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Virtual reality’s success could ride on a new initiative discussed at GDC

Free and open standards

VR demo at VRDC
Official GDC/Flickr

The key to virtual reality succeeding commercially on a global scale may lie in the hands of a team of volunteers working to create a royalty-free standard.

But the clock is ticking.

“We’re trying to do this as fast as we can,” said Nick Whiting, who is the chair on the working group trying to come up with a solution. VR headsets “are already out there and have been out there for a year. We want to do something as soon as possible, this isn’t a long-term project.”

The Khronos VR initiative is the latest effort by the Khronos Group, an American nonprofit that focuses on creating open standards for technology. The group, which was founded in 2000 by a collection of powerful tech companies, previously helped to create or oversee a variety of royalty-free, open-standard application programming interfaces (APIs) such as OpenGL, Vulkan and WebGL.

The group held a gathering at the 2017 Game Developers Conference this week to discuss virtual reality and its OpenXR initiative, which aims to create open standards for VR, augmented reality and mixed reality.

A key issue, though, is that there are already multiple standards being used that are tied to developing for headsets from Sony, Microsoft, HTC and Valve, and Oculus.

Whiting said that the key is that all of the systems already require a relatively similar “deep tech stack” to work, and that the OpenXR working group hopes to create a royalty-free, open API that will be common to all the headsets.

“A bunch of us on the software and hardware side realized there is a lot of common group and that people are reinventing the wheel,” Whiting said. “There is this gigantic web of dependencies. So we decided it would be a good idea to create a single API.”

Those involved, like Oculus, Valve, Google, Nvidia, AMD, Unity, Epic and Samsung, agree that the API shouldn’t be owned by a single company. Two notable companies not listed as members are Microsoft, which recently floated its own API, and Sony. We’ve reached out to both for comment.

The group of those involved seem to realize that the market is so relatively small right now that they need to come together to ensure that it is as easy as possible for a developer to create VR experiences across all existing platforms.

“The big concern we see at Epic is that the VR market is a little nascent,” said Whiting, who is also the technical director of AR and VR at Epic Games. “It’s not necessarily large enough numbers to support a big game team.

“We’re hoping through standardization that might change.”

The group announced the Khronos VR initiative’s name last week, along with a call for standardization.

“VR and AR have experienced a boom of interest recently, and with that, a flood of hardware and software companies have begun spinning up efforts in the field,” Khronos said in a news release. “While variety is great, the growing number of devices, each with their own incompatible APIs is increasing fragmentation.”

The key issue now, Whiting said, is timing.

The group has to move fast, but before it can create the API, it needs to make sure everyone can agree on what common bits of the software should be included.

Once it rolls out, Whiting believes it will be a large component of virtual reality’s commercial success.

“Coming from Epic, the biggest thing I see is developers trying to decide which device or market they should target,” he said. “They have a game or an experience to make but don’t know where to bring it.

“We’re trying to make the market more viable by combining all of these smaller markets.”

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