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As CES 2023 approaches with a lot of metaverse talk, one of the technologies that is coming to the forefront of standards discussions is Universal Scene Description, or USD.
The metaverse has many definitions, but many view it as a 3D version of the web, a network or universe of virtual worlds and destinations that represent the next generation of the internet.
In an ideal world, the metaverse will be open — not owned by any single company — and it will be interoperable so that platforms, developers and users can reuse their 3D assets and carry them across the virtual worlds that might be as plentiful as websites.
While game companies like Roblox, Microsoft (Minecraft) and Epic Games (Fortnite) have created the most metaverse-like experiences to date, just about every industry will likely invest in the metaverse, the same way that all companies did so with the Web.
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Among enterprises, companies such as Nvidia have galvanized interest in creating digital twins, where companies like BMW can design a factory in a digital space and then build that factory in the real world. As the companies operate the real factories, they can collect sensor data that can be used to make the digital twin better, resulting in improvements to the real factories. There are many such applications possible with the metaverse, and that’s why reusing assets — and setting metaverse standards — is so important.
“It’s probably one of the biggest things that has ever happened for computer graphics. Because if we can get this kind of standardization, what it essentially does is unlock the potential progress we can make,” said Rev Lebaredian, vice president of Omniverse and simulation technology at Nvidia, in an interview with GameBeat. “Today, there’s a lot of effort that’s made to create 3D tools, 3D datasets, 3D experiences, where there’s a lot of redundant work happening. We’re not building on the same foundation. Everybody has to redo everything every time.”
USD is a 3D file format that can be like a lingua franca that makes those assets compatible, with a chance to unify both user experiences and developer workflows. It could be a standard that enables the metaverse — which many see as the next version of the internet — just like HTML enabled the Web.
Richard Kerris, vice president of the Omniverse platform at Nvidia, said at our recent MetaBeat event, “We think of USD as the HTML of 3D. The connective tissue that we experience the web through today is HTML. That’s what makes it seamless from website to website, device to device. It wasn’t always that way. But those of us that are old enough to remember [things like] what extension do you have loaded? What browser?”
He added, “Once that got remedied with HTML, everything’s been smooth sailing. USD is going to do that for 3D so that we can go from virtual world to virtual world seamlessly.”
To make the metaverse happen faster, Kerris believes everybody needs to align around a standard.
“We’re seeing that happen more and more with USD,” he said. “I think every 3D company out there today either supports USD or has a plan to support USD in one way or another, whether it’s exporting out to it or creating a live bidirectional connector to the platform. But that takes time. And it takes everybody working together for it. You don’t want to have walled gardens around this. It doesn’t work on the internet. It’s not going to work in the metaverse. You want to have everything be open and accessible.”
The number of companies using USD in one way or another is now in the thousands, Lebaredian said.
“We’re well on our way to making this a real standard,” Lebaredian said. “I think every single 3D tools maker, engine maker and others have USD on their radar.”
But the process of setting the standard takes time as it requires some democratic feedback. And it isn’t clear if there will be more than one standard in this space yet.
Tony Parisi is chief strategy officer for Lamina1, which is a blockchain infrastructure company started by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. Parisi was also a pioneer of the VRML (virtual reality markup language), which was aimed at standardizing 3D on the Web in the 1990s. It was ahead of its time, but it set in motion a lot of the technologies in place today that are aimed at running 3D imagery anywhere.
He favors the glTF 3D file format which is targeted at enabling 3D on the web for smartphones. It’s kind of a low-end technology meant to ensure that computers or smartphones of any kind can display a 3D object for an e-commerce site without looking janky. By contrast, the heavy-duty USD is aimed more at makers of games and films, and in some cases it might not be as efficient as glTF in mobile apps.
“With glTF it was designed to deliver it onto a phone, get it into a web page,” he said. “Those aren’t the same goals. They can intersect and overlap on the high-end side of glTF. USD was not designed to deliver and render a 3D interactive experience on someone’s phone.”
Hub and spoke
With a USD pipeline, there is a kind of hub-and-spoke model. The hub is where the data is at the center. The tools that can access and update that data are the spokes. All the tools can update the data as needed, without losing anything, Lebaredian said.
