Virtual reality, though still in its nascent stages of evolution, is becoming increasingly commercially viable, just as augmented reality is also gaining popularity. But as with any gold rush, developers and vendors are feverishly working to stake their claim on a new frontier while still partially mining in the dark, as both VR and AR still have a long way to go before reaching maturity.
At this stage of market development, you should expect a certain level of disarray and technical fragmentation. For instance, game publishers need to release multiple versions of their software — one for each popular device. However, this may cause consumers to hold back on purchasing innovative hardware because they’re unsure about what content they’ll be able to access on their devices. This “new technology syndrome” occurs during the initial period of rapid innovation in any market, but the creation of appropriate industry standards could fix this. Effective standards solve interoperability pain points that needlessly hold back the industry’s development.
That the time is now. Industry standards for VR and AR are becoming essential, yet a few persistent myths within the industry still exist about their development and benefits. Here myths are separated from fact, to illustrate just how important standards are to the development of both VR and AR’s future.
Myth 1: It’s too early for standards
Attempting to standardize too early in a technology cycle, before the industry has a real grasp of how to implement key functionality, can be counter-productive and hold back needed innovation. And, although we are at the beginning of the VR innovation curve, hardware vendors, game engine providers, and content developers have realized that there are already significant common denominators between the current vendor-specific interfaces. For example, the number and caliber of companies that have signed up to work on VR standards efforts with us at The Khronos Group’s OpenXR Working Group — including AMD, Google, HTC, NVIDIA, Oculus, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sensics, Valve, and more — shows that meaningful interoperability is needed and possible.
Still, timing is everything, and although more advanced features such as eye tracking and foveated rendering might not quite be ready for the standards treatment, there is a significant set of functionalities that are well understood and common across multiple platforms. It absolutely makes sense to standardize those now — doing so will decrease porting costs for developers, reduce uncertainty for consumers — and create the core VR/AR platform standards that can be expanded over time.
Myth 2: Standards stifle innovation
A lack of VR interoperability standards wastes time and increases costs for both software developers and hardware vendors. We’ve talked to developers who want to ship an application across the maximum number of VR systems, but are forced to spend a considerable amount of time doing busy work to port to different platforms with their own runtimes like Oculus, Daydream, OSVR, SteamVR, etc. Of course, each works fine separately, but they all do so differently, which translates into unnecessary friction with no added value. Therefore, most developers won’t port to more than one or two platforms, which means they all lose out on diverse and interesting content.This also means that small innovative hardware vendors lose out. They’re trying to get high-quality content for their hardware, whether it’s an HMD, tracking system, or a haptics glove, and they are challenged to do so within the fragmented industry as it currently operates.
Well-designed API standards encourage innovation by simply specifying interoperability, not mandating implementation details, as well as enabling hardware and software to work easily together. This means that run-times are free to continue innovating and aren’t forced to a lowest common denominator. Additionally, many standards, including OpenXR from Khronos, are extensible, so vendors can always add innovative new functionality to meet the needs of their customers within the framework of a cross-vendor standard.
Myth 3: Consumers won’t be impacted
If developers and vendors are impacted by a fragmented VR industry, then, of course, consumers are also impacted. Without interoperability standards, consumers have a smaller choice of content, determined by which hardware they choose. Currently, consumers are unsure if their hardware and software investments will be supported by next year’s devices and content.
So, instead of building excitement for an emerging consumer market, a lack of standards creates an environment of tepidness and caution because consumers fear making the wrong investment. Or, they stop from making any investment at all. Should they invest in one platform or another in an uncertain market? Consumers hate uncertainty. Standards help build a sense of equilibrium in an emerging ecosystem, and that’s good for everyone.
Myth 4: There are too many cooks developing standards
It does seem that new VR standardization initiatives emerge every few months, which seems like a recipe for the chaos of competing interests. Matthew Breenesholtz has explored these issues, but upon closer inspection things are not as bad as they seem as the initiatives are largely complementary. VR and AR are going to require hundreds of standards created around the industry; for example, how to wirelessly connect headsets, how to configure displays, how to connect cameras into processors, or how to accelerate vision and neural network processing.
With this much work to do, the industry needs multiple standards organizations focusing on their own areas of expertise. The IEEE has a list of potential VR standards that they are working towards, which address issues related to safety and privacy — things that IEEE is great at, and has deep expertise on. These standards fit well with the VR and AR standardization efforts of The Khronos Group, which is focused on creating run-time acceleration APIs. Currently, there appears to be little duplication of effort in the VR standards space. Khronos encourages all standards groups to continue to communicate so we can coordinate our efforts and not waste time. There’s enough work to keep everyone busy!
VR/AR standards, like the industry itself, are emerging and ready to begin their use by developers, vendors, and consumers. The benefits are many, and for many. That’s why so many companies are investing serious time and effort in collaboration at multiple organizations, to create the best possible standards for the industry. We look forward to the new experiences that the industry, armed with effective open standards, will enable.
Neil Trevett is the elected president of The Khronos Group, where he initiated the OpenGL ES standard now used by billions worldwide every day.
Yuval (“VRguy”) Boger is the CEO of Sensics and has been working to take VR from the lab to the market since he joined the company in 2006.