Mozilla on Tuesday announced that it is building a browser designed especially for displaying virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) content, betting that the technology will become core to the internet.
“We believe that the future of the web will be heavily intertwined with virtual and augmented reality, and that future will live through browsers,” asserted Sean White, Mozilla’s chief research and development officer, in an April 3 post to a company blog.
Firefox Reality, the moniker for the browser White laid out, was far from ready for end-user deployment, but was available Tuesday in developer builds, and because Mozilla is an open-source developer, so was Reality’s source code. There was no hint when the browser might be polished.
“This is the first step in our long-term plan to deliver a totally new experience on an exciting new platform,” said Trevor Smith, a Mozilla reality research engineer, in a post to a different blog, signaling that there would be more to come.
The browser will be built atop the existing Firefox — which was revamped late last year into “Quantum” — and augmented by the team devoted to “Servo,” a rendering engine that Mozilla has been working on since 2013. Written with Rust, a language created by Mozilla’s research group, Servo was envisioned as a replacement for Firefox’s long-standing Gecko engine. The Servo team was recently melded with the one labeled “Mixed Reality” in Mozilla. “We took our existing Firefox web technology and enhanced it with Servo, our experimental web engine,” said Smith.
Currently, Firefox Reality runs only in developer mode on two devices, Google’s Daydream, and Samsung’s and Ocular’s Gear VR, but Mozilla’s White promised more. “Other solutions for browsing and accessing the web on stand-alone headsets exist, but they are closed and platform-specific,” noted White. “Firefox Reality will be independent and will work on a wide variety of devices and platforms.”
Mozilla has tackled other projects outside the constraints of Firefox itself, but of late, the results have been disappointing. The organization tried its hand at creating a mobile operating system, but gave up in early 2016. A year later, it shuttered what was left of that effort — an OS aimed at connected devices, the category better known as the internet of things, or IoT. Mozilla had also started, but eventually nixed, initiatives to place advertisements within Firefox.
One analyst, who had been critical in the past of moves Mozilla made to expand its presence, was less than impressed with the latest, Firefox Reality.
“[This is] pretty much grasping at straws,” said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, in an email reply to questions. “While clearly AR/VR is a major growth area going forward, and it gets a lot of attention in the market, the actual market to date is small and the needs of the early implementers, mostly gamers, are well beyond a browser’s ability to fully deliver.”
Perhaps anticipating criticism like Gold’s, Mozilla’s White had preemptively offered reasons why his employer, its Firefox specifically, was well-positioned to jump on the AR/VR bandwagon.
“The future of mixed reality is about delivering experiences, not about building applications,” White said of a browser’s place in the new kind of content. “There shouldn’t be friction moving from one experience to another.” He also reminded users that Firefox was the first browser to support WebVR, Google’s Chrome on Android and Microsoft’s Edge.
Mozilla certainly has substantial competition, both on the browser and company resource fronts, what with rivals ranging from Google to Samsung. “[I think this is] also well beyond the limited market penetration that Mozilla has, given the thrusts from Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others,” said Gold of the company’s chances.
White “countered” that appraisal by touting the same traits that Mozilla has used to promote Firefox, ranging from the browser’s newfound speed to its emphasis on user privacy.