Virtual reality has been around in some form for decades, yet it’s never gone fully mainstream. So is VR just a fad that refuses to die? The latest generation of VR technology has seen rapid, strong development that could finally cement it in the multimedia landscape.

Applications for VR have expanded from gaming and 3D movies to a variety of formats including web pages, with a widening range of tools for creating online VR content. The question for developers and designers is whether VR really is the future of the web, and if so, how to start implementing it now.

Step into the web

VR has the potential to revolutionise the way we interact with the web. Imagine you were looking for a hotel, but before booking you had the opportunity to stand in the room, or even walk around it, and take in the details at 1:1 scale. On virtual storefronts, VR could let customers examine products before committing to buy, as if the item was physically in their hands.

Several websites have experimented with VR features, such as high-end estate agencies offering virtual tours. IKEA has unveiled VR tech that allows customers to design their own kitchen in a virtual space, and YouTube already lets users stream VR content with a full 360-degree view.

VR headsets are also becoming more affordable, with major technology companies like Google, Facebook and Samsung all pitching in to provide relatively cheap, easily accessible VR devices for a mass audience.

But the question still remains: will VR be widely adopted in the near future? Outside of specialised applications, VR is a tougher sell for everyday web content. Text and images could potentially benefit from being freely manipulated in virtual space (think Tom Cruise in Minority Report), but it remains to be seen whether users will want to don a headset just to check their Twitter feed.

For developers looking to create VR web content right now, the good news is that there are a range of tools already available. One of the leading examples is WebVR.

What is WebVR?

WebVR is an experimental JavaScript API with the goal of enabling VR on web browsers. Starting life at Mozilla, WebVR has since evolved as an open standard with contributions from the other big browser players, Google and Microsoft.

The API works with all major browsers and VR headsets including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR, with no extra downloads or apps required. It works by capturing data from VR devices – headset position, orientation, velocity and acceleration – to provide information that a web browser can use to generate VR content via the existing WebGL JavaScript API.

WebVR may still be in development, but it’s well past the demo phase, with a variety of web frameworks already built using its technology. Also developed by Mozilla, A-Frame is an open-source framework that uses WebVR to provide simple building blocks for developers. Other 3D and VR platforms such as PlayCanvas and Sketchfab also build on the progress made by WebVR, helping to maintain a strong ecosystem of tools for VR web developers.

Back to reality

With all its promise, there are still major hurdles to overcome before VR browsing becomes widespread. Something as basic as motion sickness is still an issue for many users, with around 25–40% of people experiencing some form of VR sickness. While there are some technological solutions to VR motion sickness, development still has a long way to go.

As mentioned, entry-level headsets can be found at relatively low prices, but VR technology is constantly evolving, and cutting-edge devices still come with premium price tags. Super-high resolutions and framerates are essential for top-quality VR, so high-end headsets and graphics hardware – still unaffordable for many users – are required to get the best experience.

VR also places greater demands on internet bandwidth. Detailed VR environments will need to load fast to stop users becoming frustrated, so unless we see a rapid rollout of high-speed internet, developers may need to scale back their ambitions.

While it’s obvious that VR will continue to have a widening impact, it’s not clear how web development will be affected in the long term. But of course, developers and designers should stay informed of the latest VR technologies, which may well form a stepping stone to the next generation of online experiences.