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Firefox heads toward virtual reality for the Web

Mozilla releases prototype versions of the Firefox browser that work with Oculus Rift and any other VR headsets. Google shows a nibble of interest for Chrome, too.

The Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset
The Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset CNET

Mozilla programmers have begun a project to adapt the Web for virtual-reality interfaces such as the Oculus Rift, starting with test versions of its own Firefox browser.

In virtual reality, computer-generated sensory input substitutes for actual reality persuasively enough that a person feels present in the electronic realm -- strap on the goggles, and you're fully immersed in an interactive 3D scene. It's been a hot area of research for years, but now Oculus has begun convincing the world that virtual reality is going to move out of the lab and into the real world, so to speak.

Facebook certainly is convinced, agreeing to buy Oculus VR for $2 billion in a deal expected to close this month -- though it's also finding that building gadgets for consumers brings a raft of unexpected costs beyond the acquisition price. Meanwhile, Sony has debuted its Project Morpheus VR headset, and Samsung could enter the VR market, too. And although Google's low-budget cardboard VR headset, revealed this week, isn't a serious project, it does reflect the enthusiasm for the idea.

Mozilla, which is trying to ensure that the Web keeps up with other computing domains, has begun adapting the concept with Firefox prototypes that work on virtual-reality interfaces.

"We are adding native support for VR devices to early experimental builds of Firefox, so that Web developers can start experimenting with adding VR interactivity to their websites and content," said Vladimir Vukicevic, Mozilla engineering director in charge of gaming and special projects, in a blog post Thursday. "This is only the first of many steps that we'll be taking over the coming weeks and months."

If his effort succeeds, it could mean that people have an entirely new way to browse the Web -- one with dynamic, computer-generated 3D realms instead of flat pages of icons and text.

Vukicevic has significant credibility in the area -- he is the co-inventor of WebGL, which provides browsers with a hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, and has led efforts to improve browser gaming. WebGL has spread from Firefox to all major desktop browsers, and it provides a foundation for WebVR, too.

The obvious draw for virtual reality today is videogaming, but as Vukicevic sees it, browsers are a natural fit for an exploratory interface.

"The opportunity for VR on the Web is particularly exciting. The Web is a vibrant, connected universe where many different types of experiences can be created and shared. People can be productive, have fun, and learn all from within their browser. It is, arguably, an early version of the Metaverse," he said, referring to the 3D virtual-reality world in Neil Stephenson's 1992 sci-fi classic "Snow Crash." "The browser is the portal through which we access it."

Getting Web standards to catch on requires that other browser makers also support them so Web developers can count on them. Mozilla got a favorable signal: Google programmer Brandon Jones said he planned to implement WebVR in Chrome.

It seems the virtual reality support won't be integrated into the main branch of Chrome development. "I don't think we should implement this feature in trunk. As far as I can tell, WebVR unrelated to our goals for 2014," said Adam Barth, a Chrome leader.

And though there's lots of enthusiasm for Oculus Rift, VR fans have to overcome some historical baggage. In the Web domain in particular, one effort two decades ago called Virtual Reality Markup Language fizzled despite some early hype.

As Google's Jones cautioned: "There's a long ways to go before we can consider shipping anything."