“Normally, when a company has a complex 3D pipeline, they also need pipeline engineers, somebody to create all the glue that lets them use these tools together, or they do some ad hoc thing,” he said. “It’s a lot of maintenance. It’s nowhere near as useful as they would like.”
A big problem with that pipeline model is if you make a change in one part of the pipeline, you have to propagate that change across tools in other parts of the pipeline.
“That’s why Pixar invented USD,” Lebaredian said. “Pixar was the first one to really solve this fundamental problem. So there’s really nothing else that’s that compares to USD in this way. It’s unique in this regard.”
A long journey — how far to go?
It’s inspiring to be able to point to the web as an example of an open platform supported by open standards. But it’s also discouraging as it shows that the journey can be a long one. Nobody expects this to be an easy or a short journey. Standards take time to happen, and there are going to be a lot of them related to the metaverse. No one company can do it all, Kerris said.
“USD has to become open, and it has to really be taken over by a third-party consortium of some sort, either through the Open Software Foundation or Khronos or something like that,” said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at Tirias Research. “Everybody gets a say in it, and everybody feels that it’s not proprietary to one company.”
USD has a chance to become a defacto standard, but it could reach a wider audience if it becomes an official standard validated by a standards committee.
“I think that’s where we are with USD today, on the road to becoming a defacto standard. And what we’re working towards is setting up more formal governance of the standard so it can expand to more uses and more domains,” Lebaredian said. “We’d like to take USD all the way to that point where it can be used everywhere for anything that’s 3D related. We started this journey years ago.”
Steve May, CTO at Pixar Animation Studios, said in an interview with GamesBeat that it’s still early days for USD in its quest to be a standard, even though the file format is a decade old.
“It’s still early days of USD, especially when we’re talking about doing other things like behaviors and physics or even materials that we don’t really have good standards for,” May said. “I think it’s at the very beginning of a long path. It’s going to need a lot of guidance. Pixar wants to be one of the primary guides here, but, on the other hand, the cool thing about it is that people are using it for stuff that we did not envision.”
Guido Quaroni, a key Pixar leader who oversaw the open sourcing of USD before moving over to Adobe, said in an interview with GamesBeat that he hopes the standard can be defined in the next six months or year. After that, more work will have to be done but the momentum will be clear.
One thing Pixar definitely didn’t foresee was the popularity of the metaverse — an idea that took root in the pandemic and exploded in popularity when Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook as Meta in October 2021.
“We certainly were not thinking about the metaverse when we were originally making USD,” said May. “It was just how do we make our movie. What’s neat is when you see it being used in ways that we never thought about, that’s always a good sign of a good technology.”
But while many wonder if Meta will be truly open and expand its focus beyond virtual reality, even Zuckerberg has said he supports an open metaverse and that no company can do it by itself. Nvidia has more cred in driving USD than companies like Meta, which has had some history of not being open.
That leaves some analysts puzzled about why it’s taken so long to move the standard forward.
“I can’t say why USD hasn’t been universally embraced,” Krewell said. “It definitely has a lot of capability.”
Lebaredian responded, “It might seem like a long time. But when Pixar put it out there, they didn’t even imagine it being used for the things it’s already being used for now. They thought they would use this to make movies. And this might be useful for other people who make movies like they do. I think it’s happening quite fast. We’re the ones that saw the potential for it in all of these other industries because we’re involved in all of these other industries.”
Why it matters
The companies that are contributing to the effort to create open standards for the metaverse and its related technologies say it’s worth it. While the standards process may be boring or daunting, they help the industries involved ensure that some of the most important priorities of humanity are addressed, such as issues of privacy, free and fair competition, regulations, ethics, centralization versus decentralization, transactions, protections for young people and avoiding lock-ins that lead to monopolies.
And standards can unlock markets so we can reap the economic benefits, just as the web unlocked ecommerce that is now generating trillions of dollars in revenue.
“It’s a different process and goal than building proprietary products, which is awesome and necessary,” said Neil Trevett, a vice president at Nvidia and head of the standards body The Khronos Group, speaking at the MetaBeat event. “It’s complimentary. You are building a whole ecosystem. It can be a very thrilling ride. You have to be patient. It does take longer than shipping a proprietary product. If your measure is the [time it takes to reach] a pervasive ecosystem, there is no faster or more exciting way to get there than to cooperate as an industry to create open standards that will benefit a bunch of different companies.”
