The Slow Road to Metaverse Standards — and How AI Fits In
The metaverse hype was a dominant storyline in the tech industry over 2022. But after the initial loud posturing of Meta (née Facebook), it dawned on the industry that in order for the metaverse to succeed, open standards would need to be defined and alliances formed around those standards. That was why, in June of last year, The Khronos Group launched a new open standards discussion forum called the Metaverse Standards Forum.
To find out what progress the Forum has made over the past nine months, I spoke again with Neil Trevett, the leader of the group. Trevett is also President of Khronos and is VP Developer Ecosystems at Nvidia.
The main news today is that the Forum, which has over 2,400 organizations signed up to it, has incorporated as an independent industry consortium. It currently hosts nine active domain groups, working on topics ranging from 3D asset interoperability to privacy, security and identity. Trevett will continue on as the Forum’s leader in the interim, but it will eventually hold an election process for the position.
On its homepage, the Forum states that its goal is “to foster interoperability standards for an open metaverse.” Meta has also regularly used the word “interoperable” in its communications, but I didn’t see a lot of real progress in 3D world interoperability last year. So I asked Trevett what have been some early success stories in the Forum for interoperability projects?
He replied by pointing to the work done on making USD interoperable with the glTF format. glTF is a file format for 3D graphics that was invented by the Khronos Group, which promotes it as the “JPEG of 3D.” USD is akin to the Photoshop format, psd, in that it’s a native format for authoring 3D graphics files.
One of the active working groups is focused on glTF/USD 3D asset interoperability, said Trevett.
“The first project that has popped out,” he said, “is we are initiating a project where you can take a glTF asset, import it into a USD toolchain, and re-export it back out, and the glTF model should be preserved — at least in terms of its visual fidelity.”
This is having a real impact on the industry already, Trevett maintains, even if it’s behind-the-scenes.
“A lot of the tools aren’t properly importing and exporting,” he said. “This is a real thing that’s holding back a lot of companies in the Khronos domain that are 3D commerce folks — they deploy in glTF [and] they’re increasingly using USD authoring. This is really hurting folks right now [and] I think we can really make a difference for a whole bunch of companies in that domain.”
3D-commerce (meaning e-commerce companies that are using 3D technologies) is one of the few sectors to have gone all-in on the metaverse. Trevett called it “a beachhead use case” and added that it isn’t just about fixing the authoring incompatibilities.
“It’s a lot wider [of a] problem — even if you can import and export the assets, how do you get them to be displayed consistently across different platforms? If you put up an asset, whatever it is — an avatar, or whatever — into your browser on your PC, and then you look at it in your augmented reality app on your phone, [if] it looks completely different, it’s not good. That’s something that we’ve been working on for a while — we have viewer certification programs.”
Where Does AI Come in?
Despite the progress being made in e-commerce, clearly the metaverse hasn’t eventuated on a wide scale yet in the consumer market — unless you count Meta’s underwhelming Horizon Worlds virtual world. Trevett defines the metaverse as “the connectivity of the web with the immersiveness of spatial computing,” but he wouldn’t be drawn on what kinds of consumer applications will come to represent it. However, he did comment on several of the technologies that are paving the way to a 3D internet.
“Those technologies include, obviously, GPU advances in rendering and simulation XR. Again, they’re going through their own hype cycles, but are making progress. Networking; we’re already talking about 10G. Decentralized trust and storage, and the whole Web3 [domain], which is [a] young domain. And, particularly right now in the zeitgeist, AI and machine learning.”
Given the current hype around generative AI, I asked if the Forum has been looking into open standards around how AI can be used within the metaverse.
“The golden rule of standardization is don’t do R&D by standardization or committee,” he chuckled. “That’s the worst way to do R&D — you need people out there experimenting, doing proprietary technologies [to figure out] what’s working, what’s not working. The field of AI is moving so fast right now, I wouldn’t know what to standardize!”
Having said that, he mentioned ONNX [Open Neural Network Exchange], a project from The Linux Foundation, which is an “open standard for machine learning interoperability.” Khronos also has a project named NNEF [Neural Network Exchange Format], which he said is “more oriented towards the hardware side of things.”
“It’s not the right time to leap in,” Trevett said, regarding metaverse standards in AI, “but in the next six months I think it will be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at some point we have an AI working group — probably in the generative 3D space for 3D models. Then there’s things like NeRFs [neural radiance field], where you encode a 3D scene into a neural net. That’s going to be awesome for 3D commerce.”
So, in summary, it’s still early days for metaverse technology — interoperable standards are being formed around formats (like USD and glTF), technologies like GPUs are improving all the time, and newer technologies such as generative AI are still in their research phase (pre-standards).
This is the kind of nitty-gritty work that doesn’t make for the kinds of sexy headlines that Meta and its ilk require to keep their share prices going up. But I’m glad the Metaverse Standards Forum is doing this work; they’re keeping the dream of an open metaverse alive.