Mozilla gives developers early access to VR browser

Mozilla has given outside developers early access to their virtual reality test browser, according to a report last week in USA Today.

Firefox Nightly is the preview version of Firefox, and is for testing purposes only. It is available for Windows, Linux and Mac on the desktop, and also for Android mobile phones.

The desktop version supports the Oculus Rift head-mounted display.

The Android version is compatible with Google Cardboard, with both the side-by-side display and motion tracking, and can be used to look 360-degree panoramic photographs, watch 3D videos, or experience virtual reality simulations.

The Monkeys demo on MozVR is a psychedelic headtrip.

The Monkeys demo on MozVR is a psychedelic headtrip, here in side-by-side view on an Android phone.

Users interested in trying out the virtual reality technology can also download Firefox Nightly from the official MozVR download page, then run the browser and return to install the WebVR enabler add-on, also on the same page.

To install it on Android devices, enable “Unknown Sources” in your security settings, open the MozVR download page in your normal browser, download the Nightly distribution for your version of Android, open the Downloads folder on your smartphone and tap the downloaded file to install it. Then use the Nightly browser to navigate back to the MozVR download page and click to install the WebVR enabler add-on.

MozVR's Polar Sea demo running on an Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S6.

MozVR’s Polar Sea demo running on an Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S6.

MozVR first went live back in November 2014.  Demos are available on the MozVR projects page.

Google Chrome is incorporating this technology, as well, with the latest Chrome with WebVR builds available here. Google also has its own VR Chrome Experiments site, with a variety of virtual reality applications that can run in a browser, though only on the Android. Android users may need to enable WebGL functionality first, but the apps do work, such as the virtual roller coaster demo.

Google VR Chrome Experiments's roller coaster application runs in the browser and is fully compatible with Google Cardboard.

Google VR Chrome Experiments’s roller coaster application runs in the browser and is fully compatible with Google Cardboard.

Eventually, MozVR could enable developers to create virtual reality applications that can be accessed either via a desktop or a mobile phone.

Another application is to navigate the existing, 2D Web, in virtual reality.

Josh Carpenter, Mozilla’s head of user interface design, had to make specific tools for this purpose, one of them being Hiro. Hiro is a browsing navigation tool that allows users to seamlessly surf the Web without the need to take off their headsets. It has a long way to improve though, as it’s still in the stage of prototyping URL navigation, browsing history access and links selection.

Chris Beard

Chris Beard

“If Web video gets turned into Web virtual reality, it could be a game-changer,” Mozilla CEO Chris Beard told USA TODAY. “We want to lead development of an open virtual reality platform.”

Currently MozVR runs on WebGL, but Carpenter and team plan to adapt everything into HTML and CSS, mostly because of its prevalence on today’s web.

Unlimited applications

Virtual reality is already used quite a lot for marketingreal estate, and sports via custom-built applications. Browser-based virtual reality will open up the potential uses of this technology to a lot more people while bringing down development costs.

MozVR's Polar Sea demo.

MozVR’s Polar Sea demo.

In a MozVR video presentation last week, Mozilla’s team showcased icebergs, a helicopter flight and a never-ending loop of psychedelic-colored monkeys — demos available on the MozVR project page. The company also showed a demo render of a clay-like 3D human head and surfed Wikipedia seen as a hologram projection.

Josh Carpenter

Josh Carpenter

“When we invented the Web in pop culture, from the very beginning, we imagined that it would be something that you stepped into,” Mozilla’s Carpenter said in a post last fall.

It’s that feeling of being there — of actually being present in a new world — that makes virtual reality a big deal, he said.

“I’ve been doing desktop and mobile applications for many, many years, and nothing I’ve ever developed will give someone a reaction like that,” he said.


Bringing virtual reality to the web is not an easy task, however. According to Carpenter, it requires that users have the right hardware, and developers are willing to adopt the new technology.

