Virtual Reality in WordPress: Are You Ready to Give This a Shot?

As I read through Brenda Barron’s predictions for WordPress web design trends in 2018, I was surprised to see virtual reality (VR) show up on the list. Here’s why:

Statista puts the number of global virtual reality users at 171 million this year. While that number is nothing to scoff at, it only refers to VR users who own headsets like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and cheaper alternatives that turn your smartphone into a headset like the Google Daydream or Cardboard.

I had always assumed that virtual reality was strictly for gamers, which I think that statistic does a good job of demonstrating. However, as things like gamification and video become a more inherent part of WordPress websites, I can see how this trend for more immersive and interactive experiences would lead to virtual reality integration.

So, this now begs the question:

Does your audience actually want a virtual experience when they visit your website?

And further:

Do you have the tools available to reasonably build a virtual experience for your users?

I think Brenda was right: I believe WordPress developers will be more inclined to integrate virtual reality into WordPress sites this year. However, I think it’s important to examine which types of sites are right for this design feature as well as which tools you can use to create them before deciding to explore this web design trend for your own purposes. So, let’s dig a little deeper into what virtual reality in WordPress really means.

What You Should Expect from Virtual Reality in WordPress

I think the first exposure I ever had to virtual reality was in watching the movie The Lawnmower Man.

For those of you who missed that Stephen King-inspired gem, there was The Matrix that took virtual reality to darker depths a few years later:

Regardless of which type of VR left an impression on you, you might still revert back to those images when the subject of virtual reality is broached today (I know I do). That’s why talking about virtual reality for web (or mobile) users is somewhat difficult to approach since it requires a retooling of how we view what a virtual experience actually entails.

To clarify, virtual reality in WordPress won’t be like a virtual reality simulation or game, at least not as it stands right now. It’s more practical than that. In essence, it gives users the ability to experience a 3D space, product, or even a hypothetical situation through their web or mobile browser. And they can do so without having to invest in an expensive VR headset. All they need is a computer or smart device and the ability to click or swipe through the experience.

Google Maps Street View is a good example of web-based virtual reality that we’re all familiar with. Simply pull up an address, drop the orange marker where you want to explore further, and then step onto the virtual/real street.

VR in WordPress - Google Maps
One of the most well-known forms of VR today: Google Maps Street View.

Sotheby’s International Realty has some awesome examples of virtual experiences on their site, too. Each video allows users to explore various properties that are for sale, both inside and out.

VR in WordPress - Sotheby's
Sotheby’s deals in luxury real estate, so it makes sense they’d encourage sellers to use VR.

There’s also Ray-Ban which has a virtual model tool you can use to try on different pairs of sunglasses without having to visit a store. This isn’t just about slapping an image of their sunglasses on your face either, this is about getting to see how snazzy those glasses look from all angles.

VR in WordPress - Ray-Ban
What do you think? Does this virtual model of me look good in these sunglasses?

Pretty cool, right?

As I see it, there are a number of clear use cases for virtual reality in WordPress right now:

  • e-Commerce sites that want to show off 360-degree views of their products or that want to give customers the chance to “try them on”.
  • Auto manufacturers that want to give customers the ability to test-drive or inspect the inside and outside of a car before buying.
  • Real estate companies trying to sell or rent properties by providing virtual walk-throughs.
  • Travel and other hospitality businesses that want to sell an experience by giving people a chance to see it up-close and personal.
  • Entertainment and news sites that want to create engaging, on-the-scene visuals to accompany stories.
  • Companies with a thriving corporate culture that would benefit from giving clients a chance to see how it all works behind the scenes.
  • Internal company intranet sites that provide virtual training for employees.

While this web design trend might not be for everyone, you can see that the various uses for it are quite practical. This isn’t some shallow gimmick you’d be using to drum up attention in the short-term. Virtual reality can really improve the user experience on a WordPress site.

8 Tools and Plugins You Can Use to Add Virtual Reality to WordPress

As a WordPress developer, you’re always on the lookout for new ways to both appease and impress your clients (as well as their visitors and customers). If you’ve started to imagine ways in which you can use this virtual reality web design trend in 2018, just remember to consider the following first:

  • Is there a virtual reality experience that makes sense for your WordPress site?
  • How much will it cost to create the virtual reality experience?
  • Are you aware of how much additional time it will take to add the virtual reality element to your site?

Since there are a variety of ways in which you can use virtual reality in WordPress, it’s important to understand how much work goes into each method. So, let’s take a look at what sort of tools exist outside as well as within WordPress to help you create and then add virtual experiences to your site.

