Google believes that 2018 is the year the web turns a corner and starts becoming more immersive, and the company’s new WebXR API is at the heart of its efforts. Long story short, WebXR provides a platform to more easily optimize and integrate VR and AR experiences right into web browsers, and developers can start working on crafting VR experiences for Chrome with the API today. In-browser VR has been a thing for a while, though — web-based AR, however, feels more immediately helpful. It’ll be a while before you can virtually plop 3D objects into an augmented reality space inside Chrome, but we just got to take it for a spin and honestly, the AR-friendly web can’t arrive soon enough.
Let’s set the stage a little bit first. A Google staffer handed me a Pixel 2XL with a pre-release Chromium build, and the only demo available gave me the power skim through a webpage and drop an Aztec offering vessel called a chacmool onto the floor in front of the phone. (Turns out, chacmool were typically used for ceremonial offerings and sacrifices, but this one was free of virtual blood.) Google’s demo was pretty basic as far as AR experiences go, but even at this early stage it worked much, much better than I expected. I’ve used full-blown standalone AR apps that didn’t feel as smooth as this: I could move the vessel around the room, rotate it with two fingers, and get nice and close for proper scrutiny with 6 degrees of freedom.
Simply poking around was neat enough, but there was a strong educational angle too. Floating data points hovering around the chacmool offered additional information and context when tapped. I wouldn’t have thought much of the statue’s red and blue feet, but a quick tap revealed that the red and blue paint used to color the chacmool’s sandals helped researchers connect it in time with other pieces of artwork found in Mexico. I always walk away from I/O with a few tidbits of random information tucked away in my head, but I certainly didn’t expect to leave with a better understanding of Mesoamerican art. The demo was actually highly reminiscent of time spent wandering around a museum in Barcelona with a Google Tango-powered tablet, except this time I didn’t need specialized hardware. For education and the perpetually curious, web AR is going to feel tremendously valuable.