McCrae (left) and Karan Singh (middle) take a user through a demo of the JanusVR experience at VRTO.(Captive Camera)
In a room at the recent Virtual and Augmented Reality Conference and Expo in Toronto, users were experiencing a web that’s no longer stuck on a screen: A specialised browser allowed them to visit a video-sharing website that turned into a gallery, with content showing as clickable displays.
The user, donning an avatar, could saunter through the gallery, selecting content to view, projected theatre-like, as the browser converted an existing site into a 3D environment.
This was at the VRTO (as the conference is commonly called) camp of JanusVR, a startup that has built a native virtual reality internet browser where “Webspaces become 3D spaces interconnected by portals”.
On the sidelines of VRTO, its co-founder Karan Singh said, “We’re essentially trying to reimagine the way we interact with the internet and with content.”
Singh is a professor in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto, and a core member of its Dynamic Graphics Project Lab, where Janus’ other founder, James McCrae, was his student.
Web browsing gets a VR makeover using JanusVR. (Credit: JanusVR)
In an interview, McCrae said they use an algorithm or script to “spatialise” the web: “It will take your elements, other elements of the web, mash those together and create something like a 3D environment. That’s what we do with things like YouTube and Reddit.”
There’s a spectrum that Janus covers, from “bringing the 2D to 3D directly” or “content intentionally authored to be 3D to begin with”, McCrae said.
The original web browsers, conceived in the mid-1990s, addressed the web in terms of pages, as content was mainly text and images. As Singh, who is from New Delhi, explained, “Since then the world has changed, but that design hasn’t changed.
“But at this time, where we are dealing with a resurgence of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, and the immersive world has started to become important again, working with that same model is a bit too much patchwork, in our opinion. At some point, the paradigm needs to either evolve or be reimagined. And we’re doing both. And the way we’re doing it is by changing the analogy: Web pages are now web spaces and links are portals.”
While Janus has its native browser, it also has JanusWeb, accessible through existing browsers and given the trajectory of how the web is viewed now, a smartphone app is on schedule for release this year.
Also new is a widget generator that allows users to embed VR webspaces into existing sites and Janus360, a platform for sharing VR content.
JanusVR co-founders James McCrae and Professor Karan Singh, with colleague Samantha Mathews, at VRTO. (HT Photo)
In terms of the magnitude of the web, Janus’ reach is “tiny”, as Singh acknowledges, with about 100,000 users spanning 145 countries, but in terms of the VR/AR space, he says, these numbers are “very significant”.
But the potential for massive growth exists, as McCrae said, “We’ll continue to embrace it as it grows. What we want to do is push the frontier on people thinking of websites instead of destinations as immersive spaces.”
The optimum experience for this technology comes with hardware – headsets, and controllers. Those may become common enough in the not-too-distant future. “As price continues to drop down, we’re going to continue to see a lot more adoption, a lot more people interested in exploring the immersive web. In this sort of latest generation or cadence of renewed interest in virtual reality, and the overall timing, it is really ideal for us there,” McCrae said.
The company is co-located in Toronto and San Mateo, California, as McCrae has moved to the Silicon Valley.
YouTube gets a theatre-like makeover using JanusVR. (Credit: JanusVR)
Its founders are looking at locking in the first-mover advantage, as Singh said, “I would say it’s an incredibly exciting technology that’s giving you a glimpse of what the future of the internet is going to be. It’s a huge ambitious project. Nobody does what we do, in terms of social, collaborative, immersive browsing. That is unique.”
The name itself is resonant of the objective. Janus was the two-faced Roman God, looking back at the past and into the future, and the deity for transitions and portals. Apt as this startup aims to change the way we visualise the web, into uncharted virtual territory.