Generalizing Connectable Nodes Beyond UsdShade
Copyright © 2020, Pixar Animation Studios v 1.1
Background and Goals
In computer graphics, the term "shader" originally referred to a unit of computation used to define material appearance of geometry. The underlying need was for a user-configurable description of a high-throughput parallel computation, as needed in rendering. The success of this model led to "shading" being used in other rendering domains with similar needs. Today a "shading" node might refer to a computation unit used for geometry deformation, displacement, or tessellation; light emission; light path integration; camera lens projection; or image pixel filtering.
UsdShade was designed to foster interchange of material shading networks — that original domain of shading — between DCC's and renderers. The intent is not to provide an evaluation runtime, but rather to facilitate transport of shading networks between contexts where a suitable runtime (i.e. renderer) would be available. To achieve this it provides concepts of nodes, connected node graphs, and a node definition registry populated with runtime-discovered node types. It also provides some basic but useful high-level guidance for valid structure of these networks, to aid their creation, transport and composition as coherent assets.
We propose small adjustments to make these core concepts available to those additional, non-material domains within rendering. The initial motivation is to enable light and light-filter networks in UsdLux. We anticipate subsequent use for other node-plugin-based renderer capabilities.
These changes will not require any changes to existing USD files. Existing clients of UsdShade API will be almost entirely unaffected, as well, with the exception of two removed convenience helper methods proposed in the Connectability section below.
Node Definition as API Schema
UsdShadeShader is a concrete prim type with attributes that select a node definition / implementation entry in the Sdr Node Definition Registry. To make this "node definition" aspect available to other prim types, we propose to split this aspect out to an API schema, UsdShadeNodeDefAPI. This API would provide access to the shader definition selector attributes (implementation, id, source asset / sub-identifier / code), as well as Sdr metadata helpers for SdrShaderNode lookup. UsdShadeShader would continue to exist but would pre-apply this new API schema rather than defining these attributes and API itself, with the goal that existing code clients of UsdShadeShader and USD data files would require no changes.
The reason to split out UsdShadeNodeDefAPI rather than use UsdShadeShader as a base-type for other shading-like domains is because those domains may already have a different concrete base type, such as UsdGeomXformable. Rather than pursue multiple-inheritance of concrete base types in USD — with its attendant, well-known complexity — we see API schemas as a better fit for this purpose, representing the node-ness component, aspect, or facet of a prim.
Plugin-defined ConnectableAPI Behavior
UsdShade does not and cannot by design know full details of the evaluation semantics of its networks, but it does aim to support a basic but useful level of structural guidance for network construction. Specifically, the UsdShadeConnectableAPI is compatible with only certain prim types, and it constrains how inputs and outputs may be connected. For example, a material's output may only be connected to an internal node's output, as a way to forward that result to the material's interface, whereas a shader's output is not allowed to connect to anything at all. To support a similar level of construction guidance for other domains, we propose to allow schema plugin libraries to configure connectability of their UsdShadeInput and UsdShadeOutput attributes using runtime callbacks. We take inspiration from UsdGeom's design for spatial extent computations.
UsdShadeConnectableAPI will determine compatibility with a prim type by checking plugin metadata for that prim type. If the key "implementsConnectableAPI" key is set to true, the schema will be considered compatible, and the plugin will be loaded before continuing. At load time, a schema plugin library can use the TF_REGISTRY_FUNCTION system to register connectability callbacks for a prim type. Only a single set of callbacks may be defined per prim type, similar to C++'s One Definition Rule; attempting to re-define them will trigger a TF_RUNTIME_ERROR. The callbacks will be invoked to determine the results for the CanConnect() methods.
This approach separates node-ness (UsdShadeNodeDefAPI) from connectability (UsdShadeConenctableAPI). This allows a schema library to define prim types that contain nodes and are wired up to them, but do not themselves have a node def. UsdNodeGraph and UsdShadeMaterial are examples of this idea. UsdShade will register its own callbacks using this mechanism to implement its current connectability rules for UsdShadeShader, UsdShadeNodeGraph, and UsdShadeMaterial prims — with one change, described next.