HTML took years to solidify, unifying text, graphics, and hyperlinks into the platform of the web. USD is just one of multiple standards that would have to be adopted to make the metaverse operate as seamlessly as the web. Nobody really wants fragmentation.
Lebaredian pointed to problems of a lack of a 3D standard at a company like Disney, which has 3D-animated Marvel characters like Iron Man for its movies and 3D characters for games, toys and a range of other projects. No one wants to reinvent Iron Man every time with a new 3D format in a new medium.
“This is a huge problem for everyone, where we’re just recreating the same things over and over again,” Lebaredian said. “USD gives us this opportunity to have commonality. So you can take the asset from one studio and give it to another and have them continue the work.”
Ben Houston, CTO of Threekit and one of the main contributors to Khronos 3D commerce working group, has been working 3D since the 1990s. He is one of the architects of interactivity for glTF, which is compatible with USD but could become a rival. He said in an interview with GamesBeat that it’s frustrating that you can make a 3D object look good in a tool like Blender and then have to re-create it when you brought it into something like Unity. If you put it in Unreal Engine, you have to touch it up again.
“It was horrible when it comes to productivity,” he said.
Lebaredian said that a USD standard would matter to game engines, game makers, 3D tool makers and anyone creating content that will be in the metaverse. That includes companies like IKEA, which is making digital virtual versions of its furniture, and ecommerce companies that are going to populate the 3D web with things that people are going to buy.
A draft of a standard has been in the works for some time, but it is in the process of being refined. The groups involved have to avoid duplication across organizations. Every company has a vested interest in seeing something adopted.
How Pixar originally created USD
Pixar built USD so it could make use of the 3D assets that it was creating for its animated movies. The file format is in its fourth generation as a “composed scene description” at Pixar. As it worked on films like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, the company felt the pain of having to reinvent technologies for each generation of movie. It started with something called Marionette, but decided to move on to a new animation system called Presto, which was used in the film Brave for the first time.
Presto evolved into something called TidScene, and eventually Pixar started pulling different pieces together for its USD project, which started in 2012. USD delivered a new scenegraph that sits on top of the same composition engine that Presto used, and it has introduced parallel computation into all levels of the scene description and composition core.
One of the good things about USD is that it was designed for extensibility, May said.
“We don’t know all of the things that we’re going to need,” he said. “It’s going to have to be able to adapt.”
Going open source with USD
In 2016, Pixar published USD as open source software. This way, Pixar didn’t have to invest its own programming resources to adapt every tool to work in a Pixar movie.
May said the reason Pixar open-sourced it was for portability. There was a lot of friction to bring on new tools.
“That’s what we were trying to solve,” he said.
USD let developers describe the different elements in a 3D scene, like the environment and the 3D objects in it. Designers use it to describe how a scene should look and how it can be reproduced visually on a variety of different hardware devices.
USD also lets artists and designers work on the same scene and then put the results together at the end. USD’s composition engine allows updates to be made to data and scenes simultaneously. Groups can work on the same pieces of a 3D scene in parallel.
This turned out to be great for unifying the team, but Pixar also wanted unity among its tool vendors. Rather than create a whole new chain of 3D tools for every movie, it wanted to standardize around USD-compatible tools. And so Pixar decided to open-source USD.
As far as engineering goes, May said they’re just getting started. Challenges ahead specific problems like expressing animation curve data, which is a common task in animation.
“I really want to see USD become successful in this broader sense of outside of Pixar and outside of animation and visual effects,” May said. “We really do need to rely more on the community. I’m blown away by how broadly it’s being used outside of the film industry and the animation industry.”
Nvidia’s Holodeck and the coming of the Omniverse
Around the same time as USD was going open source, Nvidia was carving out its business in workstations and other high-end computers used for content creation. It created software applications such as Holodeck, which debuted in 2017 as a kind of metaverse for engineers. It was a 3D environment where engineers could remotely collaborate with each other, using Nvidia’s 3D graphics hardware.
After Pixar open-sourced the tech, Nvidia recognized early that USD had potential. Lebaredian said that Nvidia’s graphics experts took a look at USD and decided to get behind it. Nvidia started trying to accelerate it.
