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The Secret Sauces of Standardization

Virtual Reality standards and open source initiatives are all the rage since CES, but what does this actually mean? This guide will highlight the industry success stories and map out the politics of how things are done. Open Source is covered as well.

I've been working in this space since 2007, and I'll never forget the cautionary tale of stereoscopic 3D gaming. Forget it? Heck no! I lived it!

When the value of stereoscopic 3D gaming was rediscovered with players like iZ3D, Dynamic Digital Depth, and Nvidia 3D Vision, the excitement was palpable; much as it is today with VR solutions such as the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus. While too many made comparisons to anaglyph glasses, the people who tried modern solutions usually had a great time, and combined with the blockbuster successes of Avatar and other 3D films, the market looked ripe for the building.

People watching Avatar at a cinema in Beijing. (Source China Daily)


Sadly, politics killed the beast. The industry shook itself apart on many levels. First, the companies with marketing dollars had exclusivity deals for their technology solutions. Not just about which games are compatible with which devices, but which 3D BluRay movies could be shipped with which 3D HDTVs. Imagine having to buy a specific TV to be able to see a movie! Crazy, right?

The rushed standards had little to nothing to do with what consumers needed at the time. The approved standard for 3D HDTVs were limited to what a console platform needed in 3D (1280X720X120Hz) versus what the early adopter 3D PC gamers needed (1920X1080X120Hz). The only way PC gamers could enjoy their 3D games was by making a difficult choice between graphics cards and divided 3D monitor options. Finally, with everyone smelling the money, 3D support was rushed with 2D/3D movie conversions, 2D+Depth rendering techniques in games, and even putting out AAA game titles with duplicate left/right renders because they had no idea what they were doing. All of which had nothing to do with what got the industry excited in the first place.

David Catuhe


Now we are in the VR world, and faced with the same opportunity. The industry seems sold on the potential of virtual reality in the consumer space, with several viable options being developed, and content makers needing to make difficult choices on whom they will back and how serious they will be about providing effective support.

If we follow the established timeline of stereoscopic 3D gaming, the industry is going to start talking about standards soon; and what that means. Here are some standards models and their effective trade-offs.


Non-Proprietary, Non-Profit Organization

To be clear, a non-profit organization is not designed to lose money or operate on a pittance; that's a misnomer. There are non-profits which have millions of dollars flowing through them. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is a non-profit.

CEA is a giant organization in Washington DC (Source The Hill)


What makes a non-profit special is after they collect resources, they invest it back into the industry or cause they are supporting. Therefore, it's not about making money, it's about raising money to support a purpose and building on a future for its members or cause.

It can be a thankless job, though. The Board of Directors for a non-profit can't make money from running the organization. Therefore, the next time someone tells you their organization is a non-profit; ask them about their board structure. Then ask where the money goes. This is why the Board of Directors of non-profits tend to have day jobs outside the organization; they are there to support a much bigger picture and nothing else.

In the gaming and software world, The Khronos Group is the best example. They make all kinds of standards that are free of royalty fees and licensing fees. Popular examples of their API standards include OpenGL, OpenCL, WebGL, and more. The members pay an annual fee to participate, and they implement a standard.

A non-profit can also manage proprietary technology that requires a royalty fee.The key is that the earnings have to go back to the rightful IP holder, and if there are extra resources, they have to go back to the organization's mandate (e.g. putting on events, education, day to day expenses, etc.).

Where things get interesting is if the directors of a non-profit have a vested interest in an external standard or initiative which is why it's so important to remain transparent and for everything to be clearly discussed and agreed upon by the organization's membership and board.


Proprietary For-Profit Organization

The closest thing I could think of is LLC, the licensing agent the HDMI Specification. HDMI is the de facto standard for HDTV connectors and the connector of choice for devices such as the Oculus Rift and similar HMDs.

The challenge is how can you have a real standard that holds up to scrutiny if it's run by a for-profit organization?

In 2011, the HDMI LLC founders created a separate non-profit organization called HDMI Forum. It is open in that any manufacturer can join. Members get voting rights with their membership fee, and can even join the HDMI Forum Board of Directors. What the forum develops they pass to the LLC for implementation in their official standard.


(Source Cable Live)

Although anyone can use the HDMI standard, people refer to it as being proprietary because it's comprised of private IP, and part of the licensing fee goes to the multiple IP owners. MPEG and the licensing authority of MPEG (MPEG LA) operate the same way.


