Asset Previews in USD

Copyright © 2022, Pixar Animation Studios, version 1.0


Fast, scalable browsing of numerous USD assets is a concern that grows in importance as the number of readily available assets grows. On many platforms it will be impractical to load and render all assets in a directory just-in-time to generate preview/thumbnail views, even using background threads and caching. We therefore propose an encoding in USD for specifying pre-generated, lightweight preview assets for USD scenes, that can be recovered from a USD asset with small expense.

While we expect to eventually expand the kinds and variations of previews USD assets are allowed to contain, we propose to start out very simply with basic thumbnail images, encoded in a forward-looking way.


Object Model

The first association that comes to mind for previews is one between a stage (i.e. the root layer of an asset) and a preview. However, many assets will have more than one interesting element that may benefit from having its own preview. One example might be a material library, where we would like independent previews for each material. Another example might be a scene (such as the open Moana Island dataset ) that embeds multiple user-facing cameras, and it would be useful to have a pre-rendered thumbnail image for each camera view. A final example might be that in an assembly representing an environment, like the Moana island, while we would of course want a default preview of the entire scene, it may also be useful to discover and present all of the referenceable assets used by the environment.

All of these use-cases suggest instead associating previews with prims, rather than layers. How, then, do we facilitate the base-level need to “specify the preview for the scene”? It is already accepted practice in USD content creation to specify an asset’s defaultPrim in layer metadata, which names a root prim that represents the default reference target for the scene. We propose to leverage this pattern, stipulating that the preview for a stage is the preview specified on the stage’s defaultPrim. To ensure the specification is robust in the face of common manipulations like overriding a scene by creating a new, initially empty layer that sublayers an existing scene (which is what usdview’s “Save Overrides” does), we require that the defaultPrim be composed in order to extract the previews, and we will discuss below how we can ensure that process requires minimal computation.

Relationship to UsdGeomModel Texture Cards

Associating images or other “lightweight previews” with prims sounds very similar to what we already encode in UsdGeomModel’s “cards” DrawMode? The GeomModel feature was designed to address targeted needs of 3D rendering of very large scenes. It is therefore limited in two important ways that facilitate its use in scalable 3D rendering, but we find too limiting for the needs of external clients who are not necessarily interested in performing Hydra or other 3D rendering:

  1. GeomModel is tied to the Model Hierarchy, and as discussed at the beginning of this section, we want to be able to encode previews on Material, Camera, or other prims that are not part of the model hierarchy.

  2. Texture cards are tied to specific orthographic views, which serves their embedding as “2.x dimension” objects in a 3D space, but for, e.g. 2D catalog and preview needs, more artistically crafted views may be more appropriate.

Concrete Encoding

We propose to specify preview assets such as thumbnails using a scene description dictionary datatype, which provides great flexibility in authoring and organizational nesting. Given the strong affinity of previews with assets, we propose to encode previews as an extension of the existing assetInfo dictionary. Leveraging assetInfo has the additional benefit of making the proposed data backwards and forwards compatible with essentially all versions of USD; one can interact with assetInfo using generic API’s in applications using old versions of USD to process assets with previews.

The initial recognized/supported structure for a “default” thumbnail would look like the following in usda serialization:

assetInfo = {
  dictionary previews = {
      dictionary thumbnails = {
          dictionary default = {
              asset defaultImage = @chair_thumb.jpg@

Where defaultImage must identify an image of a format allowed in USDZ packages.

The triple-nesting of dictionaries for a single thumbnail may seem like overkill, but it allows us room to grow:

  • Alternative types of previews to thumbnail images (e.g. simplified 3D USD representations)

  • Alternative sets of thumbnails (per-renderer, variations, etc)

  • More than one fidelity, size, turntable, lenticular, etc view of a given “thumbnail”

However, all of these extensions require design and debate, and our initial goal is to serve basic needs on an accelerated schedule. We will explore them in an extension to this proposal in the future.


We propose to add an applied schema, UsdMediaPreviewsAPI in the UsdMedia domain for interacting with previews on prims. Even though the schema would possess no properties, requiring an application of an API schema to encode its metadata provides an idiomatic, fast, and validatable means of discovering which prims possess previews. The schema would also provide a method that takes an SdfLayer, and manages a stage and population strategy for the client who needs only to extract the default asset preview data (i.e. on the default prim) from a stage.