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Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas
Technology

Surfing the Net Is Old School. Soon, We May Inhabit It

A computer science alum has created a technology that turns the web into a virtual world

In 1984, William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer helped popularize the idea of cyberspace. With the aid of a computer, you could jack into a digitally created alternate universe and connect with billions of people around the world.

This pretty much describes the modern Internet. But JanusVR, a web browsing and design platform co-created by U of T computer science grad James McCrae (PhD 2014), goes a step beyond: It replaces the traditional web with a more interactive and social cyberspace, using virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Oculus Rift.

Put on an Oculus headset and load up JanusVR, and you’re plunged into a 3-D representation of the Internet. Instead of watching YouTube clips on a computer monitor, as you do in the real world, you feel like you’re sitting on a couch inside a giant personal theatre, watching clips on an obscenely large panoramic screen.

Finished watching? Walk your avatar out the door and you may find yourself in a lobby representing the front page of the social media site Reddit. The walls are lined with more doorways, each leading to another website.

McCrae describes these doorways as a reinvention of browsing the web. “Instead of a piece of text that you click that gives you this discrete jump from one page to another, we thought of this portal, where it’s almost like a tear in space. It seamlessly connects two pages that are adjacent,” he explains.

This allows you, for instance, to leave the Reddit lobby and find yourself on the surface of Mars, built from maps and high-res images from NASA’s website – the planet’s mountainous vista in the distance all around you.

Perhaps most importantly, multiple people can inhabit these spaces together, appearing to each other as avatars and interacting with each other just like they would in real life.

McCrae and his team of nine, including co-founder and U of T computer science professor Karan Singh, often find themselves in different places around the world, so they sometimes meet inside JanusVR itself, showing off their newest concepts.

In the four years since it launched, JanusVR has built a dedicated and growing community of fans, users and creators building their virtual worlds, all connected via portal-like doorways. To further democratize the experience – and sidestep the price of VR head­sets – McCrae’s team has also launched Vesta, a desktop-based method for people to explore these spaces with a regular computer.

McCrae cites Neuromancer as well as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash among his strongest sources of “inspiration and excitement” for JanusVR, as “the kind of books that tease [out] the kind of world you long for.”

Modern-day VR hasn’t yet reached the level of sophistication in cyberpunk novels, but he’s optimistic about the progress already under way. Companies such as Oculus are working toward cheaper, lighter and eventually completely wireless headsets. “If we could work out all these limits of current technology, and the hardware was totally amazing, how far could you go?” McCrae asks. “How crazy could it be?”

Holding business meetings or watching YouTube videos in VR isn’t as crazy as Keanu Reeves jacking into the matrix and doing acrobatic martial arts. But the technology is still very young.

“The idea was, we’re going to deepen the connection between man and machine toward a more natural means of interaction,” he says.

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