The future of pervasive 3D – An interview with Neil Trevett, President of the Khronos Group
2020 has become the year that changed the course of digital commerce, making 3D reach the mainstream. Recent e-commerce developments in AR and VR technologies are pushing 3D content forward, with the Khronos Group leading the revolution. The newly released “Asset Creation Guidelines” set out by the Khronos 3D Commerce Working Group, are powering the use of 3D graphics, bringing consensus on standards and certification programs to streamline the creation of 3D content.
In this interview, Neil Trevett, President of the Khronos Group and Vice President of Developer Ecosystems at NVIDIA, shares his thoughts on the present and future of 3D, discussing the work they are carrying out for the industry, and how 3D content is soon to become pervasive.
How is the Khronos Group working to usher in the future of 3D content?
Every industry needs interoperability standards that remove market friction to grow opportunities for all, and the 3D industry is no exception. Khronos has a twenty-year history in enabling any interested companies working in the field of 3D graphics to cooperate under a well-defined multi-company governance model and IP framework. We help them by building royalty-free open standards that will grow their business.
The field of interactive 3D graphics, AR and VR will require a constellation of standards to flourish. Khronos is working hard to fulfil its role in the industry by defining low-level APIs to enable software engines and applications to portably access the power of hardware: GPUs, parallel processors and XR devices. More recently, Khronos has also been driving the definition of asset file formats that can be used to feed data into 3D acceleration APIs and applications in real-time.
What does the Khronos Group mean when it says 3D content will become “pervasive”?
I have a simple test – “3D will have become pervasive when my Mom uses it every day!” Everyone uses 2D images to capture memories, share experiences, sell products – and you can send a JPEG file to pretty much anyone on the planet and their device can process and display it effectively, even my Mom. Pervasive 3D means having widely available creation tools, delivery formats and 3D acceleration wherever they are needed.
That’s why we call glTF the ‘JPEG of 3D’ – it is a 3D asset format focused on being pervasive, compact and easy to process – it is the last mile JPEG-equivalent that lets you easily transport and deploy realistic looking 3D assets wherever they are needed. Support for glTF is now widespread throughout the industry, and such a ubiquitous format will bring new opportunities for the 3D industry just as JPEG did for images and MP3 for audio.
How will pervasive 3D change e-commerce? Are we at the cusp of a 3D revolution?
Pervasive 3D will change e-commerce – and e-commerce will also change 3D – for the better. When we first established the 3D Commerce working group one of the retailers shared a simple but powerful vision that has stayed with me: their e-commerce website today displays dozens of high-quality 2D product images in just a second or two. 3D Commerce is working towards being able to display a product page with dozens of 3D models, just as quickly – but with a whole new level of interactivity and customer engagement.
The key insight of the 3D Commerce Working Group is that the barrier to rolling out 3D Commerce at an industrial scale is the process friction around hundreds of companies trying to cooperate over the design, manufacture and presentation of many thousands of 3D products across multiple platforms. If you talk to online retailers trying to use 3D models there are so many horror stories of process incompatibilities, from complex down to seemingly mundane issues, such as that no-one can agree what direction is ‘up’. Which does sound trivial until you consider what that means for a retail website trying to import thousands of 3D models a day.
This is a classic class of problem that industry cooperation and standardization can help solve, and the 3D Commerce Working Group is working to develop and evolve standards, guidelines and tools to enable 3D models to be seamlessly created, distributed and viewed by millions of end-users. Although this work is fueled by the very real commercial opportunity of 3D Commerce, it will benefit many, many other market areas – and yes – it will be revolutionary.
How important are standards such as glTF?
It is often the 3D graphics APIs such as Vulkan and WebGL that get all the industry attention. But 3D asset formats like glTF are the essential glue that enables the pervasive distribution of sophisticated 3D content to anyone that needs it, on whatever device they are using – and content is king after all!
And as well as enabling end-users today, the evolution of the glTF roadmap is being used by the industry to expand the envelope of visual realism in pervasive content. An amazing group of industry-leading experts from member companies at the Khronos 3D Formats working group are driving consensus on what is the attainable state-of-the-art for techniques such as physically based rendering that can run effectively on even on mobile devices.
How important is it to involve companies of all sizes in the creation of new standards?
It is essential. Diverse participation is the lifeblood of any cooperative standard to ensure that all industry needs are covered. While the involvement of large industry players can provide valuable industry credibility and momentum, very often the most innovative use cases and ideas come from smaller companies.
In fact, it is one of the most important roles of open standards in any industry to reduce barriers to entry and to encourage and enable innovation from all companies that have something to contribute – large and small.
What are the biggest challenges in creating standards in a joint effort with so many companies?
Actually, having many companies involved makes the development of a collaborative open standard easier, as long as you follow the two golden rules of standards groups: 1) make sure you are working on a standard that the members really care about because it is going to have a clear positive impact on their bottom line; and 2) only standardize something when the technologies involved are well understood and so the group can easily reach consensus on what the standard needs to do. Group refinement of well-formed design proposals can be a very effective process to make a design stronger by ensuring multiple viewpoints have been considered. But R&D by committee is not usually effective in a larger group.
But building a true collaborative standard by its nature takes longer than a single company writing its own proprietary specification, because a genuine industry consensus needs to be built, and that is a larger task. But building that consensus is actually the vital role of a standards group – and it is worth that extra time and effort to build a specification that will be enthusiastically supported by the industry. Such a successful standard is inherently more valuable than a typical proprietary specification.
What is next for 3D Commerce and pervasive 3D in the coming years?
The first round of deliverables from the 3D Commerce Working Group has been primarily focused on household goods that have a fixed geometry. There is significant growing interest in using 3D Commerce for selling clothing – which introduces a whole new set of challenges such as new PBR materials, physical simulation of fabrics and defining how avatars and clothing interact. There is a real need to begin carefully defining solutions to some of these problems – being careful not to violate the second rule of standards groups above. As with the work they have already delivered, the Khronos 3D Formats and 3D Commerce working groups have a significant opportunity to advance the capabilities, deployment and value of pervasive 3D for the industry.
If you’d like to read more on the future of 3D, check our series Scaling up 3D Processes to learn about the benefits of 3D in e-commerce, the importance of efficient delivery formats, and the current challenges to streamlined 3D processes.