At the 2018 WWDC in San Jose, Apple announced USDZ, a new file format for storing and transmitting augmented reality (AR) content in iOS 12. The file format is based on Pixar's existing Universal Scene Description specification, packaged in a zero-compression, non-encrypted ZIP file, alongside any other assets (e.g. textures) needed to render the object.
Pixar's specification document notes that there has not heretofore been an elegant way of combining the base USD file with assets needed to display that content. Despite the use of the ZIP format, USDZ explicitly allows for the ability to externally reference individual files within an archive. Similarly, it is possible to nest other archives inside a given USDZ file.
The lack of compression applied to the USDZ file is an intentional omission. According to the specification document, it allows for "direct" consumption of a file, that is, the ability "to use the most direct API's available in USD for accessing the data contained within the archive, without extracting files to disk, or allocating more heap storage." Additionally, most image formats already provide some mechanism for internal compression, making the use of compression in this case partially redundant.
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Support for creating and editing USDZ files in Adobe's Creative Cloud suite of programs was announced at WWDC, as was support in Autodesk and Sketchfab.
USDZ is one part of Apple's larger push for AR capabilities in iOS 12. The company also announced the "Measure" app intended for use as a virtual tape measure, allowing users to use their device camera to measure objects.
Apple's move is not without its fair share of detractors, however. Will Burns, executive director at Perpetual Studios and former vice chair of the IEEE Virtual World Standards Group, notes:
Apple is betting very highly on AR in the coming future, and want a return on that investment. The only way to get that is to come up with a 'standard' that creatives are effectively forced to use if they want to publish AR on that hardware or make use of that hardware. Adobe has a vested interest in that route as well, since creatives predominantly use Adobe on Apple hardware.
Unless it is widely adopted outside of that ecosystem, it won't be a standard. It'll just be an annoying format people have to convert to in order to get something to work on that ecosystem. I imagine that other entities may arise to create their own 'standard' format. In the end, the one that will likely 'win' is the format that has the potential for the highest adoption rate, ease of use, and cross platform capabilities.
The big takeaways for tech leaders:
- Apple and Pixar have jointly announced the USDZ file format, for use with displaying Augmented Reality content on iOS 12.
- Support for creating and editing USDZ files in Adobe's Creative Cloud suite, as well as Autodesk and Sketchfab was announced at WWDC.
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James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.