They could use it as the foundation behind its new Omniverse content creation environment, which was born as a robot simulation environment. Seeing as a tool for remote collaboration — a metaverse for engineers — the company tried to get everyone to back it and contribute 3D assets that could be compatible with each other.
Nvidia believed in it so much that is used its own programming resources to port tools from other companies to USD, Lebaredian said. Nvidia wrote a plug-in for various tools so the tool could become compatible with USD, he said. Once the tool makers realized the value of having USD as a standard, they would take it over themselves.
“It transitioned from us pushing to them pulling,” Lebaredian said.
Nvidia has been working to add new features beyond the base capabilities within USD in the hopes that it can become more versatile as a standard, Lebaredian said.
“We’ve been working to advance that by adding new schemas. We’ve done a lot of that. We’ve done all of it with the community, most notably Pixar, and even with Apple,” said Lebaredian.
What motivated Nvidia to push for a standard?
While some point at Nvidia’s past history favoring proprietary tech, Nvidia has experience guiding standards such as OpenGL, Vulkan and Microsoft’s DirectX.
“From the very beginning, we have contributed to standards, and our livelihood has depended on implementing standards and doing it well and help guiding them,” Leberedian said.
He added, “It’s inconceivable to us that the metaverse, a 3D incarnation of the web, can exist without a standard way of describing the things in it. And Nvidia is uniquely positioned to help in building this metaverse with our computers, with our AI chips, with our algorithms, with the full stack of stuff that we do. If we’re going to contribute, we need a good standard for describing the stuff inside the metaverse to attach our technology to.”
As companies evolve their metaverse strategies, industries that never cooperated before are converging on each other.
“We were seeing a convergence between technologies that used to be in different domains,” he said. “We started seeing game engines being used for industrial purposes, or to create AI and robotics. And up until five or six years ago, nobody was doing that. Nobody was using game engines for something as serious as building your car factory. But once that started to happen, then the need to standardize and harmonize the data and tools between these industries became very apparent to us.”
Adobe’s Quaroni, said that Nvidia’s investment in USD has been hugely important. He noted that Omniverse remains Nvidia’s proprietary technology, but its contributions to the open-source USD have helped it spread and spurred more investment in the technology at Adobe.
“Partially because of Nvidia, but partly because we believe in this format, we’re adding the support to USD to our apps and looking at the benefits,” said Quaroni, senior director of engineering on the Adobe 3D & immersive team.
Nvidia is also contributing code to the USD open source standard so that Pixar isn’t the only contributor in that respect and there can be multiple implementations of the standard. Lebaredian said a number of the details come from Nvidia, as it has a large engineering team dedicated to the effort.
“If I had to predict, the industry could come together around USD for certain use cases in a friendly way. There’s a spirit of cooperation around this stuff now,” Parisi said. “Everyone understands we have a lot of greenfield in front of us. Let’s face it, we need more 3D content, and more and more of it, for the metaverse. I think USD is going to be foundational. it’s fundamental for authoring and preserving fidelity and connecting professional tools pipelines together, so the pros can get their job done. The metaverse needs this the way the web needed Photoshop and imaging tools.”
This year at SIGGRAPH, the big graphics event, there were a lot of talks about USD and its future. In the past few years, Nvidia has made a big push into Omniverse, more than doubling the size of the engineering team behind it. Apple, Pixar, Adobe and many other companies have also expanded their efforts.
Lebaredian said that many tool makers are now making their own investments doing the porting work themselves now.
“I think Rev is correct this is a sign of support,” said Jon Peddie, an analyst at Jon Peddie Research, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s a tipping point.”
This is a case where collaboration is an opportunity.
“It’s in our interest to do this. Because since we are a pure technology company, our product is tech that we provide to others who that take that and shape it into applications and solutions and workflows,” Lebaredian said. “We need to have standards that our technology is compatible with or that our technology can use. So we can have as much surface area as possible for our tech, the more industries that use the same common center, the more opportunity for us to provide tech that plugs into that into the existing content and data that’s out there.”
As a hardware vendor and software ecosystem creator, Nvidia doesn’t have a bias toward any particular software vendor. In that sense, it can be neutral in a standards effort, Lebaredian said.
