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  • David Howell

Do We Want an Immersive Web?

A fully immersive web should have been a reality by now but is conspicuous by its absence. Do businesses need these immersive spaces? Is there a business case to build these environments? Does the technology need to improve further for mass uptake?

The concept of a fully immersive web has long been a tantalising vision for technologists and futurists alike. An environment where users can seamlessly navigate a three-dimensional space, interact with virtual environments, and engage with content in ways that mimic the physical world. While the idea of a fully immersive web is undoubtedly intriguing, its realisation is contingent on various technological, societal, and ethical considerations. One of the key technological hurdles to achieving a fully immersive web lies in the development of advanced virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies. Presently, VR and AR technologies have made significant strides, with devices like the Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens offering immersive experiences. However, for a truly pervasive and accessible fully immersive web, these technologies need to become more sophisticated, affordable, and user-friendly. Advancements in hardware, such as lighter and more comfortable VR headsets, improved haptic feedback systems, and more realistic graphics, are crucial for creating a convincing immersive experience. Additionally, developing responsive AI systems that can adapt to users’ behaviours and provide realistic interactions within virtual environments is essential. As technology continues to evolve, it is conceivable that these advancements will pave the way for a more immersive web experience. “The immersive web is a component of the broader metaverse concept,” Matt, founder of Your Simple Hosting, told Silicon UK. “While the immersive web enhances online experiences, the metaverse encompasses a collective, virtual shared space created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality. Cranfield continued: “UI and UX design are pivotal in crafting a more immersive web. They bridge users and the digital environment, ensuring interactions are intuitive, engaging, and seamless. Optimising involves leveraging visually appealing designs, streamlined navigation, and responsive layouts, all harmonising to maintain user focus and engagement.” The prospect of a fully immersive web is both exciting and challenging. Technological advancements, societal acceptance, and ethical considerations all play integral roles in determining whether this vision will become a reality. While significant progress has been made in the realm of VR and AR technologies, there is still much work to be done before a fully immersive web can be achieved. With continued innovation, thoughtful consideration of societal implications, and a commitment to ethical development, the dream of a fully immersive web may one day be within our grasp.

Entering the Metaverse, maybe

Silicon UK spoke with Andrew Furlong is Managing Director at REO Digital. And began by asking what role do user interfaces and user experience design play in creating a more immersive web, and how can they be optimized for this purpose? “By creating a spatial environment for users to interact with digital and or physical environments the immersive web, by definition, aims to create a heightened sensory experience for users,” Furlong responded. “The immersive web is a catch all term for any enhanced experience such as Google Earth accessible through a standard browser right the way through to a fully digital universe or augmented reality blurring the lines between the physical and the digital worlds. Andrew Furlong is Managing Director at REO Digital.“For example, who wouldn’t want try on a pair of digital shoes to check they look good and fit before committing to purchase them online – but to offer such an immersive experience, the interface and the overall design need to be more than allowing the user to complete a desired outcome, they need to provide an enhanced enjoyable experience that blurs the lines between digital and physical.

Andrew Furlong is Managing Director at REO Digital.

“The web as we know it has norms that users are accustomed to. We all know that clicking on the logo in the top left of a webpage will lead to the homepage for example. The same is not true within the immersive web. Truly personalised and adaptable experiences designed around highly intuitive user interfaces are critical to help users navigate, explore, and interact in 3D spatial environments. “User experience design is all about designing an experience focussed on the user’s interaction with a product or service or by extension an immersive environment. “UX design principles will play a hugely important role for the immersive web, but as technologies and hardware improve and adoption expands, the whole ethos of user experience design will change dramatically to meet the demands of the immersive web.”

Are there ethical considerations related to immersion on the web, such as issues of privacy, digital addiction, or data security?

“The web provides an infrastructure for a variety of mediums to reach, engage and influence billions of people. To protect the web and its users there are international standards in place governed by The World Wide Web Consortium or W3C. The immersive web presents different ethical considerations. For example, privacy in an augmented reality scenario, where the user exposes their home to see how a new sofa will look. Clearly the user cannot benefit from the enhanced experience without the “invasion” of privacy in their home. This privacy invasion intentional or not, means that immersive websites have the potential to reach users in ways never seen before through hyper personalised and contextual experiences. The enhanced sensory experiences provided expose users to manipulation the use of dark arts personalised to this extent could influence the user in harmful ways. “Also, the very recent history and evolution of standards from the web should be explored to create adequate frameworks for the immersive web such as: gaining express consent upfront from the user, tracking, use of personal data – including new personal data such as biometrics captured via the hardware used. Personal data and more broadly data security are particularly interesting topics to consider. Take for example, the augmented reality scenario of the sofa being superimposed into a living room. What if that immersive experience captures data in the shot, or that audio was enabled as part of the permissions and captures a private conversation between two people neither of which is the user – they just happened to be “extras” in this immersive experience. What laws do we have in place currently to protect and make secure the data of not just the users, but all these extras an immersive experience engulfs.”

