Universal Scene Description: The HTML of the Metaverse

    Ever watched the movie “Finding Dory?” seen?

    The 2016 Pixar movie about a blue tang fish with anterograde amnesia may not be your thing, but it can be compared to CERNthe very first website that went live on August 6, 1991.

    What is the connection? The animated film was the first to be built with Universal Scene Description (U.S. dollar) – which many believe is a fundamental building block of the metavers.

    In other words, USD is the HTML for 3D virtual worlds.

    “We didn’t think about the metaverse when we made USD,” said Steve May, vice president and CTO of Pixar, during a virtual panel discussion at Nvidia’s GTC event this week. “We didn’t expect the USD to grow so quickly and broadly.”

    [Follow along with VB’s ongoing Nvidia GTC 2022 coverage »]

    Without a doubt, the metaverse is one of the most talked about topics in the tech world — how to build it, run it, monetize it — and USD has been hailed for its critical role in accelerating its evolution.

    And in this, USD is on a journey the world has seen before.

    USD, an easily extensible, open-source framework for the exchange of 3D computer graphics data, is purpose-built to work together, to enable non-destructive editing, and to enable multiple views and opinions.

    Many compare the current iteration to HTML: assets can be loaded and representation can be specified. The next phase will be enhanced interactivity and portability – the CSS moment, so to speak. The general consensus is, “Let’s move to USD’s JavaScript,” said Natalya Tatarchuk, a leading technical officer and lead architect for professional artistry and graphics innovation at Unity Gaming Services.

    But first: the origin of Universal Screen Description

    As May explained, USD came about because Pixar wanted to solve movie-making workflow problems. The studio’s films contain complex and often whimsical worlds that must be believable. Many animators are working on scenes at the same time, so Pixar needed a tool that fostered collaboration while also being expressive, performant and fast.

    USD has essentially merged, distilled and generalized numerous dispersed systems and concepts that have existed within Pixar for a while. The framework was first fully exploited in “Finding Dory”, which was released in June 2016. The following month, Pixar earned USD open source.

    In the end, May described the platform as “old and new”; it is emerging and developing rapidly. And because it’s so versatile and powerful, it’s widely applied in many areas other than filming and gaming: design, robotics, manufacturing, architecture.

    For example, Nvidia noticed that the company had started developing content and apps for simulation and AI in-house — specifically, building worlds to simulate autonomous vehicles, explains Rev Lebaredian, Nvidia’s vice president of simulation technology and Omniverse engineering.

    The company needed a common way to describe and build worlds, “very large ones, working together in many spaces,” Lebaredian said, and USD “stripped down to the essence of the problem.”

    Over the decades, many file formats had come and gone, he said, but USD felt that “there was a lot of wisdom in it.”

    Take it home

    Similarly, the home store used Lowe’s 3D and augmented reality to present items to consumers, and the company wanted to extend such 3D visualization to its operations, store design and supply chain.

    The company was also looking for a way to describe digital twins for its stores — of which it has 2,000 with 20 different layouts and unique features for each, explains Mason Sheffield, director of creative technology at Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

    The company’s existing ad hoc system had several departments using Autodesk Revit, 2D CAD, SketchUp and others, he said. Understandably, this created scaling challenges.

    But in early 2021, Lowe’s adopted an Omniverse platform that uses USD and bridges its internal warehouse databases, shelf planning, store layout tools and product library. The company went from flat 3D models to be generated in batches to a hierarchical, shared file format (for example, a planogram that can be modified and distributed in all stores), Sheffield said.

    “USD feels like a democratization of 3D that we hadn’t seen on other platforms,” he said.

    Collaborative evolution

    That said, building blocks aren’t perfect.

    As Tatarchuk pointed out, USD is a vehicle for interoperability and standards need to be developed to achieve portability. “It’s going to take us all to tune in to it,” she said.

    Guido Quaroni, senior director of engineering for 3D and immersive at Adobe, said he would like to see the framework approach the web surface. This would allow authoring and not just consumption; there also needs to be more interoperability between apps and surfaces.

    Matt Sivertson, vice president and chief architect for media and entertainment at Autodesk, underlined the importance of empowering artists to use any tool they want. A longer-term potential of USD is to reduce the cost – from a workflow perspective – of switching apps.

    “It’s not just about the tools anymore,” he said. “A differentiation function [will be] how well you support USD.”

    The ability to scale to different surfaces is also important, Sheffield said; he would also like to see native solutions for USD implementation and a softer learning curve for developers.

    “I’m excited about that evolution to the real HTML of the metaverse,” Sheffield said.

    Ideally, go straight to HTML 5 and TypeScript, says Mattias Wikenmalm, senior visualization expert at Volvo Cars.

    That said, while the concepts in USD are “battery-proven,” there is a “risk of making USD too complex too quickly,” he said. We don’t want to end up in a situation where there are all kinds of plugins for different companies.

    “The building blocks are there, it’s just refining and building on the solid foundation that’s already in USD,” Wikenmalm said.

    To continuously support the evolution of the tool it has released into the wild, Pixar is introducing more staff to its USD team. This will help the company explore USD applications beyond movie making, May said.

    “There are a lot of things we still want to do, a lot of functionality that we don’t have yet,” he said.

    Going forward, it will be critical to be deeply involved in the community: “What goes in USD? What doesn’t go in USD? How do we prevent the USD from collapsing under its own weight?”

    “We have to make the right decisions — collectively,” May said.

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