“We’re like Switzerland, in this and we can go work with every other software vendor that can work with every engine,” Lebaredian said. “We can work with everyone else to negotiate a standard that everyone can use.”
Regarding walled gardens, Kerris said, “I think that we’ve learned our lesson with companies that tried to wall off parts of the internet in the early days. You have to use our extension, or it doesn’t work. I think those lessons have been learned.”
Competition between glTF and USD
There is potential competition between the high-end USD and the low-end glTF (GL Transmission Format) format, which is akin to the competition between Unreal and Unity in the game engine business. glTF is a 3D transmission format developed within Khronos Group. It is orthogonal competition, as the formats are aimed at different markets.
Films are the high end of 3D animation, while game engines don’t support all of the same features yet. But USD adoption would go a long way toward improving interoperability, and then USD data could be converted to glTF for low-end applications.
Parisi sees a lot of “marketing hype” behind USD now. He sees USD as designed to preserve visual fidelity. It was aimed at supporting high-end professional tools and pipelines.
At the same time, Parisi doesn’t think that USD and glTF should be positioned as competitors.
“They’re not competitors. They’re orthogonal, designed for very different things, as I said. And I think the best analogy is, again, like the image formats that are designed to preserve data like a Photoshop file with its layers. That’s all about preserving fidelity versus the downstream compressed file formats like JPEG and PNG. They were designed to be delivered quickly, easily. And so glTF is obviously much more like the JPEG. It was designed to get it over the wire into a phone or on a website as fast as possible. But you don’t have to have a good feature set there.”
Ultimately, Parisi thinks professional design tools like Omniverse and Unreal, and applications on those platforms, will use USD for high-end machines that can show off outstanding graphics. But glTF may be good enough for low-end applications such as viewing objects for ecommerce.
“Some perceive there is a competition right now between USD and glTF. And maybe there are others out there. There are multiple standards and some adopt one or the other,” Quaroni said. “But the reality is that, if you think about image file formats, there are many out there and that is OK at the end of the day. My hope is that maybe we’ll go we converge to a couple.”
Quaroni still believes USD is currently the most capable in terms of richness of the description of the world of 3D, taking into account things like composition, assembly, camera, animation, and more.
“It reminds me a little bit of VHS and Betamax. In a way, when there were like two different standards, one was actually potentially better or more advanced, but the other one so took off much more widely.”
The discussion about glTF and USD is pretty similar, Quaroni said. But so long as it’s possible to transfer from one format to another, Quaroni doesn’t see a major problem brewing.
There are definitely others who favor glTF, which has a unified way of handling 3D materials. Now you can move 3D objects all over the place and it works great, said Houston.
“USD is an amazing format. But that’s a bit different philosophy from glTF,” Houston said. “glTF has been about fast and efficient and very opinionated on what we want to hear. And that makes it a lot easier to implement. Because USD can do everything.”
A survey in the Metaverse Standards Forum found that 1,800 respondents were concerned about the challenge of interoperability.
“That speaks to the notion that the industry is not necessarily ready to resolve upon a format,” Houston said. “What they want is options and interoperability between formats.”
As to glTF, Lebaredian said that USD is one of many of the building blocks needed to build the metaverse, and glTF is another. He thinks they are compatible technologies and expects them to evolve in a compatible way.
Regarding glTF being a lightweight part of the standard, Kerris at Nvidia said, “The beauty of USD being so open is that you can bring those things to it. I think that you want to have it be accessible to everyone. You don’t want to try to dominate and say this is the way and everybody has to follow. But the beauty of USD is that it is so open, and so many companies can contribute to it.”
Is this orthogonal competition?
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out as we discuss it,” Quaroni said.
May at Pixar added, “The question is whether we have a world where we have simple representation for simple 3D objects, and do we need separately something more sophisticated like USD for doing really complex things. That’s an area of active discussion.”
The fragmentation risk
Software companies don’t want fragmentation of standards, as it drives costs up. As for fragmentation, Apple supports a variant of the USD spec dubbed USDZ, which is well-suited for mobile and AR devices because it removes features that don’t work well on mobile. Apple has also said it plans to support glTF.