Can you provide examples of industries or use cases where an immersive web is particularly promising or transformative?

“The immersive web is still in its infancy, but it has seen good adoption in certain industries and sectors that rely on captivating users or when a conceptual grasp of something is important such as engineering. “Augmented reality assists engineering with assembly, prototyping and repairs – the simple ability to manipulate 3D models instead of relying on CAD drawings for example, greatly speeds up prototyping, reduces costs and removes the chance of getting it wrong. Having the ability to overlay digital elements onto a physical component, such as a car engine part seen in situ within the engine is much easier to assemble correctly. “In the same way pilots have used flight simulators for years to fine tune their skills and gain important experience without putting passengers at risk, the healthcare industry is seeing rapid adoption of immersive web technologies. The use cases are many but much like the pilots, surgeons can use the augmented and virtual reality to fine tune their skills by rehearsing procedures. “The highly publicised Metaverse is shaping the retail sector of tomorrow with some household brands such as Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Selfridges investing in this new retail ecosystems. But there is one runaway winner and that is gaming, the gap between gaming and the immersive web is easier to bridge and the success of Fortnite with around 500million users demonstrates the appeal of immersive experiences.”

How does the immersive web impact content creation and distribution, and what challenges and opportunities does it present to content creators?

“The truth is content creation and distribution is in a constant state of flux. New mediums, platforms, distribution channels and trends continuously disrupt content. Think about the rise of influencers, vlogging, snapchat, Instagram etc., none of which even existed 10-15 years ago! So content is an adaptable beast. It bends and moulds to help people and organisations interact. The immersive web is in many ways a greenfield for content creators, they can truly think outside the box and collaborate in ways unseen before overlaying complimentary content that is then further transformed by users. The 360 spatial environment the immersive web offers means that content can really disrupt the experience or play a background role by subtly enhancing the immersive experience. “By embracing an immersive approach content creators can truly take users on a journey, through storytelling and expandable content individuals can dig deeper into the content and explore the world behind – think of each piece of content as a window into another immersive world. “Distribution needs to be personalised and expandable through user interaction. This expanded content is then recommended to other users. Gamification and VIP content distribution is likely to appeal in VR environments.”

What measures should be taken to ensure accessibility and inclusivity in an immersive web, especially for individuals with disabilities? And what is the role of standards and regulations in shaping the development and use of immersive web technologies?

“Ensuring digital immersive products, services, and environments can be used by everyone — regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities is crucial. From a regulatory standpoint it is difficult to envisage the immersive web not being legislated under:

  • Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)” requires businesses to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities.

  • The European Accessibility Act (EAA), is an EU law that will set new EU-wide minimum accessibility requirements for products and services.

“More widely W3C have issued “XR Accessibility User Requirements” for people with disabilities when using virtual reality or immersive environments, augmented or mixed reality and other related technologies. “There is a range of disabilities, and it is important to stress that an individual may have one or several, and some to a lesser or greater degree.

  • Auditory disabilities

  • Cognitive disabilities

  • Neurological disabilities

  • Physical disabilities

  • Speech disabilities

  • Visual disabilities

“The nature of certain immersive web environments will require complex interactions and inputs as well as a high level of accuracy and precision to interact in a meaningful way. These advanced and skilled environments are particularly challenging to make accessible and inclusive to all. W3C outline accessibility requirements including:

  • Navigation mechanisms must be intuitive with robust affordances. Navigation, location and object descriptions must be accurate and identified in a way that is understood by assistive technology.

  • Controls need to support alternative mapping, rearranging of position, resizing and sensitivity adjustment.

  • Allow multiple input methods to be used at the same time.

  • Ensure fine motion control is not needed to activate an input.

  • Ensure hit targets are large enough with suitable spacing around the

  • Ensure Navigation and interaction can be controlled by Voice Activation.

  • Allow the screen magnification user to check the context of their view and track/reset focus as needed.

  • Support touch screen accessibility gestures (e.g. swipes, flicks and single, double or triple taps with 1, 2 or 3 fingers)

  • Allow text, objects, or item descriptions to be presented to the user via a signing avatar (pre-recorded only)

“Making the immersive web accessible is not without challenges such as the need for multi-modal support, synchronisation of input and output devices and customisation. But the use of new input and interaction techniques is also encouraging and could open up the immersive web to all.”

