Finding common ground in the AR/VR gold rush

23rd May 2019
Alex Lynn

When it comes to augmented and virtual reality, we are in a veritable gold rush. Technologists in industries from retail to medical technology to gaming to manufacturing are scrambling to keep pace in the rapidly expanding world of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), collectively known as XR.

By Brent Insko, OpenXR Working Group Chair, The Khronos Group

This rush for revolutionary technology is particularly exciting for developers who are eager to find new ways to deliver immersive experiences to end users. These experiences extend beyond just the compelling new games that first come to mind when thinking about AR/VR; first responders are also using AR and VR innovations to help save lives; surgeons are gaining ‘real-world’ medical experience with the technology; and retailers are leveraging AR and VR to improve online shopping.

We are just on the cusp of a new frontier of XR applications and experiences, with limitless potential for innovation; however, significant barriers to the growth of this frontier exist.

The threat of fragmentation
Despite the early days of this AR/VR wave, hardware vendors and content developers have already realised that fragmentation represents a serious constraint on the growth of the AR/VR ecosystem. Fragmentation, where companies rely on vastly different formats, standards, and processes, seriously threatens the development of further innovations, as it slows down developers’ abilities to produce and distribute content.

For example, if a developer wants to ship content to the maximum number of AR/VR systems, they must port that content to the runtimes across the different vendor platforms, e.g. Oculus, Daydream, Windows Mixed Reality, SteamVR. This porting requires a substantial amount of time and effort, both in developing the unique software paths to support the various platforms and in validating those paths all function correctly. This effort that could be better put to use developing new content.

While all of these runtimes are, indeed, perfectly suitable means of accessing VR devices, their quantity and diversity are more of a burden than an advantage. Rather than adding value to the market, their multiplicity creates friction and actually hurts everyone involved.

It’s already clear that the developer is affected by fragmentation with the time they have to spend porting their content across runtimes, but fragmentation hurts the hardware vendors that supply runtimes as well; if developers aren’t willing or able to port to their platform, they miss out on getting content. Hardware vendors, too, whether they’re producing HMDs, tracking systems, haptic gloves, etc., seek high quality content support for their hardware, but fragmentation makes it challenging for those devices to each get rapid exposure to multiple runtimes.

Perhaps most importantly, fragmentation hurts the end user and causes confusion: ‘Will the next hot title come to the platform I purchase?’; ‘Will the next innovative controller be supported?’; ‘Will my platform remain relevant going forward?’ Consumers are left uncertain as to what kinds of software and hardware they should invest in. This hesitancy kills consumer interest, further hindering the AR/VR industry’s ability to grow.

A solution in open standards
Like many industries that are rapidly advancing and are, in many ways, attempting to run before they’re fully mature, the AR/VR industry threatens to impede its own growth if it maintains this course of haphazard variability. One solution that can address fragmentation without stifling technologists’ creativity is the use of open industry standards.

An open standard’s goal is to support a diverse portfolio of hardware platforms; however, ensuring high-performance is critical for AR/VR experiences. A unifying open standard would enable developers and hardware vendors to easily work together; without one, every AR and VR application would have to use each platform’s proprietary API, significantly impeding the deployment of AR and VR innovations.

Well-designed API standards further encourage innovation by simplifying the process of establishing interoperability; this allows runtimes to innovate freely without being constrained to the lowest common denominator.

Open standards are further beneficial if they are extensible, enabling vendors to add new, innovative functionality for the evolving needs of their consumers without straying from the framework of the cross-vendor standard.

OpenXR is the open standard to tame fragmentation in augmented and virtual reality and enable developers and vendors, alike, to succeed in this new XR frontier.

Developed by The Khronos Group, an industry consortium creating open standards to enable the authoring and acceleration of parallel computing, graphics, vision and neural networks on a wide variety of platforms and devices, OpenXR is a royalty-free, open standard that provides high-performance access to augmented reality and virtual reality (known collectively as XR), platforms and devices.

OpenXR solves the two chief issues of fragmentation: 1) It enables developers to reach a wider array of hardware platforms without having to port or re-write their applications’ codes for each platform; 2) It empowers hardware vendors to access more applications. In its mission to support rapidly evolving efforts in augmented and virtual reality, Khronos released the OpenXR 0.90 provisional specification earlier this year.

In the mad rush to deliver more AR and VR innovations and to succeed in this revolutionary XR frontier, both software and hardware developers must find common ground in open standards if they wish to create an ecosystem that will stand the test of time.

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