The Arrival of the Web 3.0

What is Web 3.0? That’s a good question! And I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to answer it in this essay. Yet, I’ll try my very best to get closer to the answer. There exist several definitions of Web 3.0, none of which can be considered definite. A very general one describes it as “an extension of Web 2.0,” which is of limited helpfulness. Also, I’ve heard some call the Semantic Web “Web 3.0,” while Nova Spivack as well as Tim Berners-Lee see it only as a part of the latter. Interestingly, what has been neglected in most discussions about Web 3.0 so far are augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR), or 3D in general. Seems like this could be worth a closer look. Although both, AR and VR have been connected to Web 3.0 separately, they rather have to be seen as an integral part of the overall concept, in addition to the Semantic Web. In the following, I describe why 3D — and AR/VR in particular — are beyond the Web 2.0, why current trends in web technology show that we are entering the Web 3.0 at high speed right now, and what will change for us — the designers, developers, architects etc.

Where are we coming from?

To be able to put Web 3.0 in relation to what we’ve seen so far, let’s have a brief look at the beginnings first.

Web 1.0

What is now called the “Web 1.0” in retrospect is what we programmed 15 or 20 years ago, mostly using nothing more than plain HTML, CSS, and some JavaScript (or Microsoft FrontPage). There were no Ajax, no Facebook, and no comment sections. Instead, websites had dedicated guestbooks, which were programmed in PHP or Perl. Due to a lack of sophisticated templates, creating a great website was hard work that eventually received a web award or two. Essentially, Web 1.0 is what’s presented to us by @wayback_exe and was very much defined by the underlying, basic technologies used. Websites were flat and presented flat text and images.

Web 2.0

As web technologies evolved, websites became less static, looking more and more like desktop applications. Soon, users could connect via social networks (Facebook’s like button is ubiquitous nowadays) and watch videos online. YouTube videos, tweets, and alike became discrete content entities (i.e., detached from a particular webpage) that could now be easily embedded anywhere. For instance, WordPress by default features specific shortcodes for these two. Data, rather than the underlying technology, became the center of the web (cf. “What Is Web 2.0” by Tim O’Reilly), which in particular led to an increasing number of mash-ups. Through templating, e.g., by using WordPress, it became increasingly easy for everyone to create a sophisticated website. Also, the proliferation of mobile and small-screen devices with touch screens caused the advent of responsive and adaptive websites as well as completely new kinds of interaction and corresponding user interfaces. Rather than by technologies, the Web 2.0 was and is defined by social interactions, new types of (mashable) content, and a stronger focus on user experience, among other things (cf. “Social Web” by Anja Ebersbach et al.). Yet, contents were as flat as before. That’s the web today’s average user knows.

Web 3.0

Now that we’ve seen where we come from, let’s elaborate on why 3D is a major part of Web 3.0.

Virtual and augmented reality

Neither VR nor AR are the Web 3.0 (as has been stated by some). Still, they are an important part of the bigger picture. Since Google introduced their Cardboard at the I/O 2014, consuming VR has become affordable and feasible for average users. Another, similar device heavily pushed right now is the Gear VR. Yet, despite the introduction of 360° video support by YouTube and Facebook, as of today, corresponding content is still rather limited compared to the overall number of websites. This will change with the growing popularity of devices such as 360° cameras, which allow you to capture 360° videos and photospheres (like in Google Street View) with just one click. Such 360° images can then be combined to, e.g., virtual tours using dedicated web platforms such as Roundme, YouVisit, and HoloBuilder. In this way, the average user can also create their own VR content that can be consumed by anyone, in particular through their Cardboards or other head-mounted displays (HMDs). Hence, the amount of available VR content will grow rapidly in the near future.

