How to Access a Browser While in Virtual Reality and Why You Would Need To

Why Use a Browser in VR?

I have been looking into ways to use an online test in VR using a head mounted display (HMD). I am proposing a study where I compare an online auditory-visual test taken on a standard computer display and the same test taken in VR on a HMD. This study led me to explore different ways to use a web browser on a HMD and what are the benefits of these different ways and why you would need to use a web browser in VR.

Browser on the Device Home-screen

The first VR web browser option I looked at was the Oculus home environment, I am using an Oculus Quest 2 so it might be different on other HMDs’. This web browser worked well and the functionality of the controllers and its interactions with the web browser was intuitive and easy to use. The only issue I had was that I needed a certain environment background that I could match with the real world test on the standard display.

Fig 1: Oculus Home Environment

While there was very limited options to change the home environment on the Oculus Quest, I did eventually find some options that might help create the VR testing environment I proposed. SideQuest is a marketplace to get more apps for your Oculus headset that is separate from the Oculus store. It contains loads of games/apps from indie game makers and also contains a simple way to change some of the settings on your headset. I use commands to change the screen size and resolution when I record videos from my headset, it presents the video in a more standard video format rather than the mobile view that is default. In SideQuest, people who have created their own home environments for the Oculus can upload them for others to use, and I found one that might be useful for my test environment. Since the real world testing environment will be in a dark lab with focus on the display, a dark room virtual environment (see Fig 2) might work for the VR test. I found this on SideQuest along with some other cool home environments like the Twin Peaks – Red Room, which is very cool.

Fig 2: Dark Room -Oculus Home Environment

One more aspect of this option to conduct online tests in a VR web browser is the possibility to create your own custom home environments and upload them to your HMD for your own use. I found a tutorial and a template on YouTube on SideQuest’s Official channel that helps you create your own home environment for your Oculus headset using Blender and some other tools.

Dedicated Apps for Remote Work

Another use and option for accessing a web browser in a VR space is to use a dedicated remote online workspace app. I found a couple of these on the Oculus store and they are pretty interesting, they offer a lot more than just using a browser, as you can pair it with your computer and use a virtual version of your own computer. Two apps I will look at are Immersed and Horizon Workrooms.

– Immersed

Immersed is a nice app that is great if you need to collaborate or create a certain work space with multiple screens. You need to download the desktop app and pair it with your HMD for it to work, so the set up is a slight bit time consuming. For my purpose, I don’t think this app works well and there are a number of potential issues. Firstly, the issue with latency from what the actual computer is doing to what you hear and see on the HMD. While it wasn’t too bad when I tested it, in a different situation with a weak WiFi signal it could cause issues. There was no option to customise the workspace environment, there was a few free options and then other environments you could pay for, but was not ideal for my needs. Since it is a third party app and has paired with your computer you don’t know what data is being accessed and stored, which might not work as a testing environment. It is a nice idea but I think it falls short for my needs and also compared to the next online workspace I will mention.

Fig 3: Immersed VR Workspace

– Horizon Workrooms

Horizon Workrooms is developed by Meta and it is a lot cleaner and easier to use than Immersed. You can set up and start with a personal space a lot quicker and also you can test out a collaborative space with many desks and a whiteboard where people can work together. To use a web browser in this space, it is similar to Immersed where you need to download an app to your desktop and pair with the VR app on the HMD. I would recommend this space for a collaborative workspace option as it has some nice features and its very easy and intuitive to use, however again it does not really fit my needs of have a reliable web browser where I can change the background and manipulate other features.

Using a Browser in Your App with Unity

The ideal way to be able to access a web browser in many instances is inside the game or application you are using. There can be many benefits to having access to a web browser in-game, like having an outlet to chat with friends while playing or quickly googling a query regarding the game or watching a quick tutorial. For a researcher like myself, using the web browser within an application I create using Unity would give me the most control of my environment and study design. I can completely create the 3D environment I want within Unity and how the player interacts in the environment and the web browser with the online test. You also have better capabilities to add more data capturing capabilities, such as, tracking head movement, controller movement, and reaction times. There are a few options for this that I found that work with Unity, which I will talk about now.

– Vulplex 3D Web View

The first option I will mention is one that is available on the Unity Asset Store, and that is the Vulplex 3D webview for Android. This seems to be a solid choice and would have all the features needed and options to customise aspects of the browser when needed. The issue with this option is the price, it costs 199.59 euros (at time of writing) and there was no way for me to test it without buying the asset. The company has created different web browser assets for Android, Windows and Mac, iOS and each costs between 149.69 – 349.29 euros. The specs of the web browser asset look good but this is something that should not cost that much and next we shall see some alternatives to this which are free.

– Github Builds

One of the great things about Unity is the community that builds and shares assets either on the Assets store or on Github. When searching for assets that will work in Unity to create an environment that would incorporate the use a web browser, I came across a few different ones. Some where discontinued and not updated, like the popular Mozilla VR web browser that was discontinued in early 2022, read about it here.

I found a Github account by Ian Philips that created a web browser that could be used for an Android device (Oculus Quest) in Unity. It was called Unity Oculus Android VR Browser and I downloaded the package and tested it out in Unity. This package was easy to set up in Unity and included a test scene, as shown in Fig 4 below. I had a few issues with this asset because instead of using the controllers for moving around the screen, instead you had to use your head and the pointer moved in relation to your head movement. The controllers were active once a keyboard appeared when you needed to type but it would be more intuitive to use the controllers for moving and pointing on the screen. The whole web browser felt a bit clunky with a lot of buttons situated around the browser window stating to move up, down. left, right etc. There was also some issues with pop up windows that wouldn’t appear and also didn’t work too well with some Javascript calls on the site I tested it on. While this is a great free asset that gives you the opportunity to use a browser in VR and maybe someone with time and more Unity development experience could make this work for their purpose, but it did not work for my intended use.

Fig 4: Unity Oculus Android Browser

Final Thoughts

I hope that this blog post is helpful to others looking for options to access web browsers in VR and show you the options out there. If you find other web browser options or have any thoughts, please let me know. For my immediate purposes, I have decided to go with the Oculus home environment and their web browser as it has the more intuitive interactions with the web browser. My research also shows that I can create a custom background that can mirror the real life testing environment. There are so many incredible tools and assets out there for VR projects and games and it really feels like VR is taking off in a big way, I am looking forward to all the interesting work that will come from this very talented community.

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