Creating Virtual Experiences

  • WebVR

    WebVR is a JavaScript API created so that web developers could craft their own virtual reality experiences for the web. While you will notice that their documentation provides support for VR experiences that cater to headset users, you can still use this if your visitors only have a computer or smartphone from which to view the experience.

    Also worthy of note is how many other VR builder tools are based on the WebVR API. For example:

    Vizor, which enables developers to create 360 experiences:

    VR in WordPress - Vizor
    If you want to build your own 360 spherical tour or experience, Vizor can help.

    Sketchfab, which is a place to find 3D products and images to use on your WordPress site (you can also share your work with others):

    VR in WordPress - Sketchfab
    Sketchfab is like the Dribbble of virtual reality images and video.

    PlayCanvas, which is great if you want to create an immersive experience or game for your site:

    VR in WordPress - PlayCanvas
    PlayCanvas can be used to build your own immersive VR.
  • MozVR

    Mozilla took the WebVR API and merged it with their own A-Frame web framework to create a truly powerful and easy-to-use tool for developers wanting to design their own experiences using HTML. Here’s a look at some of the cool things you can accomplish with MozVR:

  • React VR

    For WordPress developers interested in building their own immersive, 360-degree experiences using JavaScript, you should check out Facebook’s contribution to virtual reality: React VR. They’ve published an incredibly thorough guide on Github that includes all the information you need to get started using their proprietary source code to build virtual experiences for your WordPress sites.

  • Matterport

    This solution probably won’t be for most of you. That said, I still think it’s worth mentioning for those of you who work in a niche that would benefit from including 3D walkthroughs on every site you build.

    VR in WordPress - Matterport
    Buy a 3D camera from Matterport and start creating your own immersive, 3D experiences.

    Matterport isn’t a software or framework like most of the other suggestions on this list; it’s actually a 3D camera and scanner. You pay for the camera equipment (which is expensive, but, at the same time, simplifies the process of creating these videos) and then pay a monthly fee for cloud storage to host your VR videos. All you need to do then is embed the 3D video on your site and voila! You now have a fully custom-made and third-party-stored virtual experience that is sure to impress customers.

Adding Virtual Experiences to WordPress

  • WordPress Shortcode Embed

    At the end of 2016, WordPress announced virtual reality integration capabilities for all its paid users (meaning self-hosted WordPress.org users and those with premium WordPress.com memberships). All you need to do is upload your 360-degree photos or videos to WordPress and then embed them on whatever pages want using the shortcode provided (see link below).

  • 360° Panoramic Image Viewer Plugin

    If you have 360-degree photos, this premium WordPress plugin not only gives you the ability to turn them into navigable experiences, but also allows you to create hotspots within them–all from within WordPress! In addition, this plugin includes a shortcode generator within your Tiny MCE editor, so you don’t have to worry about coding this content into your website.

  • PanoPress Plugin

    PanoPress is a free WordPress plugin that helps you get 360-degree images and videos into your WordPress website. This plugin was created using a number of panorama creation apps, so it’s capable of hosting a variety of virtual reality content and is compatible with most devices. In addition to the standard horizontal 360 navigation, this plugin works with spherical panoramas, partial panoramas, virtual tours, product spinning viewers, and more.

  • Smart Product Viewer - 360° Animation Plugin

    This premium WordPress plugin is meant for those of you who build e-commerce websites; especially, in WooCommerce. It’s easy to use too and creates a really cool product animation for your store. In addition to showing off 360-degree product views, you can also create animations that demonstrate how your products work.

Wrapping Up

It’s clear that, when the application of virtual reality in WordPress is done right, there are major benefits to reap. For instance:

  • You’re offering visitors a more immersive experience than other types of media usually do.
  • Virtual reality in WordPress doesn’t require users to download special apps to access the experience.
  • Visitors don’t need a pricey VR headset to experience it. They simply need their finger or a mouse to drag around and through the experience.
  • It puts the viewers more in control of your site’s content.
  • Gives prospective customers a way to test out your product or service in a way that’s convenient for them.
  • This type of media will appeal to tech-savvy users and give your brand major clout for doing a good job of implementing it.
  • Virtual reality content will increase your visitors’ time-on-site which will help your SEO efforts.
  • It’s definitely something that will give your WordPress site–and your credibility as a web developer–a major boost when compared to the competition.

At the end of the day, you need to decide whether virtual reality is the right technology for your WordPress site. If a mobile app isn’t for you, if SMS doesn’t seem right, then maybe virtual reality will be the cool, techy element your site uses. And with affordable (and free) tools and frameworks that enable you to add it to WordPress, why not give it a shot?

Suzanne Scacca
What are your thoughts on virtual reality in WordPress? Do you think this has a real shot at sticking around past 2018 or is it a passing fad?