But Houston noted that many games have constraints. They have to run on mobile devices, and that’s not easy to make happen. glTF is designed for real-time interactivity and interchange rather than doing everything like USD. Houston doesn’t want to dis the USD format, as his company uses it still as a high-quality interchange format.
“You do not want to be high-end only because then you can interchange with a high-end platform but not with everybody else,” Houston said. “You can’t be so far ahead of the curve that nobody uses it.”
Houston he noted there are extremes in metaverse experiences, from hyper-realistic 3D metahumans (lifelike humans) or 3D-animated films. And then on the low end are 3D objects on an ecommerce site.
“When you use USD, you have to know what you are aiming for,” said Houston, whose company supports both formats. “If you want to have true interoperability, you can’t do everything and the kitchen sink. We’re all building this plane as we’re flying it. I think coexistence will happen.”
Enemies of standards?
The true competition for USD is more like developers who come up with their own file formats for their own applications where they don’t care if the files are reusable. For instance, video game designers may not want to use the high-end 3D cars with meticulous parts as designed by car engineers. Instead, they might just want something shiny on the outside with nothing on the insides because you can’t see in a game. And ecommerce companies might not care if that car doesn’t zoom along at 60 frames per second.
These kinds of details are the enemies of standards and reusable assets, Parisi said.
“It’s a great idea to have reusability, but it’s just hard to solve and technically I don’t know if we will ever get there,” he said.
Krewell at Tirias Research said USD has the capability to become a metaverse standard. But it would take a who’s who of graphics and gaming companies — those who care about immersive applications — to throw their support behind it.
“In the end, we really need the content companies to step up. If the goal is to have digital assets you can move from environment to environment, that means you need a universal standard, where those digital assets can be described. And each localized environment can then recognize it and re-create it. So that’s where USD really could work,” Krewell said. “But it has to be embraced by a consortium.”
In terms of making USD into a metaverse standard, Quaroni said, “The challenge is to get all the big players to agree.”
That’s where he sees the Khronos Group playing an important role.
Will Omniverse be open?
Then there is the question of which USD-based tool will become ubiquitous for the metaverse. Omniverse is based on Nvidia technology. And an Omniverse project is not interoperable with other kinds of projects as Omniverse takes USD and adds Nvidia-defined extensions on top of it. Omniverse isn’t like a game metaverse tool either, as it is mostly being used for high-end simulation environments.
“It’s incredibly high-end and that’s good,” Houston said. “But it’s like its own thing. It’s not the metaverse. Maybe it turns into the metaverse, but right now it isn’t. For instance, game developers are not on it.”
Nvidia itself sees Omniverse as an important market driver.
“I fully expect that, you know, Omniverse should be accessible by everybody, whether they’re on our hardware, or they want to access it some virtual way,” Kerris said.
May believes there isn’t a good reason to restrict USD to Nvidia hardware, and no one is really talking about that. The question is whether Omniverse becomes universally popular.
“We will use every kind of device platform at Pixar. But on the other hand, we do want to run well on everything from mobile devices all the way up to like high-end workstations,” May said.
Quaroni noted that some people might be happier if Omniverse were supporting other platforms and it was “more like open source itself.”
He added, “I actually see that to be inevitable in my view.”
Of course, market forces would need to change for that to happen, as Nvidia is perfectly happy selling more RTX hardware right now to help people use the Omniverse tool.
In the name of helping USD spread, Adobe announced that it is working with Qualcomm to port USD to Android technology.
“Why are we doing this? Because it’s important for Adobe to have software on every platform,” Quaroni said. “If we adopt USD on the desktop apps, we want to be able to seamlessly go from desktop apps to iPads and tablets and all the way to VR devices.”
Will the hardware makers agree?
An added source of friction for a standard is whether the hardware companies — chip makers and design companies like Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and Qualcomm — will get behind a standard. Those companies have a vested interest in seeing the metaverse succeed, but they may not be as aggressive about supporting something that was supported so closely by Nvidia.
There are tricks that big companies can pull to try to hijack a standards process. They can make their own technologies free and have the technologies that they use become supported by the entire industry. That’s a clever move.
Peddie said that Nvidia faces different temptations. He said Nvidia could try to be like Apple, offering superior but closed technologies in a walled garden. Or they could try to expand the market as fast as possible by supporting openness.
