Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023
Now that's what I call an open platform.  Nyuk nyuk nyuk

Now that’s what I call an open platform. Nyuk nyuk nyuk

A popular Reddit thread over the weekend has surfaced a long, turbulent behind-the-scenes debate about the future of the burgeoning virtual reality revival. The questions being discussed address exactly what it means for a head-mounted display to be an “open platform”, and who, if anyone, will be able to set critical standards for cross-platform development on VR hardware.

In a sprawling thread started over the weekend on reddit’s “PC Master Race” subreddit, user ngpropman pointed to news that Oculus is funding about two dozen exclusive games ahead of the launch of the Oculus Rift as evidence that Oculus is using “console tactics” to push on a “closed ecosystem” for its Windows-based VR peripherals. The implication of the post seemed to be that Oculus is working to block games from compatibility with competing VR platforms and that Oculus could eventually shut down the entire platform itself to unauthorized software, in the style of Apple’s iOS App Store.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey replied that the latter implied criticism quite directly in the thread. “The Rift is an open platform, not a closed one,” he wrote bluntly. “You don’t need any kind of approval to make games for the Rift, and you can distribute those games wherever you want without paying us a dime.” That echoes statements Luckey made in the wake of Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus last year, when he said, “At least our hardware and software will become even more open, and Facebook is on board with that.”

When it comes to locking down certain games on other VR platforms, Luckey was a little less direct. The exclusive games that Oculus funds, Luckey said, are developed in collaboration with Oculus employees, and the majority “wouldn’t even exist if we didn’t fund them.” He didn’t entirely rule out those titles eventually coming to other head-mounted displays, but he did note that “time spent building and maintaining support for other headsets is time that could be spent improving and expanding content.” He added that “trying to support every single headset on the market with our own content just isn’t a launch priority.”

Translation: We pay to have these first-party games made, and we’re not exactly thrilled to pay for them to be outlets for our competitors.

Yes, buying exclusives is indeed a “console tactic,” and one that console makers have always used to try and differentiate between hardware that is otherwise hard to distinguish. But it’s not like PC hardware manufacturers haven’t done the same. Over the decades, Microsoft has self-funded numerous Windows gaming exclusives, both through internal proprietary studios and third-party partners. The fact that its main OS competitors usually didn’t do the same is a big part of why Windows is the de facto standard for PC game development these days, and why upstarts like SteamOS have an uphill battle trying to break it loose to leave. .

Anyway, putting money into a few exclusive offers doesn’t determine whether or not you have an ‘open platform’. Anyone can still create games for Windows and/or the Oculus Rift without paying the platform owner a fee, and can port those games to other platforms if they wish. The fact that certain developers are giving up that opportunity in exchange for funding and development aid directly from Oculus (or Microsoft) doesn’t change the overall openness of the platform itself.

Setting the standards

When I asked Oculus for more access to
Enlarge / When I asked Oculus for more access to “bare metal” features, it wasn’t what I expected…

However, whether or not a single VR platform is “open” or not can be up for debate if developers have to juggle countless slightly different development standards for countless slightly different VR platforms. In a way, making a PC game that only works on the Oculus Rift is just as ridiculous as making a PC game that only works on Dell monitors.

Such situations existed in the early history of home computers, when the makers of WordPerfect had to code their own specific printer drivers to work with a variety of peripherals. Today, we’ve long expected this kind of low-level hardware interfacing to happen at the operating system level and for layers like DirectX to eliminate gaming-specific issues across countless hardware configurations. (Microsoft could do something similar with a set of OS-level virtual reality APIs in a future version of Windows. Despite joint efforts with both Valve and Oculus and working on similar APIs for its own HoloLens, we’ve never heard of such unifying efforts in the VR space come from Microsoft.)

Virtual reality isn’t even close to that level of standardization yet, and it’s an open question whether it will get there. Right now, Oculus is focusing on a proprietary Rift software development kit (SDK) that is tightly integrated with its own hardware. The company seems to think this is the best way to ensure the subframe-level timing accuracy needed for a compelling sense of VR presence, through a variety of Rift-specific features in the SDK.

