A demonstration shows Mozilla's Firefox catching up to Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge with WebVR support.
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
Mozilla plans to release a version of its Firefox browser Tuesday that embraces a version of virtual reality for the web.
Back in 2014, Mozilla developers including Vladimir Vukicevic put together a concept called WebVR. The idea was to let web browsers navigate virtual realms, and make it easier for people to create a VR world once that would work on all sorts of devices.
But Vukicevic headed off to game engine maker Unity, and Google's Chrome browser beat Mozilla with WebVR support. Microsoft's Edge also edged out Firefox, adding WebVR support in April. Microsoft and Google, which both sell devices to experience virtual reality and its augmented reality cousin, have a big incentive to make virtual reality real.
"WebVR is the major platform feature shipping in Firefox 55," the latest Firefox release calendar update says. "Firefox users with an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset will be able to experience VR content on the web and can explore some exciting demos."
There's plenty to do on the web with a PC, and plenty of apps to run on a phone. But for VR to thrive, there has to be plenty of stuff for us to do online virtually, too. WebVR is an important part of keeping keep us supplied with games, tourist attractions, educational lessons and other interesting things to do in virtual realms.
There are caveats to using WebVR today. Chrome's support only is on Android-powered devices right now, and WebVR on Edge requires you to put the browser in a developer mode.
WebVR is also important for Mozilla. The nonprofit organization is fighting to reclaim its relevance and restore its reputation after Firefox slid into Chrome's shadow in recent years. The work to get Firefox back into fighting trim will culminate with Firefox 57, due to arrive Nov. 14.
There's plenty of VR hardware available, from high-end headsets like Facebook's Oculus Rift and HTC's Vive to basic models like Google's inexpensive Cardboard, which relies on your phone to show VR views. With WebVR, it's in principle easier to build those VR destinations, because developers don't have to re-create them for each device.
WebVR isn't the only way to bridge the divide, though: Unity also offers tools to span multiple headsets.
And WebVR is no universal cure. Some VR headsets don't support WebVR, and some browsers don't support all devices.
Mozilla has high hopes for VR. Its senior vice president of emerging technologies, Sean White, has been working with VR for more than two decades.
"In the 1990s, unless you had $5 million or $10 million, you couldn't do it," he said in a recent interview. "Now if there's somebody with Parkinson's disease who can't move or travel, I could take them to Angkor Wat."
In the long term, he and his boss, Mozilla Chief Executive Chris Beard, think VR could be eclipsed by augmented reality. VR immerses you in fully computerized worlds of VR, but AR overlays computer-generated imagery atop the real world.
"VR will beget AR pretty quickly as a mass-market opportunity," Beard said. "Browsers play a very meaningful role."