Friday, September 16, 2016

Sketchfab and the Wonderful World of WebVR

In the last couple of weeks, I set out on a journey that would lead me to a better understanding of WebVR and its awesomeness.  A while back I did a post about 3D viewers for VR, at the time Sketchfab had released an app for Gear VR and Oculus.  After trying out the app on both platforms I was left somewhat underwhelmed.  The app curates only a few models and lets you view a sample of what is available on Sketchfab but leaves the rest of the online experience out of the equation.  Well, the good people at Sketchfab must have had a bigger vision all along since they have since integrated a WebVR experience directly into the entire Sketchfab universe and it is amazing.  Not only can you peruse the entire collection of user-created content available on Sketchfab but you can upload your own 3D models in almost any 3D format.  Sketchfab even supports some simple animations a la Lifeliqe, did I mention that they are all available now?  Check out a video of Sketchfab WebVR in action.

What is WebVR?

In simple terms, WebVR allows online apps to talk to your VR display and provide VR directly from a web browser.  It’s actually pretty amazing to think about what is possible these days through the web. (I spent a big portion of my teenage life waiting for AOL to load pages on a dialup modem.)   For more information about WebVR, visit WebVR.info or MozVR.com.

Setting up WebVR?

This step presented some challenges and proved to be the most difficult part of enjoying a WebVR experience in Sketchfab.  There are 3 main ways to access WebVR, I will outline my experience with all three.
Mobile WebVR.  Supposedly, most new smartphones include WebVR capability in their browsers.  I tested this with Samsung Internet on the Gear VR.  Setting up this browser was fairly easy.  It required loading up the Internet while in VR and going to the following address: internet://webvr-enable
While it was easy to enable, the Sketchfab experience left a lot to be desired.  It was probably due to my aging hardware (Note 4) and the fact that Samsung Internet doesn’t use the newest version of the WebVR APIs.  The obvious benefit of mobile VR is its accessibility.  It is by far the easiest way to get the Sketchfab experience into the hands of a bunch of students in an educational setting.

Firefox Nightly.  Mozilla has done a ton of work to support the WebVR infrastructure in a PC environment.  This process is supposed to be as easy as downloading the most current version of Firefox Nightly and then running a WebVR enabler addon for Firefox.  I was never able to get this working even after downgrading to previous versions of the Firefox Nightly.  I suspect that it isn’t playing well with the newest Oculus drivers for my Rift CV1.  YMMV


Chromium(experimental Chrome builds).  This was the method that eventually got me up and running on my PC.  By installing the newest chromium build and then “enabling WebVR” from the about:flags menu, I was ready to go.  If you are interested in getting this up and running on your PC, I highly recommend you follow the simple guides that can be found on WebVR.info.

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