I personally like to refer to the type of VR content created from 360° images and consumed through HMDs as “Holos,” so let’s stick to that naming convention for now. Just like YouTube videos and tweets, Holos are discrete content entities. That is, technically speaking, all of them are simply iframes, but denote completely different kinds of content on a higher level of abstraction. Particularly, unlike plain YouTube videos and tweets, Holos add a third spatial dimension to the web content that is consumed by the user. That is, they move the web from 2D to 3D, the enabling technologies being WebGL, Three.js, and Unity. Another example for this evolution is Sketchfab, which brings high-end 3D models to the web and has been described as “the youtube for 3D content.” Contrary to VR, AR has not yet reached the same status regarding affordability and feasibility for average users. This is due to the fact that AR can’t be simply created and consumed in a web browser. Currently, AR application are of more interest in Industry 4.0 contexts. However, I’m sure that once VR has hit the mainstream, the complexity of AR will decrease and develop into the same direction. Already now, platforms like HoloBuilder offer the possibility to also create AR content in the browser, which can then be consumed using a dedicated Android or iOS app.

holo_low_res
One example for Web 3.0 content: a Holo depicting an underwater scene with sharks, ready to be consumed through Google Cardboard (viewed with Chrome on a Nexus 5).
3d_model_low_res
Another example for Web 3.0 content: a 3D model hosted on Sketchfab (viewed with Chrome on a Nexus 5).

Interactions

With the introduction of the third dimension in web content, also the necessary interactions change significantly. So far, we’ve had traditional interaction using mouse and keyboard and the touch interaction we know from smartphones and tablet PCs. Now, when consuming Web 3.0 content through our Cardboard, we face a novel, hands-free kind of interaction since we cannot touch the screen of the inserted phone. Instead, “clickable” objects need to be activated using, e.g., some kind of crosshair that is controlled via head movements (notice the little dot right below the sharks in the picture above). Another scenario (of the seemingly thousands that can be thought of) could be content consumed through a Gear VR while controlling it with a smart watch. Also, smart glasses and voice recognition — and more natural user interfaces in general — will become a thing. This calls for completely new and probably radical approaches towards usability, UX, interface, and interaction design that more and more move away from what average users were used to 15 or even only five years ago. All of this will aim at providing an experience that’s as immersive as possible for the user.

Material Design

Finally, what I also consider to already be a part of Web 3.0 is Google’s Material Design language. This is because, just like AR and VR, it aims at extending Web 2.0 beyond the second dimension. Although the outcome is clearly not 3D content in the sense of AR and VR as described above, Material Design puts a strong focus on layers and shadows. Hence, it introduces what I like to call 2½D.

Where are we going?

To summarize, the specific properties of and differences between Web 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 are given in the following rough overview1:

Web 1.0 2.0 3.0
Device(s) PC Smartphone, tablet PC Smart glasses, Google Cardboard, Gear VR
Interaction Mouse, keyboard Touch, gestures Hands-free, head movement, voice, smart watch
Technologies HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, Perl HTML5, CSS3, Ajax, jQuery, Node.js WebGL, Three.js, Unity, Material Design
Entities Webpages, text, images YouTube videos, tweets, (blog) posts etc. Photospheres, 360° videos, 3D models, Holos
Defined by / focus on Technology Data, social interaction, mash-ups, UX, responsiveness Immersion
Dimensions 2 2 >2

AR and VR—or 3D in general—will become the predominant kind of content created and consumed by users, taking the place of the plain content we’ve been used to so far. For instance, think of the personal portfolio of a painter. In the Web 1.0, it was a hand-crafted website created with Microsoft FrontPage. In the Web 2.0, it’s a WordPress page featuring a premium theme specifically designed as a showcase for paintings. Also, the painter has a dedicated Facebook page to connect with their fans. In the Web 3.0, the personal portfolio will be a walkthrough of a virtual 3D arts gallery, with the paintings virtually hanging on the walls. That walkthrough can be consumed using a web browser, either on a PC, on a tablet, on a smartphone, or through Google Cardboard. Therefore, everyone involved in creating websites and web applications will face new challenges: from presenting information in 3D to designing completely novel kinds of interactions to having to consider a wide variety of VR devices and so on. The very underlying look and feel of the web—for both, creators and consumers—will change drastically. 

In analogy to the two-dimensional Web 2.0, Web 3.0 is the perfect metaphor for the three-dimensional web that is currently evolving. Besides the development towards interconnectedness, IoT, linked data, and the Semantic Web, the fact that the we are moving away from the webpage paradigm (cf. “Atomic Design” by Brad Frost) and into the third dimension is one of the major indicators that we are on the verge of experiencing the Web 3.0. And I for my part find it really exciting.

1 This table raises no claims to completeness. Particularly, for the sake of simplicity, I omit the properties of Web 3.0 not connected to AR and VR.

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