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Mozilla's Firefox Reality browser is where VR meets the web

The new Firefox Reality will run on several leading headsets, but it's not clear yet how well the web will spice up today's virtual reality.

Mozilla's Firefox Reality browser is for exploring WebVR content and later the more elaborate WebXR, too.

Mozilla's Firefox Reality browser is for exploring WebVR content and later the more elaborate WebXR, too.

Mozilla

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Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox web browser, said Tuesday it's building a new web browser. This one, though, won't run on your computer in the traditional way. Instead, it's built "from the ground up" to work with new VR and AR headsets, which bring computer images so close to your eyes that they trick your brain into thinking you're in a virtual world. It's called Firefox Reality, and it should arrive this summer, Mozilla said.

Mozilla's efforts are the newest in the tech industry's efforts to sell us on a future in which we all interact with computers through goofy headwear. Competitors ranging from giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple to game maker Valve and startups like Magic Leap all are vying to become the dominant force in this emerging industry. Collectively they've spent billions of dollars in research and development to create a range of headsets and technologies that some people believe could one day upend the way we use computers.

So far, though, relatively few of us have bought in. Annual VR device sales are counted in the millions, not the billions as with phones or the people using Facebook each month. And although Facebook's Oculus VR division is the ostensible market leader, sales during its first year on the market lagged behind others like Sony's PlayStation VR.

Enthusiasts and executives debate about why virtual reality hasn't yet taken off. Some argue the price is too high (Oculus, Sony and HTC have all lowered prices in the past year). Others say that the bulky headsets are a turnoff, or that people just need to try it out first.

But the most compelling argument for virtual reality's struggles is its lack of compelling content. "The biggest issue holding VR back is the games, or lack thereof," CNET's Dan Ackerman wrote this week. "The vast majority are simple low-budget indie projects that range from pure dreck to forgettable filler, with just a handful of gems along the way."

The VR web to the rescue?

Mozilla thinks its new Firefox Reality browser could help solve some of VR's content problems. Mozilla helped pioneer virtual reality technology called WebVR that lets web developers build content that works on any VR device, and it's now working on a broader sequel called WebXR that should handle augmented reality, too. And its A-frame project makes it easier to build WebVR sites.

"WebVR content continues to grow, though is limited by the general lack of headset use outside the VR gaming community," said Sean White, Mozilla's chief research and development officer. Mozilla likes the Within site to explore WebVR sites, but it's working on its own, too, including "a social platform for 3D content experiences on the web," he said.

You probably won't see heavy shoot-em-up games in WebVR or WebXR, but there's plenty of other material Mozilla thinks is a good idea.

"Walking among the dinosaurs at a virtual natural history museum is a good example, as is e-commerce like walking through your dream kitchen," White said. "Social games and online meetings are also a natural fit."

For now, though, it can look an awful lot like browsing the web with an ordinary browser, except that the screen is hovering in a 3D world and all you have to control it is a virtual pointer.

Not all VR devices supported

Firefox Reality is designed to work with leading headsets like the HTC Vive Focus, Google Daydream and Samsung GearVR. Mozilla said it will begin offering "preview" versions of the software Tuesday, with an official launch sometime this summer. There's no support for Facebook's Oculus devices at this stage.

Mozilla promises Firefox Reality will be fast, a priority since its Firefox Quantum browser launch for PCs in November. It'll have to go up against browsers that are built into VR headsets -- Google's Chrome browser for Google Daydream devices, for example. Pushing aside built-in browsers has proved difficult for Mozilla as it's tried to find a place for its browser on smartphones.

It's not yet clear whether web browsing in virtual reality will be a big deal, though. In the 1990s, a technology called VRML -- short for Virtual Reality Markup Language and pronounced "vermal" -- was supposed to democratize that decade's VR technology.

But VRML didn't pan out, and it's possible virtual reality today could be another tech backwater, not the next big thing.

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