Nintendo continues to tease the VR industry.
As early as 2016, former Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima had already hinted that the company was “looking into” VR. In a later interview in 2017, that interest had been somewhat upgraded to say they were “studying” the possibility of perhaps adding a HMD accessory to the Nintendo Switch once they were convinced users could play for longer durations without experiencing issues. With the exception of these vague statements, Nintendo has been quite noncommittal about dipping their toes into immersive tech – at least in public.
So the recent news that the video game giant would be joining a newly formed “VRM Consortium” is likely to get some fans excited. The consortium brings together several major Japanese companies with the intention of coordinating various activities aimed specifically at the development of the virtual reality business within Japan.
Members of the consortium, which will officially launch in February 2019, include Unity Technologies Japan, several VR development companies, as well as multiple livestreaming and distribution platforms. More specifically, however, the consortium (as the name suggests) is actually championing the VRM file format in the hopes of making it an industry-wide standard for 3D avatars (or 3D Humanoid Characters to be precise).
Why is that a big deal exactly? Up until now, when creating such 3D models, the output depends on the modelling tools used, and can vary greatly in terms of scale, expression, initial pose, and a range of other factors. For instance, when in first-person view, how do you obtain the coordinates for correct positioning of the body? Which parts of the body should be excluded from view at which points? The list goes on. This creates a labour-intensive process for developers, limits user choice, and generally makes for a poor experience.
Each company’s datasets are different and have often-complex specifications. It is also common for the full information about file formats not to be provided with the avatar, so importing and exporting can be pretty much impossible outside of a very limited ecosystem; and therein lies the problem.
One of the main barriers to mass consumer adoption of social VR is the fact that at the moment, each platform pretty much requires you to start from scratch. You have to create an avatar (often with limited options for customization) and can generally only use it within the confines of that specific world.
With VRM, however, the same data can be used across any application that supports the format, meaning users can easily create and personalize them with a broad range of tools. They can then use that same avatar across different applications and platforms, moving seamlessly from one world to another.
This is possible because the format is platform agnostic as well as open-source, allowing developers to integrate it into virtually any product or platform they like. VRM is based on the 3D standard format glTF2.0; all data, including textures and materials, is compacted as one file. To import a VRM model, only one single file needs to be handled, and it carries not only metadata such as the title and the author name, but also the thumbnail and the license information, making each avatar traceable and unique. Theoretically it would be possible, for example, to send your avatar data to your friends so they can see your appearance in a shared virtual space just as you intended.
For now, however, Nintendo remains ever cautious – they are joining the consortium in an “observer” capacity only – and there are no hints of an actual VR product currently planned for the future. Then again, we are dealing with one of the most unusual and mysterious companies out there.
If the enduring popularity of platforms such as Second Life has taught us anything, is that people can become incredibly invested in their virtual personas, and see them as a true extension of themselves, a key part of their identity.
So the idea that your avatar would be truly “yours” to take anywhere in the virtual multiverse is a really powerful one, and something that might eventually tempt doubters into not only trying VR, but coming back repeatedly and for longer durations.