Apple and Pixar’s New USDZ File Format Could Come to Android AR in the Future

Apple and Pixar’s new file format for augmented reality (AR) models, scenes and textures could come to Android in the future.

At this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple announced a new file format for augmented reality models, scenes and textures called USDZ. Jointly developed with Pixar, USDZ is a “zero-compression, unencrypted zip archive” of Pixar’s own USD (Universal Scene Description) format.

Apple announced USDZ as a built-in feature of iOS 12, which we expect will be released this fall. iOS 12 was the focal point of WWDC 2018, but this announcement will surely excite AR developers and fans.

At the conference, Adobe’s Stefano Corazza commented that “there’s no obstacle” to Google perhaps one day adding support for USDZ to Android. Whether that will happen or not is yet to be seen, but USDZ is still a step forward for mobile AR. Currently, Google offers ARCore as an AR development toolkit for Android. Apple also offers its own framework for iOS called ARKit.

Adobe, a California-based creative software company, had a stake in USDZ’s development. It hopes to more closely integrate its Project Aero augmented reality software with mobile OS’s like iOS and Android.

What is USDZ and what will it mean for mobile AR?

USDZ is a file format for augmented reality (AR) models, textures and scenes for mobile. Apple and Pixar co-developed USDZ, which is based on Pixar’s Universal Scene Description (USD) standard. Its goal is to be an all-in-one way to store and access AR content. USDZ accomplishes this by storing all of the various assets USD requires in one file.

In Pixar’s USD format, 3D scenes are composed of a series of source files, which are “stacked” on top of one another. While that’s fine locally, the problem arises when you’re faced with having to export a file. USD has no mechanism for creating a single object out of all of that data. Most Data Asset Management (DAM) systems require all of their assets to come in the form of single objects. That creates a problem for developers who want to use USD.

The advantage of USDZ is that it pieces together all of that data into a single, easily manageable asset. It’s a format that’s also optimized for sharing across different platforms. That’s why it’s likely that Google and other AR devs will use USDZ on their platforms in the future.

It will also allow for deeper integration between Adobe’s Project Aero software and mobile OS’s. Corazza has confirmed that Project Aero will support USDZ files. That will make exporting Project Aero assets to iOS (and in the future, possibly Android) easier than ever before.

The AR market on mobile platforms is the fastest-growing (and most promising) sector of the AR/VR industry. If USDZ ever becomes a standard file format, it will greatly simplify matters for mobile AR devs.

Google could someday bring USDZ to Android

A key part of USDZ’s future success may be its ability to become the standard file format for AR assets. For that to happen, USDZ has to someday spread to Android. Google’s OS currently controls over 75% of the mobile OS market and there are no signs of it letting up. While Apple has always been fiercely protective of its tech (we all remember the Apple Maps fiasco), it’s unlikely that they will try to turn USDZ into a proprietary format.

It’s safe to say that Corazza’s comment is a sign of good things to come for AR on Android. Google’s ARCore kit is already one of the most versatile tools available to mobile AR devs. A common file format would only help integrate AR and streamline the development process further.

How can I, as a content creator, use USDZ?

USDZ will simplify importing AR assets such as 3D models, scenes and complex textures into ARKit. Apple has announced its intention to work with a number of tech companies on adopting USDZ. So far, Adobe is the most prominent of them. Vice-president Abhay Parasnis has promised to bring native support for USDZ to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, as well as its Project Aero AR software.

What that means is that, in effect, users of Dimension, Photoshop and other Adobe products will be able to make full use of USDZ as well.

So far, of course, that is all in the near future, as iOS 12 is slated to be released this fall, alongside Apple’s next line of iPhones. Until then, those interested can apply to join Apple’s iOS beta program to get a taste of its AR experience.

If Google chooses to adopt USDZ on Android at some point, then ARCore devs will be able to reap the benefits of this file format as well.

The future of augmented reality

In the past year, AR has grown rapidly, surpassing VR in terms of market worth and sheer popularity. It is expected that, in the coming year, AR and VR revenues will grow to be twice what they were just a year ago. It is clear that more industries have found a use for AR so far than have for VR. Brands like IKEA have welcomed AR with open arms, creating apps and other means for augmented reality to improve their customers’ experience.

Recent developments, such as USDZ’s announcement at WWDC 2018, have created a push for AR on smartphones and other mobile platforms. The “Big Three” companies who are a part of this push, at the moment, are Google, Microsoft and Apple.

However, tech giants like Amazon, Adobe and Facebook are also looking to enter the AR/VR race. Adobe recognizes AR’s potential for its creative software suites. Amazon, on the other hand, has been trying to expand its horizons for a few years now. Alexa is an example of that, but AR may be the next big step for them.

It’s safe to say that, in the next few years, AR’s presence in consumers’ daily lives will only continue to grow. Whether wearables, like Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, will ever truly take off is a big question. However, AR won’t require extra or new hardware to grow, as it has already latched onto smartphones. 2016’s Pokemon GO was the first massively successful AR product on mobile, but it surely won’t be the last.

Only time will tell what other trends will drive AR in 2018 and beyond. However, nobody will deny that deeper integration into iOS and Android is key for AR’s future growth and success.