Copyright (c) 2017-2023, The Khronos Group Inc. All Rights reserved.


This document contains the necessary information for understanding how to develop for, and interact with, the OpenXR loader. Intended use of this document is as a detailed design document and a tool for learning general OpenXR loader behavior.

In the event of any discrepancies between this document and the OpenXR specification, that document is authoritative.

OpenXR™ and the OpenXR logo are trademarks owned by The Khronos Group Inc. and are registered as a trademark in China, the European Union, Japan, and the United Kingdom. OpenGL and OpenGL ES are registered trademarks of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, all used under license by Khronos. All other product names, trademarks, and/or company names are used solely for identification and belong to their respective owners.

1. Terminology

The key words must, may, can, cannot, should, required, recommend, and optional in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.

2. Overview

OpenXR is a layered architecture, made up of the following elements:

The general concepts in this document are applicable to the loaders available for Windows and Linux based systems.

First, let’s look at the OpenXR environment as a whole. The OpenXR application is at the start of the execution chain, and interfaces directly with the OpenXR loader. The loader, in turn, detects, loads, and interacts with any number of OpenXR runtimes and API layers. Each OpenXR runtime controls a complete VR/XR/MR system that an application can choose to interact with. The loader may inject any number of optional API layers between the application and the runtime to augment behavior. As a result, any OpenXR command may involve executing code in a number of different modules, including the loader, API layers, and runtimes.

high level loader
Figure 1. High Level View of the OpenXR Loader

2.1. Who Should Read This Document

While this document is primarily targeted at developers of OpenXR runtimes or API layers, and those wishing to contribute to the OpenXR loader; the information contained in it may be useful to anyone wanting a better understanding of OpenXR.

The OpenXR API Specification should be used as the primary means of understanding the OpenXR API and all care has been made to not conflict with any element of that document. In any case where this document and the OpenXR API Specification differ, behavior as defined by the OpenXR specification must be considered the correct standard.

2.2. OpenXR Loader

The loader is critical to detecting, exposing, and possibly loading any available OpenXR runtime or API layer on the system. Once setup, the loader is also responsible with managing the proper dispatching of OpenXR commands to each of these components.

This document is intended to provide an overview of the necessary interfaces between the loader and:

In addition, this document also covers various internal design elements of the OpenXR loader.

2.2.1. Goals of the Loader

The loader was designed with the following goals in mind.

  1. It must support one or more OpenXR-capable runtimes on a user’s computer system.

  2. It must support OpenXR API layers (optional modules that can be enabled by an application, developer, or standard system settings).

  3. It must strive to reduce its overall memory and performance impact to an OpenXR application.

2.3. OpenXR API Layers

API layers are optional components that augment the OpenXR system. They may intercept, evaluate, modify, and insert existing OpenXR commands on their way from the application down to the runtime. API layers are implemented as libraries that are enabled in a variety of ways (including by application request). All API layers are enabled in an OpenXR system during the xrCreateInstance call. Each API layer may choose to hook (intercept) any OpenXR command which in turn may be ignored or augmented. An API layer does not need to intercept all OpenXR commands but only intercept those commands it desires.

Some examples of features that API layers may expose include:

  • Validating API usage

  • Adding the ability to perform API tracing and debugging

  • Intercept and filter information between the application and the runtime

Because API layers are optional, you may choose to enable API layers for debugging your application, but then disable any API layer usage when you release your product.

For more information on how the OpenXR interacts with API layers, refer to the "API Layer Interaction" section of this document.

2.4. OpenXR Runtimes

OpenXR works with multiple runtimes each supporting one or more devices. Each OpenXR runtime controls a complete VR/AR/MR system. Multiple runtimes may be installed on a system, with one being active at any given time. The loader discovers the active runtime on the system and loads it. When an XrInstance is created during xrCreateInstance, the active runtime is associated with the instance.

For more information on how the OpenXR interacts with runtimes, refer to the "Runtime Interaction" section of this document.

2.5. OpenXR Objects

OpenXR uses an object model to control the scope of a particular action or operation. The object to be acted on is usually the first parameter of an OpenXR call. Under the covers, this object is a unique handle to either a class or structure. The contents of each class/structure vary, but each has a means of looking up a dispatch table which is used to direct the functional flow through any enabled API layers and into the appropriate runtime.


Some OpenXR commands do not take an object, such as xrEnumerateApiLayerProperties and xrEnumerateInstanceExtensionProperties. These commands typically only provide information for other commands which do take an object.

