The future of the web is a system that is completely different depending on the method of access, to the point where many will think of it as several completely different things, thanks to the future evolution of technologies such as virtual reality.
When the World Wide Web launched a quarter of a century ago, it was accessed on hulking desktop computers in university labs and the homes of the wealthy but nerdy.
Over time this spread, first to more affordable computers and then to laptops and palmtops, and finally on to smartphones and tablets. Now we expect to be able to access the web in some form from almost every electronic device we own, including TVs, smartwatches, music players and more.
The abilities that the internet has given us have made us almost superhuman. We can find the answer to almost any question in moments, and learn almost any skill just through online resources.
In some countries the internet is now even regarded as a human right, something so important that it would be abhorrent to prevent people from accessing it.
Evolving the web
The internet as we know it know is just a step on the road to what it will become. Just as it has moved far beyond the first web page, so will it continue to change and grow as technology allows.
Most interesting, however, will be the fact that it will evolve to become several different forms of internet, depending on the method of access.
We are already starting to see the embryo of this at present.
CSS3 mobile queries have enabled websites to appear differently depending on the device they are accessed from. While for most websites this just means a simplified version for smartphones, some have gone to greater extremes by tailoring content and in some cases serving completely different designs to suit the audience.
But this is nothing on what we are going to see in the future.
At present, while we might get different sites depending on whether we log on with a tablet or a desktop, we are always accessing the information in basically the same way.
However, our future selves might be accessing the internet through a number of different means, which require the information to be displayed in ways that are virtually incompatible.
Virtual reality and the future of the internet
While some of these technologies are yet to be invented, there are a few that look likely to grow in use and dominance.
The most prominent of these is virtual reality. Oculus Rift is nearing consumer-readiness, and tech giants such as Sony have finally started to wade into the VR pool.
For most, VR is about gaming, but there is also a movement to make it work on the web.
For anyone who has dreamed about a fully immersive internet such as the one portrayed in the Futurama episode A Bicyclops Built for Two, the prospect is very exciting.
The leading work in this area is a project called Janus VR, which is an internet browser developed specifically for the Oculus Rift.
In its most basic form, Janus VR reinterprets the web as 3D spaces, with links as doors and images as pictures on a virtual wall. However, inventor James McCrae has also added Janus-specific code that web designers can add to any site they build.
Users browsing from regular computers won’t see any effects of the code, but if you visit the site with a Rift you could be met with a full 3D world, complete with interactive elements. Other users can even meet you there and communicate over voice or text.
Janus VR is very much in its infancy, buts its potential is obvious and support is growing. Before long it could become a common browsing method with its own set of standards, completely separate from those used for the traditional web.
Hearing the web through virtual assistants
The projected rise of virtual assistants – starting with today’s technologies such as Apple’s Siri and Google Now – also present a possible alternative version of the web.
Chris Brauer, co-director of CAST at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently said that virtual assistants (VAs) would in the future be our primary access point to the web.
We would ask questions of our own personal VAs, who would provide us with answers through their own web searches.
If VAs become this common, web design – or at least a part of it – but undoubtedly evolve to match.
Just as web design trends have closely followed the best approaches to getting a high Google ranking, the web’s content could be increasingly presented in a manner meant for virtual assistants, not humans, to access.
Given that some of us will still wish to access the web through traditional means, this information is likely to end up in its own separate space – a section of the internet only accessible by VAs just as the VR web is only viewable on a VR-compatible browser.
The internet’s fractured future
Undoubtedly there will be other means of access that require different versions of the web for their own suiting, brought about by new developments in technology that are barely ideas at present.
All of this will result in an internet with many faces – although it will all be one system, the code for each access type will be unreadable by the others.
As a result the internet as we use it on different devices will be so radically different that non-techy users will think of it a several completely separate things.
The internet as we know it will be one of several, and may even fade into obscurity as other access methods become more popular.