Writing a talk about WebVR, Using WebVR
This past Thursday, I had the privilege of speaking about the VR Web, a topic near and dear to my heart, at Coldfront, a front-end focused, single-track conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Despite battling off the remnants of a particularly nasty cold, my talk at Coldfront was one of my favorites that I’ve ever given. Why? The audience was great, the organizers were wonderful – but what really excited me about giving this talk was that I wrote the thing using A-Frame.
We’re at an exciting time with the VR Web. WebVR 1.0 is slated to hit Chrome 55 in December, and is in Nightly builds of Firefox. The specs of dust (see what I did there? No?) are clearing and the browser-based virtual reality API is being considered as a W3C standard for the internet of the future. I figured that now was as good a time as any to see if it could hold up to a test: a 45-minute presentation on stage in front of 300 or so people. Was my laptop up for the challenge?
Building a rough (and it is like, pre-Nintendo era graphics rough) A-Frame application for presenting VR was an eye-opening experience.
Planning & Project Structure
- I started with a basic index.html file that brought in the minimized A-Frame library. I used the built-in primitives to create a rough outline of what I wanted my experience to look like.
- I separated out the content that I wanted to cover into a few different buckets – these would have been slide groups or sections in a traditional presentation, but I cut down on displayed content quite a bit for the purposes of performance. I don’t think anyone missed it.
- Each content bucket became an <a-entity> object that I could contain all of the information in. As an example: my first content area was an introduction, which contained a photo of myself, the title of the talk, and my name. These were all A-Frame objects that were children of the parent <a-entity id=”introduction”> element.
- I created a PageComponents.js script that called AFRAME.Register on objects in my scene that I wanted to be able to interact with. There were a few functions that I wrote, many which hid or showed the next content batch, and most of which looked fairly similar to the ‘play-video’ component:
- I used the A-Frame text-component library that Kevin Ngo wrote to add “text boxes” to help define different sections of the content
- I used a few different skyboxes to demonstrate 360 photos, and a video texture to play a clip of a different WebVR application that I had written using the .NET framework
Presenting on Stage
- I had a backup slide deck ready to go, which I had loaded onto my iPad to use as project notes. It was weird doing a presentation without defined presenter notes, but having a secondary device to scroll through for more context helped me stick to my points without needing to have them all written out on screen.
- I used the Edge browser to navigate through my experience. There are a few things about this that I want to share, besides the disclaimer that I do, remember, work for Microsoft:
- I do not rely on conference WiFi, ever. I don’t care who is hosting the event, every single one of my examples that I plan to use will be located locally on my machine. If I want to demonstrate something that requires live endpoint access, it’s probably going to be a video. I also avoid running locally hosted web servers. This means that I don’t use Chrome to present most of my applications, because up until about a week ago, I had never been able to get a running web server* other than IIS for my Unity WebGL builds and Chrome gets angry about locally-hosted resources because of CORS. That’s a long tangent to get to what I’m saying: Between Firefox and Edge, Edge handled displaying WebGL content for 45 minutes better than Firefox did. My metric is how loud my laptop fan was running, YMMV. I know, very specific performance testing there.
- I keep hoping that if I pretend Edge supports the WebVR API, it will one day magically support the WebVR API. (Hi Edge team! My alias is Livieric if you want to chat!)
- Until I get one of those shiny new Nvidia laptops with a desktop-ready graphics card, I can’t present with a desktop VR headset anyway, so having the experience render stereoscopically anyway is a moot point. Also, on stage, people don’t care if it’s stereoscopic, they’re seeing it on a giant projector anyway.
- While not related at all to WebVR specifically, I wore my GearVR on my head the entire 45 minutes. This served several purposes: when, as a speaker, I show that I don’t take myself too seriously, it helps the audience feel at ease too and the talk is a lot of fun. I was basically playing my talk like a video game, so the accessory helped set the tone. I also had a convenient place to store it while I wasn’t talking about Mobile VR headsets. The really interesting part was afterwards – someone in the audience mentioned that it helped break the stigma of wearing a VR headset to them, which I thought was pretty cool.
- After I had finished walking through the app, I went into the source code and showed the audience how I had written the application. It ended up being about 300 lines of code total for the whole thing. Pretty snazzy!
I tend to alternate between Unity and WebVR technologies, but I stay really passionate about both of them, even when I’m trading off. There are a lot of benefits to each approach, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in Unity recently for HoloLens development, so it was great to get back into the web ecosystem to build out my talk. I was impressed with how A-Frame has been maturing, and the tools evolving around it – shout out to Kevin Ngo for the text-component addition, that library is incredibly helpful.
It’s always a good exercise to switch things up, in my opinion. I am constantly humbled when I attempt to write vanilla JS code and can’t figure out how to iterate through a variable or compare strings. It’s also incredibly rewarding to struggle through something and see it work. It gives you the opportunity to work on pushing boundaries.
The app that I built is something that will evolve over time. I’ve got a week to polish it up and present at Full Stack Fest in Barcelona this Friday, and as the web tools evolve for VR, so will my experiments. After a number of failed past attempts, I was motivated to finally get a Node environment set up so that I could wrap my A-Frame site in an Electron package, something that worked absolutely beautifully and has motivated me to go deeper into open source. When the WebVR spec gets pulled into Chrome/Chromium all up later this year, Electron has the potential to be a really fascinating way to build desktop VR applications in JS.
Pairing up a library like Electron with Mozilla’s experimental browser engine Servo, a multi-threaded, GPU-first engine, would be a really interesting way to potentially start seeing highly performant desktop JS application development. Web beacons as a delivery and discovery mechanism for immersive web experiences is going to be an entirely new way to showcase location-relevant experiences. I’ll be the first to say that I have no freaking idea how it all ends up being technically feasible, but I can say that I’ve never been more excited about the potential of browser-based immersive technologies and the world that is evolving around them.
The future is fantastic.