2.6. OpenXR Call Chains

When an (optional) API layer is loaded, the loader links together a call chain that includes each function selected by the layer. At xrCreateInstance time the loader initializes all enabled API layers and creates call chains for each OpenXR command, with each entry of the resulting dispatch table pointing to the first element of that chain. The loader builds an individual dispatch table for the XrInstance that is created.

When an application calls an OpenXR command, this typically will first hit a trampoline function in the loader. These trampoline functions are small, simple functions that jump to the appropriate dispatch table entry for the object they are given. Some functions also require an additional loader function called a terminator, which is called after all enabled API layers to process data before proceeding to the appropriate runtime.

call chain example
Figure 2. Example Call Chain

The loader only allows a single outstanding XrInstance and uses the generated dispatch table for that XrInstance for all OpenXR API commands.

3. Application Interaction

An application requests a specific version of the OpenXR API when creating an instance by writing to the "apiVersion" member of the XrApplicationInfo structure which, in turn, is passed into the XrInstanceCreateInfo structure. If either the loader or the active runtime do not support the requested version, they may return an error and fail instance creation. Refer to the OpenXR API Specification documentation on xrCreateInstance for more information about this.

3.1. Interfacing with OpenXR Functions

There are two ways an application can choose interface with OpenXR functions through the loader:

  1. Directly linking to the core OpenXR commands exposed and exported by the loader.

  2. Creating an application-managed dispatch table of OpenXR commands by querying the loader for function pointers via xrGetInstanceProcAddr. This method supports core OpenXR commands, commands of (enabled) OpenXR extensions supported by the runtime, and any commands exposed by enabled API layers.

3.1.1. OpenXR Direct Exports

The loader library on Windows and Linux will directly export all core OpenXR commands for the OpenXR version it supports. When an application links directly to the loader library in this way, the OpenXR calls are simple trampoline functions that jump to the appropriate dispatch table entry for the object provided.

The specific list, in alphabetical order, of OpenXR commands directly exported by the loader for API version 1.0 are:

  • xrAcquireSwapchainImage

  • xrApplyHapticFeedback

  • xrAttachSessionActionSets

  • xrBeginFrame

  • xrBeginSession

  • xrCreateAction

  • xrCreateActionSet

  • xrCreateActionSpace

  • xrCreateInstance

  • xrCreateReferenceSpace

  • xrCreateSession

  • xrCreateSwapchain

  • xrDestroyAction

  • xrDestroyActionSet

  • xrDestroyInstance

  • xrDestroySession

  • xrDestroySpace

  • xrDestroySwapchain

  • xrEndFrame

  • xrEndSession

  • xrEnumerateApiLayerProperties

  • xrEnumerateBoundSourcesForAction

  • xrEnumerateEnvironmentBlendModes

  • xrEnumerateInstanceExtensionProperties

  • xrEnumerateReferenceSpaces

  • xrEnumerateSwapchainFormats

  • xrEnumerateSwapchainImages

  • xrEnumerateViewConfigurations

  • xrEnumerateViewConfigurationViews

  • xrGetActionStateBoolean

  • xrGetActionStateFloat

  • xrGetActionStatePose

  • xrGetActionStateVector2f

  • xrGetCurrentInteractionProfile

  • xrGetInputSourceLocalizedName

  • xrGetInstanceProcAddr

  • xrGetInstanceProperties

  • xrGetReferenceSpaceBoundsRect

  • xrGetSystem

  • xrGetSystemProperties

  • xrGetViewConfigurationProperties

  • xrLocateSpace

  • xrLocateViews

  • xrPathToString

  • xrPollEvent

  • xrReleaseSwapchainImage

  • xrRequestExitSession

  • xrResultToString

  • xrStopHapticFeedback

  • xrStringToPath

  • xrStructureTypeToString

  • xrSuggestInteractionProfileBindings

  • xrSyncActions

  • xrWaitFrame

  • xrWaitSwapchainImage

When an OpenXR application chooses to use one of the exports directly exposed from the OpenXR loader, the call chain will look like one of the following (if the user has enabled two API layers):

standard call chains
Figure 3. Standard Call Chains

The "Special Instance" call chain is used in several places where the loader has to perform some work before and after any API layers, but prior to calling the enabled runtime. xrCreateInstance, xrDestroyInstance, and xrGetInstanceProcAddr are three of the main commands that fall into this group. Most commands do not require a terminator and will use the second call chain.

