Aardvark is a new kind of web browser that allows users to bring multiple interactive, 3D “gadgets” into any SteamVR app. It extends the open platform of the web into VR and lets anyone build a gadget and share it with the community. Aardvark gadgets are inherently multi-user so it is easy to collaborate at the Aardvark layer with the people you are in a VR experience with.
Aardvark was originally announced by Joe Ludwig on March 19, 2020 and had it’s first, early access release on Steam on December 19, 2020. I did a Pluto VR demo in December that integrated their telepresence app with Aardvark AR gadgets and Metachromium WebXR overlays, and I got a taste of how multiple applications will start to interact with each other within a spatial computing environment.
Aardvark and Metachromium are both overlaying objects and layers on top of virtual environments, but they are taking different approaches. Metachromium uses WebXR depth maps to composite the pixels on top of the existing virtual environments. Aardvark is tracking your head and hand poses, and attaching declarative web app objects to these reference points or the room center.
I had a chance to catch up with Aardvark creator Joe Ludwig on January 12, 2021 to get some more context on Aardvark, how it started, where it’s at now, and where it’s going in the future. Ludwig is still in the early phases of getting all of the component parts in place in order to bootstrap this new platform.
- New Affordances: Aardvark gadgets provide new affordances of adding augmented gadgets into virtual environments leveraging the affordances of the open web and the React framework. There’s a written tutorial for creating apps, a video tutorial for creating an Aardvark gadget, as well as a stub page for Aardvark documentation.
- Creators Exploring Affordances: There are a number of initial gadgets that were created at an Aardvark Hackathon that took place September 25–27, 2020, as well as a backlog of ideas for gadgets.
- Distribution: In terms of distribution of gadgets, there’s a registry of apps, and some emerging ways for discovering and sharing gadgets.
- Audience & Feedback: The final part of the feedback loop is the community of users to try stuff out, experiment, and provide feedback, which can be found within the Aardvark slack channel and Aardvark Github repository.
It’s still early days in fleshing out the flywheel of this communications medium feedback loop, but the potential is pretty significant. Ludwig says that Aardvark has the potential to start to prototype the user interface design and functionality of augmented reality applications within the context of a virtual reality app.
There’s still a lot of missing information to fully manifest this vision, especially in not having any equivalent of a virtual positioning system to get the X, Y, & Z coordinates of the virtual work instance and specific map and conditional states. Ludwig expects that his may eventually be provided through an OpenXR extension, but for now these AR gadgets will need to exist relative to the head or hand poses or localized to the center of your play space.
When Aardvark was first started, Ludwig conceived of it as an overlay layer. And so it’s been surprising to him to discover that there’s been a lot of of work in trying to get these spatialized gadgets to be able to communicate with other gadgets, especially within a multiplayer context. The early experiments show the power and potential of a multiple-application AR ecosystem, but there isn’t a single killer app or utility that’s tightly focused on a specific use case or context. This leaves a lot of room for exploration and discovery starting with a backlog of ideas, but without a lot of clear direction as to what will be compelling or build momentum within a specific community.
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