What are the implications for E-commerce and online businesses in an immersive web, and how can they adapt to this changing landscape?

“One significant challenge of online shopping is the absence of physical interaction with products, which is a staple of traditional retail in-store experiences. Studies in consumer behaviour such as our own Walking in Your Customers Footsteps indicate a higher satisfaction level when customers can handle and test a product, contributing to a more decisive decision to purchase. In contrast, E-commerce platforms traditionally struggle to replicate this tactile engagement, which can lead to hesitation and abandonment. “However, technological advancements are bridging this gap. Augmented Reality (AR) is revolutionising the E-commerce sector by simulating the in-store experience. AR enables shoppers to visualise products in real-world settings, essentially ‘trying before buying.’ For instance, AR technology empowers brands to offer shoppers the ability to virtually try on (products), contextually shop by comparing products in situ, and demonstrate products within realistic lifestyle settings. “This functionality isn’t just about seeing the product; it’s about interacting with it within the space it’s intended for, which adds a layer of confidence to the buying process. By implementing AR, brands are seeing a quicker decision-making process among consumers, which often translates to increased sales and brand loyalty. “Furthermore, the use of AR and VR for interactive product showcases is a burgeoning trend, gaining rapid adoption among forward-thinking E-commerce businesses. These immersive experiences are not just gimmicks; they represent a shift towards a more engaging and customer-centric online shopping environment. For any E-commerce brand looking to stay ahead of the curve, investing in AR and VR technologies is a wise strategic move that could redefine the customer journey and set new benchmarks for user satisfaction and conversion rates. “Once the experience matches or even surpasses the in-store experience, and that confidence of decision making is established, the immersive web has the capacity to truly transform how we shop.”

Are there concerns about information overload in an immersive web, and how can users effectively navigate and filter content?

“In an era where the digital landscape is saturated with a relentless stream of information, the phenomenon of ‘information overload’ has become a pressing concern, a problem User Experience (UX) designers are very aware of. The immersive web, with its burgeoning sensory and informational layers, threatens to compound this issue, leading to user paralysis — a state where an excess of information hampers decision-making abilities and negatively affects the experience for users. “Our cognitive capacity, while remarkable, is not limitless. We excel at processing incoming data, but lag in generating output at the same rate. This discrepancy becomes especially pronounced in the immersive web — an environment where users are expected to absorb, analyse, and act upon information rapidly. Without intuitive navigation and clear prioritisation, users can become cognitively overwhelmed, impairing their ability to focus, retain information, and grasp complex concepts. This cognitive strain can deteriorate the user experience, leading to frustration and disengagement. “As the immersive web expands and users are met with a plethora of new content types in a 360 spatial environment there is a real risk of sensory overload leading to a paradox of choice. Faced with myriad options, content, input techniques and information points, users can find themselves in a state of decisional paralysis, unable to choose and thus more likely to abandon the task altogether. This indecision can precipitate higher rates of abandonment and, consequently, a dip in user satisfaction. UX designers and immersive web technologies must grapple with these challenges, the imperative to streamline information and simplify user choices has never been more critical. “Taking an inclusive design approach can hugely help when considering information overload, it is the sweet spot between accessibility and universal design — it is all about listening and adapting, about welcoming feedback from users with disabilities with open arms and a keen ear, improving their experience will improve it for all.”

How does the immersive web relate to the broader concept of the Metaverse, and are they essentially the same thing?

“The term “Metaverse” really took off when Facebook rebranded to Meta and said it would be investing billions into this new digital arena. In reality the term has become a buzzword synonymous with a spectrum of immersive virtual experiences where users can create content, shape and modify the universe while interacting with other users and potentially other universes through a network hence the term… the hugely popular game “Fortnite” and Meta’s own “Horizon” are examples. “In comparison the immersive web can be seen as both more expansive and the gateway or stepping stone to the Metaverse. In other words, the metaverse is the end destination while the immersive web is the journey there. Today the immersive web is broader in its application. It encompasses everything from virtual try-on boutiques to the high-stakes precision of virtual engineering and the metaverse. The metaverse is immersive by design so there is a genuine fusion of the two, but these new digital realms are still very much taking shape, and are, as such both used interchangeably.”

How can individuals and businesses prepare for the transition to an immersive web, and what skills or knowledge will be valuable in this evolving digital landscape?