3.1.2. OpenXR Indirect Linking

With loader indirect linking an application dynamically generates its own dispatch table of OpenXR commands. This method allows an application to fail gracefully if the loader cannot be found, or supports an older version of the API than the application. To do this, the application uses the appropriate platform specific dynamic symbol lookup (such as dlsym()) on the loader library to discover the address of the xrGetInstanceProcAddr command. Once discovered, this command can be used to query the addresses of all other OpenXR commands (such as xrCreateInstance, xrEnumerateInstanceExtensionProperties and xrEnumerateApiLayerProperties). Then, the application would use its table of function pointers to make the call into the OpenXR API.

One benefit when an application generates its own dispatch table is the removal of the loader trampoline call from most commands in a call chain, which could potentially increase performance. In that case, most commands would use the following call chain:

app dispatch table call chain
Figure 4. Call Chain For Application Dispatch

3.1.3. OpenXR Loader Library Name

The OpenXR loader’s dynamic library name is dependent on the user’s underlying operating system. The following table shows the loader library names for common OSs:

Operating System Loader Library Name




<major> and <minor> in the above table refer to the major and minor API versions of OpenXR.

3.2. Application API Layer Usage

Applications desiring OpenXR functionality beyond what the core API offers may use various API layers or extensions. An API layer cannot introduce new OpenXR core API commands, but may introduce new extension-specific OpenXR commands that can be queried through the extension interface.

A common use of API layers is for validation which can be enabled by loading the API layer during application development, but not loading the API layer for application release. The overhead cost of validation is completely eliminated when the layer is not loaded.

An application can discover which API layers are available to it with xrEnumerateApiLayerProperties. This will report all API layers that have been discovered by the loader. The loader looks in various locations to find API layers on the system. For more information see the API Layer discovery section below.

An API layer or layers may be enabled by an application by passing a list of names in the enabledApiLayerNames field of the XrInstanceCreateInfo at xrCreateInstance time. During the xrCreateInstance, the loader constructs a call chain that includes the application specified (enabled) API layers.

Order is important in the enabledApiLayerNames array; array element 0 is the topmost (closest to the application) API layer inserted in the chain and the last array element is closest to the runtime. See the Overall API Layer Ordering section for more information on API layer ordering.


Some API layers interact with other API layers in order to perform their tasks. Consult the appropriate API layer documentation when enabling an API layer to ensure that you are using it properly.

3.2.1. Implicit vs Explicit API Layers

Explicit API layers are API layers which are enabled by an application (e.g. with the xrCreateInstance function) or by setting a loader environment variable.

Implicit API layers are API layers which are enabled simply because they exist. An implicit layer found by the loader will be loaded by default, unless specifically disabled.

Some implicit API layer examples include:

  • A performance monitoring API layer which is enabled while using an external tool.

  • An application environment API layer (e.g. Steam or a game console) that enables additional features/tools for applications.

  • A tracing API layer designed to record API commands for future playback.

Because implicit API layers are enabled automatically, they have an additional requirement over explicit API layers in that they must specify a "disable environment variable" in the API layer’s JSON manifest file, with key name disable_environment. This environment variable when present will disable the implicit API layer. Implicit API layers are not otherwise visible to or controllable by applications.

Optionally, an implicit API layers may specify an "enable environment variable", in which case the loader will load the implicit API layer only when the enable environment variable is defined in the user’s execution environment. If both enable and disable environment variables are present in the environment, the layer will be disabled.

Both the enable and disable environment variables are specified in the API layer’s JSON manifest file, which is created by the API layer developer.

Discovery of system-installed implicit and explicit API layers is described later in the API Layer Discovery Section. For now, simply know that what distinguishes an API layer as implicit or explicit is dependent on the operating system, as shown in the table below.

Table 1. OS Implicit API Layer Detection Method
Operating System Implicit API Layer Identification Method


Implicit API Layers are located in the Windows Registry under the "ApiLayers\Implicit" key.


Implicit API Layers are located in the "api_layers/implicit.d" folder under any of the common API layer paths.

3.2.2. Forcing API Layer Folders (Desktop Only)

Desktop developers may also override the way the loader searches for API layers. If the developer/user would like to find API layers in a non-standard location, they may define the "XR_API_LAYER_PATH" environmental variable. For more information on using "XR_API_LAYER_PATH", see the Overriding the Default API Layer Paths section under "API Layer Interaction".