We propose to remove two convenience API methods on UsdShadeConnectableAPI: IsShader() and IsNodeGraph(). This is the only part of this proposal that could require updates to existing code clients. The motivation is to remove the Connectability API's mention of any specific prim types. A call to
connectableAPI.IsShader() would become
IsNodeGraph() would become a call to IsA<UsdShadeNodeGraph>(). Arguably these API's provided little convenience, and simply obscured the underlying mechanics of how to use prim types and schemas.
UsdShadeMaterial is no longer a UsdShadeNodeGraph
Discussions around connectability have indicated that materials are not themselves usefully composable into larger materials. To recognize this, we will remove UsdShadeNodeGraph as the base type of UsdShadeMaterial, replacing it with Typed. Accordingly, we propose to revise the connectability rules to prohibit connections flowing data into top-level material inputs.
Intended use in UsdLux and UsdRi (RenderMan USD schema)
This current proposal is strictly about UsdShade, but it is motivated by enabling future work on UsdLux and UsdRi, which we describe here. We intend for UsdLuxPluginLightFilter to be a schema type with pre-applied UsdShadeNodeDefAPI, representing a light filter wholly defined by a renderer plugin. Networks of light filters will use the connectability API. Similarly we anticipate usdLuxPluginLight to represent a plugin light, with its own node def. UsdRi, to support the full range of plugin-customizable RenderMan behavior, will also use UsdShadeNodeDefAPI as needed for its own plugin points, such as Integrators, Projection plugins, Sample Filters, Display Filters, etc.
Sdr & Ndr
The node definition registry libraries Ndr and Sdr have been designed to separate the shading-ness layer (Sdr) from the basic concept of a node (Ndr). This raises the question of whether node-ness in Usd should be factored out as a separate library that would correspond to Ndr in the way UsdShade corresponds to Sdr.
In practice, it appears that most if not all applications of node networks in renderer behaviors share concepts and terminology with shading as represented by Sdr. Therefore, we propose to use UsdShade and Sdr as the basis for these rendering-related domains. This appears to resonate with common mental models of rendering capabilities, and has the significant benefit of avoiding any deeper refactoring, or impact on existing clients or USD data files. In a future project, we propose to collapse Ndr into Sdr to significantly simplify the architecture, given our experience and belief that it is unlikely any registries other than Sdr would be specialized from Ndr.
Flexibility of Connectability Callbacks
Adding callbacks to advise connectability raises the question of how flexible the protocol should be. At one extreme, a runtime with full semantic knowledge of the node definitions and a fully-contextual API could have fine-grained control. To consider a concocted example: it could prohibit wiring a vec3-valued displacement through a color-valued HueSaturationValueAdjust node. To provide this one could imagine a multiple-dispatch or pattern-matching approach that could vary behavior on both the upstream and downstream prim types.
We believe the current callback API that exists in UsdShadeConnectableAPI is both sufficient to cover the important cases, and the right trade-off point to avoid undue complexity, so we propose to maintain that but simply allow it to switch off the consuming prim type, i.e. the type of the prim into which data would flow. This would be the "destination prim" in the parlance of UsdShadeConnectableAPI, the API which provides the ConnectToSource() method for creating connections.
There have been efforts to investigate embedding rigging, constraint, or other network types into USD. First, it is worth noting that USD's schema extensibility makes it possible to do this locally to a facility or pipeline. The question is whether any deeper integration would be suitable with the USD runtime. In the context of "shading networks", all of the behaviors provided by the nodes do not affect value resolution behavior of the USD scene — they are implementation details that guide how an image should be produced in a rendering environment. Domains like rigging or constraints would require deeper integration, since they could arguably affect the desired results of calling UsdGeom API for spatial extents, among other things.
For this reason, we do not intend UsdShade-based networks to configure or specify any deeper behavior changes that would affect the semantics of the USD runtime. We acknowledge that several organizations are layering more sophisticated procedural and execution behaviors on top of USD, and we believe that UsdShade-based networks could be appropriate for describing and interchanging the computation graphs that might feed such systems.