Why “Standards” Was One Of The Most Important VR Discussions at GDC 2017

OpenXR, facilitated by The Khronos Group. Source: UploadVR.com

Last week was GDC and a ton of new tech, as well as new VR games and apps, were announced and broadcast out to millions. But one of the most important stories out of GDC was also one of the least flashy. It was a gathering held by a nonprofit known as The Khronos Group, and it dealt directly with how much new VR hardware and software is being released, and how it is rapidly becoming more and more difficult for developers to keep up.

During its talk, the Khronos Group showed this slide to demonstrate where VR development for multiple headsets is right now:

As you can see, developing for multiple headsets looks insanely complicated and difficult, which is something that I’ve been nervous about for a while now. Every few weeks it seems I am writing a story or giving a presentation about a new headset hitting the shelves. While I love sharing this kind of news (and I love excitedly shouting “Look what this one does!”), the constant growth of competitors in the hardware marketplace has me wondering “are we spreading ourselves a bit too thin here?”

Clearly there are many people with this exact same thought, and Khronos is now working with a number of large companies to establish an open-standard, royalty-free API for VR development. Their goal is to turn the madness that is that above image, into something more streamlined and direct. They plan on calling their new API, OpenXR, and this is what they hope it will do:

Through OpenXR, Khronos hopes to make VR development for multiple platforms straightforward and simple, which means developers will have the ability to release on as many platforms (which support OpenXR) without having to spend thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions (for AAA devs), optimizing for multiple headset APIs.

Now, none of this would matter if their wasn’t a groundswell of support from major VR companies, but fortunately, Khronos’ initiative is being backed by a number of big dogs, including Oculus, Valve, Samsung, Epic, Nvidia, AMD, and Unity. These companies want a simpler way to create and deliver content on as many different headsets as possible, and Khronos is aiming to give them just that with the OpenXR API.

This is all very exciting, but, before pressing on, what exactly is an open-standard, royalty-free API and why does it matter so much?

An API in a nutshell. Source: Sproutsocial.com

First off, open standard simply means that the technology is available to anyone and everyone. And royalty-free just means that no business will be collecting royalties on it (not even Khronos, which is an American Nonprofit that has been developing open-standard APIs for a number of technologies since the year 2000).

Now, for the real crux of the question. What the heck is an API.

Essentially, an API (or Application Programming Interface) is a set of protocols and tools used for building software. If you want something to happen in your game, the API is the interface through which you will ask your system to make that something happen. Think of it as the interface developers actually engage with when building a game. The API facilitates developer requests by presenting the developer with an easy-to-understand interface from which they can select their desired actions. Once a request has been made by the programmer, the API runs that request through the pertinent databases of stored info, collects the requested assets, and brings them back to the developer to use.

It’s very similar to a waiter. You go to a restaurant, ask the waiter for food, and he or she then carries your message to the kitchen (where the actual food prep is done), and then when the food is ready he or she brings it back to you.

The API really controls how information and assets are accessed, and in this way they define many of the workflows for developers themselves. They define the protocols and hoops that creators need to jump through to accomplish their goals.

Imagine trying to build for all these different headsets, and each of them has different requirements to get the job done. Source: Vrroom.buzz

With all that said, the big problem right now is that every VR headset has its own API, or its own set of protocols and tools for making things happen in a VR headset. This fragmentation of protocols and standards means that developers have to spend a lot of time and money reconfiguring their games if they want to bring them to multiple headsets, which leaves many developers caught in an unfortunate catch-22. They can either save money in the short term by building for only one headset (and risk limiting their potential audience in the long-term) or they can spend the money upfront to build multiple skews, (and put themselves at risk by spending a lot more money that they might not make back in sales).

You can’t have them all, can you? …NO!

This catch-22 is not only unfortunate for developers, but it is unfortunate for VR-enthusiasts at large. Many developers opt to focus in on a single-headset for their experiences because of the difficulties associated with bringing their titles to multiple devices. This separation of titles ultimately fragments the audience and means that VR-enthusiasts are unlikely to have access to all the titles they are most excited for. It also makes developing VR apps for businesses and education much more difficult, and the groups that are most likely to benefit from and support this tech are more likely to leave it by the wayside because of the overload of potential variables that come into play when there are so many different headsets with different capabilities and different APIs.

Khronos understands the importance of working towards a universal API. It is something that will undeniably help developers and the industry as a whole. Perhaps that is why they have such a great backing (Valve, Oculus, Samsung, Unity, AMD, NVidia, AMD, and Unity). They don’t quite have everyone yet though. There are two companies notably missing from this movement, and they are Microsoft (who recently floated their own VR API) and Sony.

But even with those two top dogs out of the mix, Khronos seems like its having a huge impact already.

We need to support all headsets. VR needs to find it’s audience before individual companies can. Source: ndreams.com

The Gathering at GDC and the upswell of support show that developers understand the importance of this movement. Let’s admit it, VR is still in its earliest stages, and at this point the market is still incredibly niche and, resultingly, miniscule. I hate to be cliche, but the old saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” is what this movement is about. If VR is going to survive it is vital that we give VR developers as much access to the existing audience as is possible, no matter what platforms they prefer. Khronos’ OpenXR VR API initiative is a huge push towards that.

So even though it may not be as cool or instantly understandable as something like the Samsung Gear getting a motion controller (which is really freaking cool, admittedly) — Khronos’ OpenXR gathering was almost without a doubt the most important VR-related event at GDC last week.

For more information on Khronos Group or OpenXR, there are a number of resources on the web, but you can also check out their direct messaging at Khronos.org

**Written by Nathan Hoffmeier