3.2.3. Forced Loading of API Layers (Desktop Only)

Desktop developers may want to enable API layers that are not enabled by the given application they are using. On Linux and Windows, the environment variable "XR_ENABLE_API_LAYERS" can be used to enable additional API layers which are not specified (enabled) by the application at xrCreateInstance. "XR_ENABLE_API_LAYERS" is a colon (Linux)/semi-colon (Windows) separated list of API layer names to enable. Order is relevant with the first API layer in the list being the top-most API layer (closest to the application) and the last API layer in the list being the bottom-most API layer (closest to the driver). See the Overall API Layer Ordering section for more information.

Application specified API layers and user specified API layers (via environment variables) are aggregated and duplicates removed by the loader when enabling API layers. API layers specified via environment variable are top-most (closest to the application) while API layers specified by the application are bottom-most. If an API layer name appears multiple times in the list of API layers to enable, all occurrences after the first are ignored.

To use XR_ENABLE_API_LAYERS, simply define the environment variable with a properly delimited list of API layer names. This is not the file name, but the name the API layers use when normally being enabled inside of xrCreateInstance. This usually takes the form of:

  • An OpenXR API layer prefix string: "XR_APILAYER_"

  • The name of the vendor developing the API layer: e.g. "LUNARG_"

  • A short descriptive name of the API layer: e.g. "test"

This would produce the name of: XR_APILAYER_LUNARG_test

Example 1. Setting XR_ENABLE_API_LAYERS





3.2.4. Overall API Layer Ordering

The overall ordering of all API layers by the loader based on the above looks as follows:

loader layer order calls
Figure 5. Loader API Layer Ordering

As shown in the above image, any implicit API layers will first intercept OpenXR commands, followed by any explicit API layers enabled by environmental variables, finally being intercepted by any explicit API layers directly enabled by the application. Whether or not the API layers continue into a loader terminator call, or directly into a runtime depends on the call chain.

Ordering may also be important internal to the list of explicit API layers. Some API layers may be dependent on other behavior being implemented before or after the loader calls it.

3.3. Application Usage of Extensions

Extensions are optional functionality provided by the loader, an API layer, or a runtime. Extensions can modify the behavior of the OpenXR API and need to be specified and registered with Khronos. These extensions can be created by a runtime vendor to expose new runtime and/or XR hardware functionality, or by an API layer writer to expose some internal feature, or by the loader to add additional loader functionality. Information about various extensions can be found in the OpenXR API Specification, and openxr.h header file.

To use extension functionality, the application should call xrEnumerateInstanceExtensionProperties to determine if the extension is available. Then it must enable the extension in xrCreateInstance.

If an application fails to determine whether an extension is available, and calls xrCreateInstance with that extension name in the list, the xrCreateInstance call will fail if it’s not supported.

When calling xrEnumerateInstanceExtensionProperties with NULL passed in for "layerName", the loader discovers and aggregates all extensions from implicit API layers (if allowable by OS), runtimes, and itself before reporting them to the application. If "layerName" is not NULL, and "layerName" is equal to a discovered API layer module name (which may belong to either an implicit or explicit API layer) then only extensions from that API layer are enumerated.

Duplicate extensions (e.g. an implicit API layer and runtime might report support for the same extension) are eliminated by the loader. For duplicates, the API layer version is reported and the runtime version is culled according to the loader ordering - an extension name is removed from the extension request list after loading the layer.

If an application fails to enable the extension using the "enabledExtensionNames" field in the XrInstanceCreateInfo structure passed into xrCreateInstance and then attempts to use that extension, it may result in undefined behavior. For example, querying an extension command using xrGetInstanceProcAddr might appear to succeed without having the extension enabled, only to then crash when calling that command.

4. API Layer Interaction

This section details how the loader interacts with API layers.

4.1. API Layer Call Chains and Distributed Dispatch

Remember, an API layer does not need to intercept all commands, instead, it can choose to intercept only a subset. Normally, when an API layer intercepts a given OpenXR command, it will call down the call chain as needed. The loader and all enabled API layers that participate in a call chain cooperate to ensure the correct sequencing of calls from one entity to the next. This group effort for call chain sequencing is hereinafter referred to as distributed dispatch.

If an API layer does not wish to intercept a command, it must forward the request made to its xrGetInstanceProcAddr implementation (provided through getInstanceProcAddr) down to the next xrGetInstanceProcAddr implementation in the call chain (provided to the API layer through nextGetInstanceProcAddr).

In distributed dispatch each API layer is responsible for properly calling the next entity in the call chain. This means that a dispatch mechanism is required for all OpenXR commands that an API layer intercepts.

For example, if the enabled API layers intercepted only certain functions, the call chain would look as follows: