Gaming on Linux, Steam machines set to soar with DirectX competitor Vulkan

The Vulkan API may also be useful for robotics, VR and automotive applications

The look of games on Linux-based Steam machines and mobile devices should improve significantly with the soon-to-be-released Vulkan API (application programming interface).

Vulkan can be used for many applications, but is most relevant to games, much like DirectX for Windows. The new API is a much-needed upgrade from the aging OpenGL, which was first introduced in 1991 by Silicon Graphics.

Khronos, the consortium behind the development of Vulkan, hasn't provided a formal release date for Vulkan. But momentum for the API has grown in recent weeks with Intel and Qualcomm talking about it.

Khronos has scheduled an introductory Vulkan webinar for Feb. 18. The consortium in December delayed the release of Vulkan 1.0, but said development was in its "final stretch." 

The Vulkan API will improve the look of games on Linux and Mac systems and mobile devices. Games will use fewer system resources and preserve battery life in laptops and mobile devices.

In addition to gaming, the API could have other applications. Cars, virtual reality headsets, robots and drones rely on visual computing, so applications for those devices could be written using the API.

Vulkan is a low-level API that has closer interaction with hardware than OpenGL, which will help render games faster. There are fewer steps involved in drawing up images as Vulkan is more in tune with modern hardware such as multi-core processors and high-performance GPUs than OpenGL.

OpenGL provided an abstraction layer, better suited for older hardware, while newer low-level APIs reduce the level of abstraction and overhead involved for programs to interact with hardware.

Games will exploit the full power of GPUs with Vulkan, as developers can define how they want graphics rendered. That's a change from OpenGL, which mostly hid how hardware rendered graphics.

Most games today are developed in DirectX, but Vulkan also makes porting games to other platforms quicker, said Jason Ekstrand, a developer at Intel, during a talk at the FOSDEM (Free and Open Source Software Developers' European Meeting) forum in late January. 

Previously, graphics quality would degrade when trying to port from Windows to Linux or Mac. But with Vulkan, quality remains largely intact when porting from DirectX, Ekstrand said.

Writing games becomes easier, Ekstrand said, and supporters hope that will draw developers to Vulkan.

Tech vendors have recently pushed to develop low-level APIs such as Apple's Metal, DirectX 12 and AMD's new GPUOpen. Vulkan is also a low-level API, but is designed to work across multiple hardware platforms. It shares some characteristics with OpenCL, which is mostly hardware agnostic and used for high-performance computing.

Companies supporting Vulkan, including AMD and Intel, have committed to releasing open-source drivers.

Other graphics chip makers are backing Vulkan. Imagination Technologies -- which makes GPUs for Apple devices -- will demonstrate Vulkan at the upcoming Mobile World Congress show. Nvidia is holding sessions to discuss Vulkan at its GPU Technology conference in April.

Vulkan SDKs will be available for Windows, Android and Linux, according to Khronos' Web site.

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