Impressions from Vulkanised 2023 Conference

Feb 2023

Last week I attended Vulkanised conference. It is an official conference of Vulkan API. It took place 7-9 February 2023 in Munich, Germany. It was my first time at this conference. My attendance was part of my job at AMD and I co-presented with Valve about using Radeon Developer Tools on RADV (Linux AMD driver) and Steam Deck. Here, on my blog, I would like to share my personal impressions from the event.

Overall, it was well organized. There were over 200 attendees, 3 days full of talks, most of them short (20-30 minutes, some of them even 10 minutes!), happening on just one scene (apart from full-day Vulkan tutorial for beginners, happening on the first day in parallel with normal talks), with lunch break and coffee breaks in between, so everyone could see everything without a need to choose from the timetable which talks to attend. It was intense. Every evening we went for some good food and beer, which I enjoy a lot every time I visit Munich/Bavaria/Germany.

In terms of people attending, a conference like this differs completely from game developer conferences that I usually attend. On one hand, everyone there was a programmer who knows and uses Vulkan, so everyone was on the same page. On gamedev conferences, there are people from different fields, as game development is multidisciplinary - graphics and music artists, designers, programmers, business people etc. On the other hand, there were not so many people from game industry there, and if anyone, they were mostly from the world of mobile GPUs, not PC or console. It was interesting to talk with developers from various industries, using GPUs and Vulkan for different applications, like scientific computations and visualizations or even… software for cloth design for fashion business.

There were many interesting talks. I think the most valuable ones were about components of the Vulkan ecosystem that are useful to every developer, like Vulkan validation layers, VkConfigurator, Vulkan loader, or GFXReconstruct (which also added support for Direct3D 12 recently, by the way!). There were long and extensive talks teaching two recent big additions to the API: mesh shaders and Vulkan Video. Vulkan Video seems to be especially complicated, partially because it requires some knowledge of video encoding/decoding, which is something different from 3D rendering. I used to work for television, so it was not that obscure for me. But this new part of the API is also very low level. The decision to make encoding/decoding of every frame stateless, with all the state of the video stream managed by the user, makes the API surface very extensive.

Talk about Diligent Engine was interesting. I didn’t look at the project itself, but the presentation looked convincing that this is a good multi-platform 3D graphics library implemented on top of various graphics APIs. Another interesting project presentation was about VkFFT - a C library that calculates FFT on the GPU using one of many supported APIs (not only Vulkan) with state-of-the-art performance. It is implemented by assembling a string with the source code of a kernel optimized for a specific case.

Presentations about game optimization for mobile GPUs were very interesting to me. Optimizing games is what I do in my everyday job, although I work with “large” PC GPUs. I consider such talks with a collection of tips and recommendations exceptionally valuable. From these presentations, I could learn what things work fast on smartphone and tablet chips, which are different from PC and console chips. They said that on these platforms, energy consumption and bandwidth to and from memory is the most important. Because mobile GPUs are tile-based, a large amount of vertices or fat vertex format is very slow, which is not the case on PC. Also because of that, they recommend to group as many passes as possible as sub-passes of a single Vulkan render pass, even to a degree that rendering of 3D objects could be grouped together with screen-space postprocessing effects. Again, it isn’t a thing that we normally do on PCs. It was also interesting to see how they measure performance. While I always disable V-sync and just measure FPS in games, they seem to give multiple columns with results, including FPS, but also GPU utilization %, which is likely used when reaching 60 FPS with V-sync always enabled.

But more than any specific presentation, it was interesting for me to hear some general ideas about Vulkan, often repeated by multiple people. There were people from Khronos and LunarG there (the company that develops Vulkan SDK), so we could hear from and ask questions to people who really make this API. There was a discussion panel with many prominent participants who shared their voice on these topics. Noone said “what happens on Vulkanised stays on Vulkanised”, so here are some things I remember. Disclaimer: These are my personal, subjective impressions. I might remember something wrong. Please feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts below this article.

Some profound things have been said about Vulkan. Someone said it’s not a graphics API, more like a Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) or an API for programming accelerators. They said it is a “design by compromise” rather than “design by committee”. They said we should think of Vulkan as not only the specification, by the entire ecosystem, including libraries, tools, code samples, learning materials, etc. I was pleased to hear that Vulkan Memory Allocator that I maintain was often mentioned as one of the examples. An open question is how many of these 3rd party components should be considered “canonical”. Many are already included in Vulkan SDK, but should official samples use them as well? Currently, they don’t, as they teach raw Vulkan. Someone also said that these ecosystem components should be properly funded. Another question was about the direction Vulkan should go. One person said it should probably become even more low-level, with app-space libraries on top of it more widely used.

It was surprising to see that there are solutions to run Vulkan above and below every other graphics API, which makes Vulkan a common ground across systems and APIs:

Among problems that developers have with using Vulkan and potential areas of development for the future, I noticed several common themes:

Overall, participation in Vulkansed conference was a great experience for me. I wish I will come back there. But Vulkan, even with its unprecedented openness, portability, and universality, is just part of the entire world of 3D graphics programming. On a conference dedicated to Vulkan I wouldn’t say loud that Direct3D 12 is more popular among PC game developers and it is not without a reason, or that maybe both these “explicit” APIs are at the worst possible level of abstraction - low level enough to be difficult to learn, to use, and easy to create bugs, while high-level enough to still hide hardware details crucial to squeezing maximum performance. But this is a separate topic…

When attending any event, I always pay attention to the quality of the audio-video system. On Vulkanised, it was very good. I especially liked the acoustics of the room, which clearly someone paid attention to when designing the interior. But there were some issues with presentation video that I don’t see too often. I blogged before about 3 Rules to Make You Image Looking Good on a Projector, where I mentioned potential problems with contrast, reproduction of colors or thin lines. Another time I described a possibility that edges of the screen may be cropped. But this conference had a different problem. Instead of connecting their laptops to a HDMI cable, speakers were asked to join an online meeting via Google Meet and share their screen there, with presentation on the big screen by another participant of that virtual call, streaming the content. We were in a Google office, after all :) This surely helped them record the presentations easily, but it also made any video or animation degraded to what looked like 2 FPS.

For more photos, see the official gallery 2023 Vulkanised by Khronos.

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