“If you want to run Omniverse now, you have to use Nvidia RTX,” Peddie said. “There have been multiple attempts over the years to build this universal file format that any program could plug into.”
A case in point was Nvidia’s success in GPU computing, which uses a graphics chip to do non-graphics parallel processing computing. Nvidia developed its own software, dubbed CUDA, to enable GPU computing. It became extremely popular and the software made it easy to implement. Nvidia broke into datacenters and high-performance computing with the technology that ran on its graphics chips. But CUDA didn’t get support from the other chipmakers as it was tied to Nvidia hardware.
Nvidia spent its own money to develop the CUDA software, and it made sense that it was a closed system. It went to universities and gave CUDA away for free. The engineers would learn how to do CUDA programming and it made CUDA in a defacto standard.
“CUDA was one of the most brilliant things anybody ever did. They bet and then they get credit for doing something clever,” Peddie said. “Nvidia gets credit for committing early in the GPU compute development. It was something that more people knew how to program with. But its translation, when you compiled it, would only write code to an Nvidia GPU. So it wasn’t open to the world.”
This isn’t unusual in a lot of ways. Apple, for instance, has its Metal low-level graphics API that is aimed at making software run better on Apple devices.
The GPU computing market became lucrative for Nvidia, but AMD ultimately came to the market later and supported the rival open-source tech OpenCL, but Nvidia’s hold was hard to beat. Could Nvidia have open-sourced the CUDA tech? Perhaps, but it opted instead to create a defacto standard, rather than a real one.
I asked AMD and Intel if they were supporters of USD, but they didn’t get me answers by publication time. Peddie said AMD is late to the party.
And while Nvidia supports the standards process around USD, it has made Omniverse exclusive to its RTX technology, which creates awesome shadows and lighting tech in imagery produced by its GeForce graphics cards.
“The history is often the closer you get to things that are runtime, the harder it gets for people to cooperate,” Parisi said.
Lebaredian points out that the discussion around USD isn’t going to be tied to anyone’s specific chips. It’s high enough up the software stack that any chip should be able to run it. We’ll find out if that is true if as other chipmakers disclose their positions on USD.
“I don’t think there’s many opinions at high levels at semiconductor companies about these kinds of things. The nature of data standards is such that they’re only valuable if kind of everybody buys into it,” Lebaredian said. “It’s not going to be biased towards one hardware or the other. The only people that might be threatened by such standards are ones that have a walled garden of data that they don’t want to open up.”
The pie will be huge
Since the pie will be huge, the push for collaboration should win, Parisi said.
The demand for 3D will be huge, and do-it-yourself content creators can supply it if they have the right tools that let them remix content created by others. If they gather around one or two or three file formats, that would be an improvement on where we are today, Parisi said.
It’s a trillion-dollar question as to whether the industry can come to an agreement. Parisi is aware of the grand visions everyone has about the interoperable metaverse and reuse of 3D assets. He thinks those are laudable goals.
The devil will be in the details.
“The rubber hits the road and it comes down to certain technologies, protocols, and tools to use it,” Parisi said. “The web has proven it can be done. I don’t think it’s that far-fetched.”
The end goal of reusability
So what can an open USD standard enable?
“I’m hoping that with metaverse, we try not to lock it too much in because ultimately the user will have to pay the price,” Quaroni said. “If you have to buy a car five times if you go between different platforms, that would be unfortunate.”
Quaroni sees a standard becoming real in the marketplace if there is a lot of reuse that is happening among the different companies, applications and platforms.
“If I buy something somewhere, I can reuse it somewhere else,” he said. “And if I visit some virtual world, I can expect things to be consistent.”
I have fantasized how Nvidia could create its Earth 2 supercomputer simulation — a digital twin of the Earth created with the Omniverse — and then predict climate change for decades to come. After it does that, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has said that could get us the metaverse for free.
“I don’t know if USD in its present form is robust enough to do what you’ve described, but it is a starting point,” Peddie said. “It’s like a universal compiler, and that has never worked. There are too many variables.”
Will we ever get to the day when Nvidia does the Earth 2 digital twin of the Earth, and then game developers like Brendan Greene can take that reusable metaverse tech and build his virtual world that is the size of the Earth? That’s the ultimate in reusability, and it’s something to aspire to.