The world of virtual reality is no different, having already been home to heated discussion on topics including Oculus versus Vive, gaming versus real-world experiences, and eye-tracking versus hand controls.
With the adoption of any new technology come debates on how to best implement and use it. For whatever reason, people naturally like picking sides. However, one interminable debate that previously dominated the mobile ecosystem for years has followed developers into the VR space: native versus web applications.
Initially developed as web apps, we have seen virtual reality shift to more native apps as the adoption of the technology grows. However, natives domination of the market will be fleeting as the growth of VR tests its limits and makes the need for web apps more apparent. Here is why.
How Web And Native Apps Differ
To start, let’s break down the competition. Native apps are available through a device’s app store, be it Google Play or Apple’s App Store, and are built with a single device in mind. With the ability to take advantage of that device’s specific hardware (accelerometers, cameras, etc.), and work when the device is offline, users commonly leverage these types of apps for everyday activities.
By contrast, web apps are accessed through any web browser available on a device. Web apps typically can only function when the device is online; however, users can work around this by leveraging the app cache and device’s local storage. While web apps are often designed to look like a native app, they are typically built with HTML5, and can be accessed with any mobile device available to consumers.
Commonly, native is the more popular choice for VR app development. This is in part due to the applications ability to form-fit to the phone, so that the user feels like they are getting the optimal experience. In many cases, mobile users and developers turn to native applications, because they feel that web apps provide a more generic experience. However, when it comes to VR, web apps offer a number of functions that will ultimately make this the more optimal option for users and developers alike.
The Benefits Of Web Apps
Unlike native apps, a web app offers cross-platform availability and will work on nearly all devices. This enables developers to ensure the consistent performance of VR content across all platforms.
While native applications may be customized based on a particular device, they may also give an unfair advantage to users who use a faster device with a better graphics card. Web applications let businesses have control over the quality of their VR content, regardless of how their audience chooses to view it.
For companies consistently producing VR content for a broad audience, web apps also enable developers to have control over what specific content is available to view. With native applications, businesses can run into situations where a user downloads an application, but does update it.
For every user that chooses not to update, a business runs the risks of becoming increasingly disconnected with their audience. Instead, by controlling VR applications through a web-based interface, businesses are able to instantly update content and better manage what viewers see.
The Limits Of Web Apps
Of course, web apps aren’t without disadvantages. The need for a connection is an obvious concern and can often limit where and when a VR app is used. In the age of accessibility, this can be a serious drawback for consumers. However, this limitation can be addressed by leveraging HTML5, which has the capacity to make mobile web app content available in offline mode. As we continue to become more mobile, this will also be a minor limitation as the availability of Wi-FI connections becomes commonplace across the U.S.
Accessing device hardware can also be a challenge. For example, virtual reality applications need access to a mobile devices accelerometer to collect orientation data, which tracks location, head movement, etc. Some mobile browsers, however, are still not reporting this data, and standards have yet to be adopted for browsers to be able to pass accelerometer data from device to browser. The end result is that device tracking may work perfectly well on one phone, while another still has some tracking issues.
In order for virtual reality to really become a commonplace technology, we need to examine the ecosystem we are trying to integrate it in. Ensuring consumers have things like consistent Wi-Fi and improved browser capabilities will not only make web apps more applicable, but create a more open environment for developers to continue to innovate and drive technology forward.
So Who Will Really Win?
Challenges aside, one significant fact points to web apps eventually winning the debate—companies are putting more resources and attention into their browsers. As systems like Flash or Silverlight decline, developers are looking for new ways to build applications with simply the browser and HTML.
With the continued diversification of mobile devices, developing specific applications for every available device may soon also become impossible. This is where web-based apps will also shine, especially as browser capabilities catch up with native app functionality. A great example of this already occurring is the Unity 5 engine, which now allows its code to be converted to HTML5 ñ a strong indicator that in the future, VR content may be created in-browser.
Although the debate still continues on which direction virtual reality experiences and other products should go, the diversification of devices in conjunction with the high volume of new content will drive web apps to be recognized by the market as the dominant platform. The benefits to users, designers and businesses alike overshadow device-specific options. As browsers move toward becoming the OS of the future, designing VR experiences to meet that market will be the smart play.
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