One AR Format to Rule Them All?

Computer animation has been with us for so long that it’s easy to lose sight of the incredible feats of engineering, mathematics and software development that go into the production of a feature-length, animated film. Few companies have contributed more to the advancement of the medium—and the technology behind it—than Pixar.

In 2016, in a development little noticed in mainstream tech circles, Pixar released some of its in-house technology to the wider world. Specifically, it made the code for its Universal Scene Description (USD) software available as an open source library. The software basically creates a container to house the various elements required to create a 3D scene. Or, if you prefer it in Pixar-eese, “USD provides for interchange of elemental assets (e.g. models) or animations. But unlike other interchange packages, USD also enables assembly and organization of any number of assets into virtual sets, scenes and shots, transmit them from application to application, and non-destructively edit them (as overrides), with a single, consistent API, in a single scenegraph.”

This bit of graphics software history suddenly became much more relevant following Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) earlier this month. There, Apple and several key software vendors, unveiled a new file format, USDZ, as the format of choice for creating Augmented Reality (AR) applications. As the name implies, USDZ was also created by Pixar as way to take the virtues of the original USD format and make it “potentially streamable,” as a single object that is usable without unpacking to a file system. The new USDZ format is essentially a zip archive file without encryption or compression. It has the ability to store a multiple of file types.

At WWDC 18, Apple announced that it has built support for USDZ into iOS 12, and applications like Mail, Safari and Messages will be able to read and open USDZ content. Critically, several major creative software companies have signed on to support the format as well, including Autodesk and Adobe, which will implement USDZ support across all its Creative Cloud applications (Photoshop, Premiere, etc.). Adobe is also building an iOS app specifically for creating augmented reality experiences using the format.

While now suddenly very prominent, USDZ is not without its critics who complain that it was (and remains) optimized for content creation and not content delivery. Interestingly, Apple did not embrace a rival format, gITF, that is optimized for 3D content delivery. gITF was built by the Khronos Group, a not-for-profit consortium “dedicated to the creation of royalty-free open standards for 3D graphics, Virtual and Augmented Reality” and other applications. Khronos members include a host of heavy-hitters including Sony, Samsung, NVIDIA, Google, Qualcomm and… Apple.

With Apple throwing its weight behind USDZ, we now have what’s shaping up to be a contest between two AR content creation/delivery formats, which is unsurprising given how early we are in the development of AR.