Aardvark: A Brief Introduction

Housekeeping Note: I know that I have been devoting a lot of coverage to Second Life lately on my blog, which has seen a significant bump in both new and returning users during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in jurisdictions under some form of lockdown/quarantine/social distancing. However, I will still endeavour to write about the many newer projects and developments in virtual reality, such as Aardvark. My coverage will even out over time, I promise!


An example of a simple Aardvark “gadget” within Steam VR Home

I first heard about Aardvark via a frustrated tweet by Avaer Kazmer, lamenting the current fractured state of mutually-incompatible social VR plugins. (And yes, I do agree with him.)

Aardvark reminds me a bit of a project I had written about in May 2018, called Pluto VR. Like Pluto VR, Aardvark is sort of an overlay over existing Steam VR programs. According to the project’s GitHub:

Aardvark is a framework for building augmented reality “gadgets” that run on top of virtual reality experiences. Gadgets are constructed using a bunch of custom React components (from the @aardvarkxr/aardvark-react package) and run in the Aardvark application. Gadgets use these components to show interactive models, 2D UI, or other stuff that will draw on top of any VR applications you run. You can attach these gadgets to your hands and bring them with you in your favorite VR apps.

This is perhaps best explained by a short YouTube video demonstration by one of the developers, Joe Ludwig:

Again, like Pluto VR, you can actually communicate with other people who are in a completely different virtual environment from you. In this video, Joe happens to be in his Steam VR Home, but he can see his friend Jared’s “gadgets”, even though Jared is running Beat Saber!

While Aardvark is perhaps more of a curiosity, a proof-of-concept, than a viable product at this time, it is still an intriguing project. Visit their GitHub if your curiosity has been sparked, and you want to tinker a bit with Aardvark yourself! All the code is there.

And I will be adding Aardvark to my long-neglected, overflowing, comprehensive list of social VR apps, platforms, and virtual worlds. I know, I know...I said I was going to reorganize and categorize it! Yet another project for these days of social isolation….

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Pluto VR: A Social VR Dashboard App

Pluto VR is a software product by a small Seattle-based company that has a distinctly different take on social VR: it’s a dashboard app that you load while you are running another SteamVR program. Last year they raised almost $14 million in funding. Here’s a picture from that report, showing three avatars from the perspective of one who is in Paris within the Google Earth VR software program.

PlutoVR 11 May 2018

Now, there are still some limitations. You can see other people and talk to them while you’re in a SteamVR program, but they can’t see what you’re seeing (in other words, the other two avatars can’t see Paris). You can only see the head and the hands of the other avatars, and you can talk to each other.

Here’s a few questions and answers from their FAQ:

How do I use Pluto once it’s running?

Pluto runs as a dashboard app, which means if you open the SteamVR dashboard you will see our icon along the bottom of the SteamVR dashboard.  Select it and you can interact with Pluto to call your contacts. If you receive a call the dashboard will open automatically, and show you Pluto’s UI.

Can people I’m talking to see what I see?

Not yet. Several organizations including Pluto are actively developing technology to let people see more of what each other is doing. In the meantime, Pluto gives you the ability to see and hear each other no matter what app each of you are currently using.

What can we see about each other?

You are able to see the heads and hands of those you are talking to (if their motion controllers are on). We currently limit what we show based on the tracking information that most people have.

Here’s a YouTube video that probably describes Pluto VR better than I could. Notice that, at the beginning of the video, one avatar is in Google Earth and the other is in Tilt Brush, but each cannot see what the other sees. (One avatar did send the other one a screenshot of their Tilt Brush creation, though.) At the end of the video, there is a sort of weird mashup of Pluto VR and Rec Room, where it wasn’t clear to me whether or not each avatar could actually see what the others were doing. (And, if you’re all playing together in Rec Room, why would you use Pluto VR anyway?)

This is an intriguing concept, but I’m still not sold on how practical or useful this would be. Pluto VR is currently available through the Early Access Software program on Steam, and they are actively looking for alpha testers with VR headsets. So if you’re interested, download the software and give it a try.

Question: What happens when you use Pluto VR as a social VR overlay in a social VR app on SteamVR, like VRChat? Would it be like when John Malkovich enters the portal into his own head in the movie Being John Malkovich? 😉