Back in the nineties, the World Wide Web was a glorified bulletin board made of HTML. The online environment consisted mostly of static text and images. Then, in the early aughts, the so-called Web 2.0 era came along and the online experience became dynamic and interactive. According to Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle (who coined the term), “Web 2.0 is all about harnessing collective intelligence.” Examples of collective intelligence on the Web include Wikipedia (knowledge database written collaboratively by unpaid volunteers), Twitter (megaphone for revolutions and complaints), and, of course, Facebook (interactive repository of baby and pet photos). The 2.0 version of the Web is a stream of our collective unconscious where any troll, Dick, or Harry can contribute to conversation topics that are trending across the globe. So when will the Web shift to a new ‘3.0’ paradigm, and what might that look like?
Our collective online experience will change in response to a radical transformation in the vessels we use to navigate it. In other words, the next revolution in the online experience will stem from a shift in dominant computing platforms. During Facebook’s quarterly earnings statement in October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “Every 10-15 years a new major computing platform arrives, and we think virtual and augmented reality are important parts of this upcoming next platform.” Zuckerberg was referring to his Oculus virtual reality technology.
If companies like Facebook and Google are successful, the next dominant computing platform will be augmented and virtual reality hardware like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass (update: Google has scrapped its first version of Glass and plans to revise the product this year). Devices like these will likely usher in the next evolutionary step of the World Wide Web – call it the ‘Web 3.0’ if you like. This upcoming iteration of the Web will be virtual and immersive in nature, corresponding with the hardware through which we experience it.
The Web 3.0 will include websites that you can ‘walk’ inside, virtual reality Skype calls, and transparent websites layered over real environments.
In this World Wide Web, the user will interact with real landscapes that are augmented with digital information, or enter a virtual environment that is both realistic and fantastical in nature. Since Facebook owns Oculus, their headsets will likely integrate social media into the interface itself. Currently, the Oculus Rift headset is being developed with a focus on gaming, but it’s easy to imagine a 3D social media experience with Skype-like functionality: you’ll dial up your best friend in London, and have a conversation that looks and feels like you are sitting in the same room together.
Death of the ‘Webpage’
What will become of your standard small business website in an era of immersive Web? Perhaps a domain name will no longer function as the address of a web ‘page’ – a single document that refers to other pages (now that I think about it, that whole concept sounds more dated than a Max Headroom episode). It’s time that websites themselves become fluid and immersive. Maybe your website will be more like your house: a 3D environment that the user can enter and explore, with seamless transitions occurring between areas of the site, featuring an ever-present dashboard that includes social integration and news updates. Maybe instead of visiting a company’s static homepage, you’ll take a 3D tour of the factory and showroom. Instead of using a link list for navigation, you’ll be guided by wayfinding signage the same way you would in, say, an airport.
The Web of the future will also need to have transparency and flexible opacity – so that it can be superimposed over the user’s environment during everyday activities.
When will the Web 3.0 arrive?
The last major shift in computing platforms was the mobile web, which rose to prominence after the debut of the iPhone in 2007. Computing moved into the palm of your hand, websites went responsive, and your Mom learned how to play Candy Crush. By Zuckerberg’s assessment (10–15 years between platform shifts), that means we’ll be due for a dominant new platform by roughly 2017 (according to proponents of the Singularity, technological change is always accelerating, so I’ll go with the lower end of Zuckerberg’s timeframe). It’s likely that the platform will be wearable and VR technology, resulting in an ‘immersive Web.’
What will happen to the social Web we know today?
I remember when the show Survivor premiered back in May, 2000. The smash hit took off, and the reality television craze ignited with the ferocity of a screaming match at the Osbournes’ house. I expected this noxious trend to come and go in a flash – but on the contrary, it has stuck around to define an era of entertainment. As Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn note in their book Understanding Reality Television, “the formats, images and conventions of Reality TV have stitched themselves into the very fabric of television, its economic structures, schedules and viewing cultures.”
Likewise, it’s tempting to wonder when the social, interactive ‘2.0’ era of the web will end – in order to make room for emerging platforms. The truth is that social media continues to evolve and will likely be stitched into the fabric of whatever comes next. Facebook, for example, is bigger than a trend in cultural connectivity. Zuckerberg has proven himself to be a forward-thinking CEO who is currently developing projects, like Oculus, that have yet to come to fruition.
The ‘Web 3.0’ won’t replace the interactive, social web experience that we know today. It will merely integrate it into an immersive new online experience.