5 companies form Alliance for OpenUSD for metaverse 3D graphics standard

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Five major companies in the 3D content industry — Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Nvidia and Pixar — have come together to form the Alliance for OpenUSD (AOUSD).

The group that aims to promote the growth and standardization of Pixar’s Universal Scene Description (USD) technology, which is the foundation for Nvidia’s Omniverse platform and could one day be a standard for graphics for a practical “metaverse.” The companies are tapping the Linux Foundation’s Joint Development Foundation to help with the effort.

The companies plan to develop written specifications that detail the features of OpenUSD in the hopes of creating a standard for other groups to adopt. This will allow for greater compatibility and wider adoption, integration, and implementation of the technology, and will also allow other standards bodies to include it in their own specifications.

Universal Scene Description was invented at Pixar and is the technological foundation of the company’s
state-of-the-art animation pipeline, said Steve May, CTO at Pixar and chairperson of AOUSD.

“We’re really excited about this new technology initiative,” May said in a press briefing. “The Alliance for OpenUSD is an open nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering standardization, development, evolution, and growth of OpenUSD. And all of these founding members believe strongly in USD and what it represents. They have all made significant contributions and investment to advancing OpenUSD and they have come together to create this organization to serve the industry at large.”

The companies didn’t specifically talk about the “metaverse” in their briefing material, but they are promoting one of the key features of an open metaverse — by promoting greater interoperability of 3D tools and data, the alliance will enable developers and content creators to describe, compose, and
simulate large-scale 3D projects and build an ever-widening range of 3D-enabled products and services.

“OpenUSD gives 3D developers, artists, and designers the complete foundation to tackle large-scale industrial, digital content creation, and simulation workloads with broad multi-app interoperability,” said Guy Martin, director of open source and standards at Nvidia, in a statement. “This alliance is a unique opportunity to accelerate OpenUSD collaboration globally by building formal standards across industries and initiatives to realize 3D worlds and industrial digitalization.”

A diagram that shows where USD fits.

Nvidia rivals Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have been curiously silent on USD. But Apple’s support is significant, as it can put big efforts behind the standard.

“OpenUSD will help accelerate the next generation of AR experiences, from artistic creation to content delivery, and produce an ever-widening array of spatial computing applications,” said Mike Rockwell, Apple’s vice president of the Vision Products Group, in a statement. “Apple has been an active contributor to the development of USD, and it is an essential technology for the groundbreaking visionOS platform, as well as the new Reality Composer Pro developer tool. We look forward to fostering its growth into a broadly adopted standard.”

The alliance will provide the primary forum for the collaborative definition of enhancements to the technology by the greater industry.

“At Adobe, we believe in providing artists a set of flexible and powerful solutions running on a variety of devices,” said Guido Quaroni, senior director of engineering, 3D&I at Adobe, in a statement. “Leveraging a common 3D data representation during the creative process multiplies the value brought by each package and device. OpenUSD was created to be one of these ‘multipliers’ and we are excited to see a diverse group of companies joining together to support this innovative and open technology.”

OpenUSD efforts

The AOUSD has been formed by Adobe, Pixar, Nvidia, Autodesk and Apple.

OpenUSD is a high-performance 3D scene description technology developed by Pixar Animation Studios that offers robust interoperability across tools, data, and workflows. (Check out our deep dive on USD here). The technology is already known for its ability to collaboratively capture artistic expression and streamline cinematic content production.

“Whether you’re building CG worlds or digital twins or looking ahead to the 3D web, content creators need a cohesive way to collaborate and share data across tools, services, and platforms,” said Gordon Bradley, fellow for media & entertainment at Autodesk, in a statement. “Autodesk is excited to support the Alliance for OpenUSD as it drives 3D interoperability for visual effects, animation, and beyond, and supports our vision to help customers design and make a better world.”

The alliance seeks to promote greater interoperability of 3D tools and data, enabling developers and content creators to describe, compose, and simulate large-scale 3D projects and build an ever-widening range of 3D-enabled products and services.

The alliance has chosen the Linux Foundation’s Joint Development Foundation (JDF) to house the project, as it will enable open, efficient, and effective development of OpenUSD specifications, while providing a path to recognition through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Through the AOUSD, the companies seek to standardize the 3D ecosystem by advancing the capabilities of OpenUSD, which will accelerate the next generation of AR experiences, from artistic creation to content delivery, and produce an ever-widening array of spatial computing applications.

AOUSD steering committee members will be speaking at both the Academy Software Foundation’s Open Source Days and at the Siggraph conference, where they will discuss the alliance’s objectives and encourage further collaboration with the industry.

The AOUSD invites a broad range of companies and organizations to join and participate in shaping the future of OpenUSD.

Lingua franca?

Pixar created USD starting in 2012 and then open sourced it in 2016.

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.

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.

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.

“Even more exciting is that USD has become a fundamental technology in domains outside of film, animation and visual effects,” May said. “As the use of 3D content accelerates, it has become critical for other industries to also have seamless interchange of complex 3D data.”

He pointed out that IKEA is a user of USD as its famous furniture catalog consists not of photographs but 3D-animated images. And so it has to create thousands of images and make sure they are interchangeable across its product lines, whether for the catalog or online or more.

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. Nvidia’s Omniverse is still a proprietary platform, aimed at attracting developers to create software for Nvidia’s chip platforms.

USD is now 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.

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.

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.


Wayfair Group is designing furniture using the glTF format.
Wayfair Group is designing furniture using the glTF format.

There are possible rivals out there, with some advocating that glTF should be part of a standard for 3D data transport as it can be easier to use with lightweight 3D graphics on the web. In a press briefing, May told me discussions continue about whether glTF and USD will be part of a compatible standard.

“That’s an ongoing discussion with definitely the broader community about data interchange for 3D,” May said in response to my question. “That’s a thing that we want to have an open discussion about it. It is happening in other venues. I feel like there are there are advantages to USD but glTF does fill a particular niche. And I think it’s an ongoing discussion.”

He added, “glTF is an existing standard. And that’s one of the reasons also that it’s important to move USD along that same line. glTF is viewed as a simpler, lighter weight way to represent 3D data. And USD is viewed as a way to think much more complex sorts of sorts of scenes and have more people interact with them at the same time. With my Pixar hat on for USD, we do feel like the USD can be a highly efficient format. And once you move beyond looking at an individual object or product, you start to want to do the things that we can provide in USD. You very quickly get to levels where you want to have some of the features that are in USD that aren’t in glTF. I think one of the interesting challenges is, ‘Can we make USD as as lightweight and as optimal for simpler things as glTF?’ Because, in many ways, it would be ideal if we had one solution for both things, but that is that is going to be an it’s an active debate in the community.”

May said that the potential applications of USD are very broad, and they could be extended to any 3D content such as scientific visualization or industrial applications.

Darla Anderson was the producer of Pixar's award-winning film Coco.
Will Pixars 3D animations lead to the metaverse?

One thing Pixar definitely didn’t foresee was the emergence of excitement around the metaverse — an idea that took root in the pandemic and exploded in popularity when Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook as Meta in October 2021. That excitement has died down, but the dream is alive.

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.

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.

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.

Nvidia vice president Rev Lebaredian pointed to me in an earlier interview that the 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.

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.

The AOUSD steering committee members will be speaking at both the Academy Software Foundation’s Open Source Days on Aug. 6 and at the Siggraph conference at the Autodesk Vision Series on Aug. 8 at 1 p.m. Pacific time in Room 404A.

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