Online Virtual Worlds – Janus VR (AKA Firebox)

Online Virtual Reality = VR Web

getStarted YouTube

There are a few examples of online virtual reality worlds, but most current virtual reality applications host all their content on a local workstation during run time or they use a centralised model where a single entity controls the content that is made available.  A few examples include Second Life and  Second Life’s founder Philip Rosedale is also working on a project called High Fidelity which is worth keeping a tab on.

The majority of virtual reality content today is offline.  When you start up a desktop PC or console UDK or Unity developed virtual reality experience for the Oculus headset, the sounds, 3D models and texture files are most likely going to be held on the local machine.  There are many advantages to presenting virtual reality or gaming content in this manner (for starters, you do not need to download content), but users do not generally share such VR experiences in the way that they may share online YouTube videos or website links that they are fond of.  The learning curve to create virtual reality content using games engines can also be steep when compared to the learning curve for creating simple web pages.

A Decentralized Virtual Reality World Based On the Internet

Online Virtual Reality Rooms Janus VR

The idea of a connected online Virtual Reality Web (or VR Web) of online virtual reality content is wholly different from the way that current virtual reality content is generally organised and distributed.  There are many similarities between the way that we currently distribute virtual reality content today and the way that we distributed documents before the internet was widely available; it is true that there are differences in that certain platforms exist today to make it easier to share content (e.g. “App Stores”, “Play Stores” or platforms such as Valve), but the similarities are still there.  

The VR Web as it can currently be seen operates much like the internet by making use of the tools and infrastructure that already support internet.  VR Web pages are transferred over HTTP and described by text files whilst the assets that the text file reference can be accessed via URLs.  The similarities between widely understood web technologies and the way in which the VR web works reduces the learning curve for anybody who wishes to make and share online virtual reality content.

Each online virtual world environment (or “VR Room”) within the VR Web can be described with a text file that follows a markup syntax similar to HTML.  A HTML web page describes the content of a web page, the text file in the VR Web describes what content  of a virtual room.  For example, the room may contain walls, a couch, flowers etc.

Links between rooms are shown as doorways that a user can walk through to go from one VR Room to another VR Room.

To surf the online virtual world you need something that is like a web browser.  This is where Janus VR comes in.  Janus VR is essentially an online virtual reality web browser (AKA a VR Web Browser).  It can understand VR room text files that can be served from web servers and accessed via a URL.

So… let’s say you created a VR room text file and all the content associated with this (3D models, sounds, textures etc) and you then upload this to a regualarweb server.  You can now share the URL of this file to your buddy if they have a VR Web Browser and they can type that URL in and they will be able to see the room you created (or perhaps a room that you liked).  The VR Web Browser would download the content and allow your buddy to walk through that virtual environment.

Are we going to see large franchises making use of this medium?  E.g. A Call of Duty that eager fans can visit pre-release to check out a selection of the hardware that will be available in the next release?

So why is this exciting?

Being able to create online virtual reality content easily and to be able to share it easily is just the beginning.  These files are very much like static web pages were back in the early 1990s.  There is little interaction between the users, a user and the content and a user and the content provider.  However, the Janus VR browser is quickly evolving due to the efforts of several guys (check link to James McCrae site below).  The reason this is exciting is because there is a huge precedence for this model to succeed – the internet!

Web pages started off being just marked up pieces of text that simply described how this text should be displayed to a browser following a convention (HTML).  This standardization of content allowed users of the early internet to share content much more easily than they could do previously when authors used various bespoke formats.  This ease of access to each others content encouraged collaboration and knowledge sharing.  E.g. if I wanted to send you a paper I had written before the internet was available I would probably need to make sure you were running the same operating system as me and that you had the same application to read it… after the internet, I could just send you a URL to the paper on my web server.

In time, scripting languages that the web browser understood were developed (e.g. vbscript and javascript) and this allowed users of a browser to interact with content locally without having to go back to the web server.  Further, server side technologies also developed to enable engineers to create dynamic content and standards for sharing data became popular (e.g. XML, JSON).  For example, a user may go to a URL, but then the web server would create a web page on the fly (e.g. if it was a weather page then it may query a database and find out today’s temperature, create a text file on the fly and return it with today’s temperature).  Nowadays, a mix of such technologies (there are obviously many more!) enable the creation of sophisticated interactions between the user and content – e.g. Facebook pages.

As you can see, the road that Janus VR is taking VR down is one that has plenty of potential… I am personally extremely excited about where this is going due to the pace of development.  Probably mostly due to the talents of the developer working on this, but also due to the tools for creation and sharing that are now available – as well as the precedence already set by the current internet.

Will such technology allow the masses to mass produce online VR content content?

From what I can see thus far (24th March 2014), each day of progress made in Janus VR right now feels like an equivalent to a months worth of progress of the internet back in the 90s.  However, one of the big challenges will be related to content creation.  In 1995 there were already 16 million internet users and therefore up to 16 million content providers.  Today there are only 100K Oculus 1st generation units in the wild.  Janus VR will work without a headset in fallback mode and you can build content in a non-stereo view, but will people be motivated enough to do this?  Are there going to be enough people to start building the online virtual world or will the inertia to get things going be too much?

Catch up with the latest developments on the VR Web YouTube series.


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