#966: Overlaying Multiple Layers of Reality with Pluto VR Telepresence + Standards-Driven, Multi-App Ecosystem

Pluto VR is a general-purpose VR, telepresence application that hopes to provide the social presence glue for a standards-driven, multiple-application ecosystem using SteamVR on the PC. I had some new conceptual breakthroughs about the potential future of spatial computing after getting a demo of how Pluto VR is works with other applications like Metachromiumor Aardvark. Metachromium can run entire WebXR applications as an overlay on SteamVR applications, and Aardvark is an future-forward framewok that allows for the development of augmented reality “gadgets” that run on top of virtual reality experiences.

All of these technologies are utilizing the Overlay extension of OpenXR in order to overlay augmented layers of reality on top of VR experiences, and they’re working together in way that will facilitate emergent behaviors that break out the normal 2D frames of our existing computing paradigm. When you run an application on mobile on your computer, then there’s usually only one application that’s in focus for any given moment. You can context-switch between apps, or copy and paste, but our computing paradigm has been all happening within the context of these 2D frames and windows.

The promise of spatial computing is that we’ll be able to break out of this 2D frame, and create a spatial context that allows for apps to directly interact with each other. This will originally happen through lighting, opacity shifts, or occlusion between 3D object, but eventually there will be more complicated interactions, collisions, and emergent behaviors that are discovered between these apps.

Moving from 2D to 3D will allow application developers to break out of this metaphorical frame, but this also means that app developers won’t have as much control over the precise environmental and spatial context that their application will be running. This is a good example for where I think the more process-relational thinking of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy has a lot to teach XR application developers to start thinking in terms of the deeper ecological context under which their spatial computing app is going to exist.

Facebook has not even made it possible to run multiple VR applications at once on either their PC or Quest platforms. It’s Valve’s SteamVR that is providing the platform on PCs for experimentation and innovation here. It’s admittedly a bit cumbersome to launch and connect each of these disparate applications together, but over time I expect the onboarding and overall user experience to improve as value is discovered for what types of augmentations will be provided with these overlay layers. But Pluto VR has an opportunity to become the Discord of VR in providing a persistent social graph and real-time context for social interactions that transcends any one VR application. It’s an app that you can hop into before diving into a multi-player experience, but it’s also enabling players to stay connected during loading screens and other liminal and interstitial virtual spaces, like the Matrix home screen of Steam VR.

Pluto VR has been working with a number of open standards that will be driving innovation on XR as an open platform including Web-RTC, glTF, VRM, OpenXR, WebXR, Web Bundles, XRPackage (XRPK) as well as the Immersive Technology Media Format (ITMF) from the Immersive Digital Experience Alliance (IDEA). They also hosted the W3C workshop on XR accessibility to get more insights for helping to cultivate accessible standards in XR. The Pluto VR team is taking a really future-looking strategy, and hoping to help kickstart a lot of innovation when it comes to creating AR widgets that could be used in VR environments, but perhaps eventually be ported to proper AR applications.

Covering the emerging technologies of augmented and virtual reality since May 2014 has helped me to isolate some of the key phases in the development and evolution of a new medium.


First there’s a new emerging technology platform that enables new affordances, then the artists, creators, makers, & entrepreneurs create apps and experiences that explore the new affordances of the new technology, then there’s a distribution channel in order to get these experimental pieces of content into the hands of audiences, and then audiences are able to watch the work and provide feedback for both the tech platform providers and the content creators.

The OpenXR and WebXR standards are enabling distribution channels of immersive content through apps like Metachromium and Aardvark, and the OpenXR overlay extension allows for this more modular AR gadget content to be used within the context of existing VR applications run on Steam. Then Pluto VR is connecting creators directly with their audience in order to share their WebXR apps or Aardvark AR gadgets in order to get that real-time, audience feedback loop cycle. This has the potential to complete the cycle and catalyze a lot of experimentation and innovation when it comes to what types of AR apps and widgets prove to be useful within the context of these VR experiences.

Here’s a demo video that shows how a variety of WebXR applications can be launched within a shared, Pluto VR social context:

I’ve had a number of interactions with the Pluto VR team over the past couple of years, and I’ve just been super impressed with their vision of where they want to take VR. They also likely have a lot of cash reserves as they’ve kept a small footprint after raising a $13.9 million Series Funding round announced on April 13th, 2017.

I had a chance to talk with two of Pluto VR’s co-founders Forest Gibson and Jared Cheshier on Friday, October 11th after getting a demo that blew my mind about the future concepts of spatial computing. We cover their journey of into VR, and how Tim Sweeney’s The Future of VR & Games talk on October 12, 2016 at Steam Dev Days where Sweeney laid out some of his vision of how the metaverse is going to include a lot of different applications within the same game engine-like, spatial context. So much of the VR industry, mobile computing, and PC applications have been stuck inside of a 2D, windowed frame and closed context that it was really refreshing to get a small taste of where all of this is going to go. They share some of their early surprises for spatial computing, and they know that there will be so many other key insights and innovations that will be discovered with the multi-application, technology stack that they’ve been able to set up. This is a very community-driven effort, and they’ll be showing off their technology and connecting to the wider VR community during the Virtual Market 5 (VKet 5) in VR Chat starting on December 19th.


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Music: Fatality