“The dawn of the immersive web and its cornerstone, the Metaverse, heralds a seismic shift in digital interaction, promising to erase the boundaries that confine our physical and virtual worlds. This revolutionary horizon will not just spontaneously emerge; it demands the concerted efforts of a coalition of expertise that extends beyond the realm of technology, inviting a diverse array of professionals—researchers, virtual architects, 3D designers, coders, product managers; UX as well as hardware and sensor manufacturers—to converge in a concerted effort. Their mission? To shape virtual environments that resonate with intuitive ease in much the way our physical world interactions do. “At the core of this expansive undertaking is a commitment to a user-centric design philosophy. It is a vision that places the user’s experience at the forefront, ensuring that these emerging platforms are as universally accessible as they are innovative. The Metaverse, in its ideal form, is envisioned as a digital democracy, a place where every barrier is dismantled, and inclusivity is not just an afterthought but the blueprint from which every decision is mapped. “The rise of the internet, social media, and mobile technology, which many of us have lived through, were all once novelties themselves, but what is unequivocal is that the future is shaped by those who embrace learning and adaptability. In an era where change is the only certainty, remaining informed and agile is not just advantageous, it is imperative. “Businesses, therefore, must heed the lessons of the past and present stagnation is the antithesis of survival. The rapid pace of digital innovation does not punish but simply passes by the inert. To thrive in the rapidly unfolding future, organisations must pivot with purpose, embrace the educational curve, and design with foresight. In this digital odyssey, professional acumen and adaptability will distinguish the trailblazers from the static, as we all venture into the uncharted territories of the metaverse and immersive web.”

What trends and developments do you foresee in the field of the immersive web, and how do you think it will evolve in the coming years?

“The immersive web and the Metaverse are setting the stage for a profound transformation across numerous sectors of society, prompting both excitement and caution. The promise of immersive web to enhance education with interactive learning, to pioneer new frontiers in healthcare, and to elevate gaming, entertainment, and the retail with deeply immersive experiences is fuelling visions of a fundamentally altered world. Moreover, the potential for new forms of social and civic engagement suggests a future of heightened connectivity and participation. “It would be short sighted not to consider the advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and how this will speed up the advancements of the immersive web and its adoption. AI systems promise not only to automate but to create synergies with human intelligence, the immersive web and the metaverse could very well be where this fusion occurs. “Yet, as this digital dawn approaches, concerns about the broader implications of such a comprehensive digital integration and the potential surrender of some of what makes us special as humans are emerging. Issues of health, safety, security, privacy, and the economic impact of the immersive web and the Metaverse are sparking intense debate. Beyond this is a battle for the digital realm itself. Big tech that currently controls most of the current digital world vs a decentralised new web 3 is a burgeoning battle, the implications that could have on the wider culture and societal norms are potentially profoundly far reaching. “This unfolding narrative around the immersive web is reshaping not just technology’s role in society but also the very way we conceive of our digital, and potentially our own physical existence. As discussions around the maturation of the Metaverse intensify, the focus is not just on what these environments will become, but also how they will weave into the existing societal tapestry, challenging established norms and encouraging a reimagining of what it means to live in an increasingly digital reality.

Fully immersive?

In contemplating the prospect of a fully immersive web it becomes evident that the journey toward such a digital frontier is fraught with both promise and caution. The allure of seamlessly engaging with lifelike environments and connecting with others in ways previously unimaginable is undeniably compelling. However, the realisation of a fully immersive web necessitates a careful balance between technological innovation, societal readiness, and ethical considerations. As we stand at the intersection of the tangible and the virtual, questions arise about the desirability of a world where the digital and physical realms blur. The appeal of escapism into immersive experiences competes with concerns about the potential consequences of such a transformation. Privacy, security, and the impact on our wellbeing are paramount considerations that must be debated. Ultimately, the answer to whether we want a fully immersive web is complex and multifaceted. It calls for a collective reflection on our values, priorities, and the kind of world we aspire to inhabit. Striking the right balance between technological progress and ethical responsibility is critical. The journey toward a fully immersive web should be guided by a commitment to fostering positive, inclusive, and enriching experiences, mindful of the potential challenges that may arise. As we navigate this evolving digital landscape, the dialogue surrounding the fully immersive web extends beyond technological feasibility to encompass the societal, ethical, and personal dimensions of our digital future. The decision lies not just in the hands of technologists and innovators but in the collective consciousness of a global community. It is a conversation that invites us to weigh the benefits against the risks, the excitement of new possibilities against the caution warranted by the unknown. In the end, whether we want a fully immersive web hinges on our capacity to shape it responsibly — to harness its potential for connection, creativity, and progress while safeguarding the values that define our humanity. The journey toward a fully immersive web is not merely a technological odyssey; it is a profound exploration of our aspirations, limitations, and the kind of digital world we envision for generations to come.

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