In particular, he said, it requires latency of 20 milliseconds or less, pixel persistence of 3 milliseconds or less, a refresh rate of 95 Hertz, a 110 degree field of view, at least 1,000 by 1,000 pixels of resolution for each eye, and high-quality optics and tracking.

Adrijan Arsovski

Adrijan Arsovski's keen interest in writing and technology led to him morphing into a technology writer. See his full profile here.

  • Carlos Loff

    LOVELY – It has begannnnn – The future of Internet is HERE

  • Susannah Avonside

    Hmmm, yet another solution looking for a problem. I could be wrong, but humans have visited the whole 3D thing several times before, and always it’s been just another interesting curiosity, a fad that lasted a short time. In the 19th Century there was the stereoscope, updated in the 20th Century as View-Master. In the 1950s 3D movies enjoyed a brief popularity, but hampered by the requirement to wear special spectacles with red and green lenses – ditto the experiments with 3D TV in the UK during the 1970s when there was a vogue of showing those 3D films made in the 1950s. Now we have flat screen 3D TV, which is hardly a screaming success. Now we’re revisiting 3D virtual reality, first attempted in the early 90s, though with similar drawbacks. True, now the headsets are smaller, but there is still a need to wear a headset and look silly, but an even bigger drawback is the motion sickness – which may appeal to the masochists out there, but I doubt will appeal to the majority.

    I could well be wrong, but 3D virtual reality is just going to be yet another passing fad in my opinion, as added to the drawbacks of motion sickenss and having to wear a headset there is also the big question, what is it for? A question we in the OpenSim community will be familiar with. I’m sure the 3D VR will have a niche market, but for me the wise money is on the cardboard versions, as these are cheap enough to throw away once the fad is over!

    • MozVR works with the Google Cardboard viewers — I tried it out yesterday. It doesn’t always work perfectly. In a couple of cases the images were rotated 90 degrees! But then again, that’s what the word ‘experimental’ is for. 🙂

      The argument that “it’s been tried before and didn’t work” is not a real argument unless the reasons why it failed before still hold up. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell whether the reasons were “it didn’t serve any purpose” or “the technology wasn’t good enough.”

      Very few technologies are a success right from the get-go. You can always point to predecessors that failed and, in retrospect, you could come up with reasons why. Apple’s Newton was a flop — but the iPod was a runaway hit, for a recent high-profile example.

      Sometimes it takes a technology a few false starts before it gets going. Remember the Web? It started out as bulletin boards for scientists and hackers, then there was a generation of walled gardens like Compuserve and AOL, and then we finally got the Web.

      And don’t forget that classic Newsweek column from 1995 by Clifford Stoll! http://www.newsweek.com/clifford-stoll-why-web-wont-be-nirvana-185306

      “After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. .. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.”

      “Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?”

      According to Stoll, if the Internet was still useless after two decades — “how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?” — then it will always be useless.

      He assumes that because the Internet didn’t have a payment mechanism, that it would always remain that way.

      That because search was so messy, that it would always stay messy.

      That because laptops were too bulky to take to the beach, that it would always be the case.

      But EVERYTHING CHANGES.

      So, the bulky headsets are going to get small and comfortable — or vanish altogether.
      The motion sickness problem will be solved. (I’m highly prone to it, but recently spent an hour getting one demo of a world and didn’t feel queasy at all, because of the way they’d had it set up.)

      And keep in mind that the progress of communications technology has always been in two directions simultaneously — richer communications, and easier communications. These two streams sometimes converge, sometimes diverse, but exist in parallel.

      So, we want to be able to send a quick text with a couple of key strokes — and then five minutes later we’re uploading a video. We get our news in five-second snippets over Twitter and Facebook, and then sit down and binge-watch five seasons of Lost. Sometimes, we play Angry Birds, sometimes we immerse ourselves for hours in Call of Duty.

      Virtual reality unarguably provides a richer experience. You do feel that you are actually there. The impact is visceral. The heights are actually scary. The spooky noises are really spooky.

      We’re watching the creation of a brand new medium right now. It’s pretty cool. How often, in history, does that happen?