While users can download and modify the Rift SDK source code for their own projects, it is distributed under a closed license that prevents redistribution or use with “unapproved commercial virtual reality mobile or non-mobile products or hardware”. That’s despite very early, pre-Kickstarter writing from Luckey indicating he wanted the Rift to be completely open source. (On the hardware side, Oculus has distributed plans for the original Rift development kit in an open source format.)

Valve, on the other hand, is building a more open platform that it says will support multiple headsets from multiple makers, all running on Valve’s “OpenVR” standard. While the HTC Vive is currently the first and best-known of the SteamVR headsets, the hope seems to be that each headset can work with the same games by using OpenVR tools and drivers.

Then there are third-party efforts like OSVR, the Open Source Virtual Reality standard being developed in conjunction with hardware maker Razer. OSVR aims to be the unifying layer that translates input and output data from dozens of different VR hardware makers so that they all work together in harmony.

The idea is to get software makers to code for one standard, while OSVR is concerned about, say, the slightly different ways five different VR controllers report their real-world positional data. “If you’re a game developer and you can say, ‘I develop for Oculus, or I develop for Oculus and 19 others’ [through OSVR]that’s potentially a compelling story,” Sensix CEO and OSVR evangelist Yuval Boger told Ars Technica in a recent interview.

There’s plenty of incentive for hardware makers to integrate with the standard as well, says Boger. “On the hardware side, if you’re the 11th eye-tracking vendor, I’d say, ‘Hey, you just plug into OSVR and now you can enjoy all this content,’ as opposed to that you have to go to the publisher and say, ‘Please, please, please support my thing in your application.'” OSVR currently lists 118 “supporters” for its technology on both the hardware and software sides, including Steam’s own OpenVR initiative .

Will OSVR become the Linux of virtual reality or the Android of virtual reality?
Enlarge / Will OSVR become the Linux of virtual reality or the Android of virtual reality?

Luckey, however, is less than impressed with these efforts to standardize and generalize the VR space. “As a concrete example, SteamVR is currently (and generally is) pretty much broke when it comes to Rift support,” he wrote in the reddit thread. “When it works, support through SteamVR is way behind our own SDK. It’s pretty obvious they’ve prioritized Vive, and that’s fine. They’re also working hard to launch a product, and it makes more sense for them to focus on improving their own side of things rather than keeping up with every update we make, while at the same time showing why it can be difficult to rely on someone else to keep things working.”

Simply plugging a new VR headset into a computer isn’t the same as plugging in a new monitor, Luckey argued. Supporting a new headset “requires some pretty deep integration into the game’s code, one that the developers themselves have to spend a lot of time integrating and updating,” he wrote. “This is especially true for games that rely on our SDK features like timewarp, direct mode, late lock, and layered compositor to get a good experience.”

Does this mean we’re doomed to a fragmented future where developers have to make ten versions of a game for ten slightly different VR headsets and controllers? Not necessary. Luckey said the opportunity to open up VR development to hardware “will eventually happen, especially as the technology matures and open standards are created.”

For now, though, he wrote that “true open standards will require collaboration between all the major players in the PC gaming space, [and] that role cannot be fulfilled by an ‘open standard’ that is fully managed by one company. We work closely with major players in the space, from GPU vendors to OS makers to game developers – lack of immediate participation in any of the single vendor controlled universal SDKs that have popped up recently (after years of making our technology the best) is not an indication that we are doing anything wrong in the short or long term.”

So how “open” will the future of virtual reality on PCs be? The answer largely depends on what succeeds in the market. If something like the Oculus Rift becomes the de facto standard for tethered VR, the SDK could be its own lifeblood of development, much like DirectX on Windows. However, if other headsets make their mark, competing open standards may eventually coalesce into a single development environment that runs on virtually any compatible hardware.

None of these scenarios envision a “console-style” future where one company controls all software on its headset, but the result could still have major implications for the future of virtual reality development.

By akfire1

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