- Facebook is concerned about current browser support, so they are developing their own custom web browser, Carmel
- Facebook also wants to integrate the legions of web developers who currently use the ReactJS framework to build high-end websites and web apps. So, they plan to release ReactVR to help the integration.
Why is this important?
…and why would Facebook do this? We know Facebook owns Oculus Rift, one of the high-end headsets currently targeted at the exclusive gaming market. Game developers are also quite different in training than web developers, so an Oculus developer, for example would most likely make a lousy web page.
On further reflection, it’s a good move, and one that other groups (HTC, are you listening?) would do well to emulate. Facebook made its name and fortune on the good, old World Wide Web, and its current revenue comes almost entirely through this channel. In contrast, VR has been a hothouse plant, nurtured with $1 billion of investment by FB, but with low market penetration (end of 2016) and almost no revenue.
VR on the Web
So, how to monetize VR? The idea we see from many companies is an incorrect one – that VR somehow “replaces” the web. Pundits seem to imagine that everyone will stop buying PCs and mobiles and trade in for walking around in a headset. New “danger rooms” will be build in VR to handle interaction, and consumers will transmute from casual web browsers to hardcore gamer mentality.
Clearly, this is false. Print has not disappeared, though the web has taken over some of its earlier functions. More importantly, ebooks like the Kindle and iBooks replicate the “long-form” book experience – they are mostly electric paper. Despite the potential for “multimedia” books, they have not become common.
So, FB has made a similar call for the web vs. VR. VR isn’t a replacement for the 2D web, and in fact is more likely to run in a “hybrid” mode leveraging the best features of the web – search and distribution. Furthermore, the current crop of “gamer” VR is not going to the the dominant media in VR.
Good quote from Tom’s Hardware on this:
Imagine if you needed an app to visit every website; that’s essentially what most VR is like today.
What the Web has that VR Does Not
The Web has three features that most apps and games do not. These features are precisely what make it so useful to most people, and exactly what X-treme gamers don’t need to pursue their quests.
Universal Access and Distribution – the web is available, according to the Web Index, to at least 2 billion people. If you put up the most basic of websites on Wix or SquareSpace, your distribution is there. True, not everyone will visit your page – but they could.
Search – Google has become one of the most important companies in the world by pushing web search. Even fancy new “headless” services that speak and listen (Siri, Cortana) use web search to find stuff. And that search is generally not restricted – the “walled gardens” of services like AOL and mobile providers have all fallen.
Freemium models – On the web, it is common to provide a free set of services, with a higher, “premium” version of services. This pattern is also found in games, e.g. the infamous Farmville of Facebook of yore. In contrast, the gamer VR model envisions lots of pricey, one-shot VR titles, like the current crop of expensive Playstation VR games.
To succeed, VR will need universal access and search.
What about Steam/Valve?
Compare the market share of Steam to the Web. ‘Nuff said. Hmmmm….some of you aren’t convinced. Well, consider the exclusive gamelike features of the Steam interface – not just that fact that it is a big mall and games, similar to America Online in the 1990s or even Compuserve or Prodigy in the 1980s. I couldn’t look up stuff for a college paper, or check rent prices in Steam – it is dedicated to gaming, and discussions around gaming. It’s not a replacement for web access.
Gamer sites are not more advanced than the web, nor do they replace it. Many features (e.g. clans) are foreign to nearly everyone else on the Internet. And no, the average Internet user isn’t going to see the light and begin interacting like a hardcore gamer. They are going to look for a media with the same reach as the web.
Steam is an island in the larger web…and that alone says who is in charge.
Why Not Just Download VR Apps?
Some will admit the universal search and distribution characteristic of the Web, but assume people can just use it to download VR. This is also incorrect. Think of playing a game that requires you to start and stop two different games to make a move. Now, note how switching between web browsing and immersive VR apps is the same.
The key is to understand that consumers don’t buy games; they buy experiences. A seamless web to VR experience, created by directly embedding VR in pages is going to win over a lot of complex program launching and configuration. This is especially true for completing useful tasks (not quests) online – the mantra is “don’t make me think“, not “a simple 14-step configuration”.
Why Not Just Recompile Unity/Unreal?
First the easy reason – the resulting files are huge. A typical web page in 2016 weighs in at 1-2 megabytes. In contrast, a compiled Unity or Unreal game (via asm.js) can easily go into the hundreds of megabytes. Consumers are used to a short lag online, but they won’t accept 15 minute downloads just to load a page. I know, you do…but you’re not the consumer if you are reading this. Time to take a course in Experience Design!
The second is harder, but more important. Most VR apps will ultimately NOT be games. But Unity and Unreal are built to create console-style games through and through. Imagine building an e-commerce system in Unity – it can be done, but it is a dog walking on its hind legs, just like duplicating a console game in HTML5 is possible, but not very useful.
FB Thought it Out
I suspect that these arguments all went through the FB group as they decided what to do about WebVR. The results are pretty clear – Facebook plans to leverage mass-market VR via its ReactJS development system, plus their Carmel (or other) web browsers supporting WebVR. It’s time you started, too.