Platform-Specific Standard

I'll never forget what my economics teacher taught us in high school. Money is real as long as you believe it's real. Meaning that as long a dollar bill is accepted as a dollar bill, it's worth that dollar.

In the standards world, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Valve, Facebook, and others fulfill the requirements of being a standard by having the sheer numbers associated with their platforms. There is no need to create a unique software standard organization within Sony because they own the whole platform and have no dependencies outside Sony PlayStation. Microsoft has XBOX and PC via DirectX, Nintendo has Wii, and Valve has Steam OS. Facebook is a platform as well through its APIs.

A platform is many things (Source Microsoft)


A platform could be even more specialized. For example, AMD's HD3D and Nvidia's 3D Vision hardware and software could be construed as a platform because their standards work with a range of compliant hardware, but they are not open standards.



It's difficult to classify this one. In the modern 3D days, there was an attempt by Walt Disney, HP, Dreamworks and others to have a consortium for 3D movie development standards. There was no formal organization behind it - non-profit or otherwise. It just was...and is no longer.

Efforts like this are usually done to test the waters to see if something more formidable is necessary, but you never really know who gets to decide what, and it's unclear why a formal organization isn't structured to make things work as a first step.


Open Source

So what about Open Source? Could this be the foundation of an effective standard?

While there is a certain romance attached to the words Open Source, it isn't always what it seems.

There are different methodologies and licensing options, but the idea behind open source is that everyone contributes to a project, and the project is both free to use and transparent for all to see. More than this, by publishing something as open source, others are free to use the same code from that point on, though they can't charge for it. They could of course take the core ideas and rewrite from scratch, but if they want to modify or use the existing code, it has to be transparent and free.

There are a few big challenges with Open Source. Just because anyone and everyone can contribute to it, it doesn't mean developers will use the platform  where it is most important. Valve's Steam OS is a good example of this. Steam OS is open source, but unless Valve approves the changes, the updated version will never see the light of day on the Steam platform. If you're a hardware vendor that wants compatibility with Steam OS, coding a plug-in does not guarantee you a spot in front of their huge audience. Without an audience behind it, where your version is used puts its value at risk.

Google's Android OS is open source, which is how it is possible to root your phone and download unauthorized versions of the OS with extra features you didn't have access to before. So why don't the different smartphone and tablet makers just take the OS for themselves and throw their own revenue-generating store in? They can, but unless the Google store is included, they won't have the right to distribute the closed-source Google Mobile Apps (e.g. Google Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Calendar, etc.), and these are perceived as being important to most customers.

Separate from locking users down to a platform or feature set, the remaining option is to have a generic open source platform, and bill for consulting or specialized features. For example, I could develop an open source operating system, and charge users a fee for downloading closed-source proprietary drivers, plug-ins, work on customizations, customer support, etc. There is money to made!

Finally, and this is perhaps the most challenging part...people are unpredictable. On MTBS, we host the Vireio Perception Free and Open Source VR drivers. It's been a few years now, and we've had some of the sharpest coders working together and have accomplished a great deal. Unfortunately, life's responsibilities get in the way, people have disagreements, or other things suddenly become more interesting. Developers will come and go; especially if they are doing the work for free.

It gets worse. Unless a project stays whole, it loses its effectiveness. Imagine someone saying "I'm sick of this group", and branching the project off in a huff. Now there are two competing standards, and there is very little anyone can do about it; everyone loses.

Open standards can be open source, but the nature of being open source isn't what defines the effort as being an open standard.


So What About VR?

Much the way countless minds are contributing to big ideas and new innovations in virtual reality, there will be creative models and ideas for building some kind of standard in the virtual reality world. Much the way proprietary companies are putting great thought into each software release, participants in an effective standard have to do the same thing, and every vote has to carry weight and mean something. It's not just about software, it's about organization and mapping out the big picture, and coming to terms with how revenues will be made to sustain the effort for years to come.

(Source Engadget)

To make matters even more challenging is that unlike 3D which, was well understood by the time standards were being developed (which they got wrong, by the way), modern virtual reality and technologies like it are still being invented and discovered. Therefore, effective standards will embrace innovation, and not stifle it. In addition, whatever model people choose, it's important for everyone to get in the same room, discuss, debate, and move forward. It was the unwillingness to communicate and the politics of who can sit with who that nearly killed 3D, and VR is just as vulnerable no matter how well financed it is to start.

On that note, Happy New Year! Let's see what 2015 has to bring.


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