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Google’s adding WebVR support to Android, desktop versions of Chrome

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Virtual reality may live strictly within smartphone apps and PC software for now, but that won’t be the case for much longer. On Monday, at the W3C’s Workshop on Web & Virtual Reality in San Jose, California, Google announced plans to ship a version of its Chrome internet browser with support for WebVR, a technology that facilitates the delivery of VR apps and games directly from websites.

WebVR is the product of the World Wide Web Consortium, the governing internet body that proposes web standards for implementation in browsers, sites, and other web incarnations. It  leverages WebGL, an API used to render 3D content inside of web browsers, and its latest iteration, version 1.1, comprises guidelines and best practices for web VR content formulated by Mozilla, Google, and others. The eventual goal: VR games and apps that can be streamed directly from the internet to mobile, stand-alone, and PC-tethered VR hardware such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

Sketchfab perhaps comes the closest to realizing WebVR’s vision. The latest release of the web-based 3D modeling tool allows you to view scenes inside a VR headset, provided you’re using a supported web browser and headset.

Megan Lindsay, Google’s WebVR product manager, said that the Mountain View, California, company hoped to release a public version of Chrome on Android with support for WebVR 1.1 in January. It will be preceded by a beta in December.

Signs of integration have already begun appearing. Chromium evangelist François Beaufort spotted settings in the beta and developer versions of Chrome for Android related to WebVR, accessible by typing “chrome://flags/#enable-vr-shell” in the browser’s URL bar.

Desktop support will take a bit longer. Google expects Chrome for PC and Mac hardware to gain limited WebVR support in early 2017, with a full rollout to follow later in the year.

Google’s initially targeting Daydream, its VR platform for smartphones. It takes the form of unified solution for headsets and smartphones: Daydream devices ship with a motion-sensing remote control, a home screen and navigational overlay, and a highly optimized framework. It’s supported on Google’s Pixel phones and select handsets from third-party manufacturers like ZTE (the Axon 7) and Asus (the Zenfone 3 Delux), and headsets including Google’s View, Zeiss’s VR One Plus, and ZTE’s VR.

In related news, Lidsay said that development of a Chrome “VR Shell,” an interface that will let 2D websites not programmed for WebVR to viewed in VR, was underway. If all goes according to plan, it will launch in the first half of next year on Chrome for Android.

Chrome won’t be the first web browser to support WebVR. Microsoft announced support for the standard in September — a forthcoming version of Edge, the default browser in Windows 10 that replaced Internet Explorer, will integrate the standard, and experimental releases of Mozilla’s Firefox support it in a limited fashion. But it won’t be the last. Apple has yet to announce plans to support WebVR.

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