Google-backed WebRTC celebrates 5 years – and hundreds of projects

On this five-year anniversary of the open sourcing of WebRTC, it's worth noting some of the milestones the technology has achieved – and what it might achieve in applications like virtual reality.

WebRTC, which stands for Web Real-Time Communications, is a fast-emerging standard that allows voice and video communications to be added to websites and mobile apps without a standalone phone or videoconferencing service. More than 950 projects and companies are building products on top of WebRTC, and the number of projects using WebRTC grew by 70 percent over the past year alone.

"Over the past five years, we've seen many, many different businesses" and hundreds of companies building businesses around WebRTC in interesting and novel ways that weren't originally forecast, said Justin Uberti, principal software engineer at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and the co-founder of WebRTC.

Qbtech, for example, just received FDA approval for a new product that uses WebRTC to assess symptoms of ADHD. Traditional methods for assessing ADHD typically use subjective rating scales from physicians, but Qbtech created tools that provide objective measurements by analyzing motion tracking over video. After implementing WebRTC, the company was able to go from a system based on specialized hardware to a web application that could run on a normal computer -- opening up access to this testing technology to more hospitals, smaller clinics, schools, and even rural providers that might not have the budget for more specialized solutions.

Taking the technology and truly democratizing it -- using it in ways that are far beyond just making a phone call -- provides inspiration, according to Uberti.

At Google, they've created their own products using WebRTC, like the popular Google Hangouts. At I/O 2016, Google announced the upcoming smart messaging app Allo featuring a Google assistant, and Duo, which includes a feature called Knock Knock where the user can see video of the person calling them in real time, providing context for the receiver. Once you answer the call it goes from the live preview right into the call so you don't miss a beat.  

Several WebRTC milestones have been achieved over the years. Google released an open source project for WebRTC in May 2011, and followed that with work to standardize the relevant protocols in the IETF and browser APIs in the W3C. The project works with a number of carriers and companies like Ericsson, which gets credit for building the first implementation of WebRTC. At the 2015 AT&T Developer Summitt, AT&T announced that it would be the first U.S. carrier to launch commercial support for WebRTC via its AT&T Enhanced WebRTC API.  

In the Internet of Things, all kinds of applications are being discussed, from drones to a doorbell that sends a video so you can see who's at the door. Another up-and-coming area is virtual reality. Uberti didn't go into too many specifics, but he said communications has been a fundamental part of every wave of computing, and with VR, people will want to communicate and share their experiences. Typically, with a VR headset on your face, you lose contact with those outside, but with with WebRTC, it doesn't have to be a solitary experience – it provides the ability to communicate and share those VR experiences with someone else.

Disruptive Analysis director Dean Bubley has called WebRTC the most important new communications technology of the decade, enabling developers to create a broad array of communications-enabled consumer and business applications. By his estimates, more than a billion people will be regular users of WebRTC through their day-to-day calling, social network or enterprise applications by the end of 2019.

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