Another Bombshell Announcement: High Fidelity Lays Off a Quarter of Their Staff

High Fidelity, which recently announced that they were shutting down almost all of their public spaces and discontinuing General Assembly meetings, laid down yet another bombshell announcement today.

In an official blogpost titled Toward a Digital World, High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale said:

We’ve been working as a company for six years now, writing open-source software and creating test events and experiences to enable this imagined place to come into existence…We’ve done a ton with a small and passionate team.

But as of today, 2019, we probably still have a few years to wait. VR headsets, even the latest ones, are still not comfortable enough to wear for very long, and still cannot be used to read and write messages, take notes, or do most kinds of work…

If you had asked me when we started the company in 2014, I’d have said that by now there would be several million people using HMDs daily, and we’d be competing with both big and small companies to provide the best platform—but I was wrong.

Philip goes on to state that the company is changing direction, to refocus on a creating a platform for work teams to collaborate, and that as a part of this pivot, they are letting go of a quarter of their staff:

To refocus on this new project, we have made the very hard decision today to reduce our team by 25%, meaning that 20 people will be leaving us who have made great contributions to High Fidelity, and whom we will greatly miss.

I’ve heard from an inside source that some very talented software engineers have been let go, instead of (and I quote) “the Bingo Extremo people and the people who put on the disastrous events”. I am hoping that Linden Lab will swoop in and pick up a few good people to help them continue to build Sansar, but who knows what will happen now.

Emily, HiFi’s Community Manager (who appears to have survived the layoffs), helpfully provided some follow-up questions and answers to Philip’s announcement today in a FAQ posted to the High Fidelity Community Forums:

Will you still be accepting feature requests, and what will happen to requests already made?

Unfortunately, no, we do not have the resources to work on broad-based feature requests from users. As such, will be closing the feature request list down as of June 1st. We will no longer triage feature requests; however, leaving it up for a few weeks allows our community to review it in the event it inspires open-source project proposal ideas. Unfortunately, there’s no way to make the feature request board read only.

Will you continue to offer experiences like Nefertari’s Tomb and Remembering D-Day?

We’ll discontinue these experiences after the events currently scheduled to allow us to focus on our new direction.

Do you still plan to add support for the Quest, Focus, and other new HMDs?

Yes, that’s still very much on the roadmap. We don’t have timing of the availability on specific devices at this time.

Does this mean that you are going to improve the High Fidelity experience for desktop users?

Yes. Since many people will use their laptop or desktop PC to access High Fidelity, broadening access is a key part of our strategy. As noted in Philip’s blog post, we simply feel that mass-market adoption of VR hardware is a few years away still.

(I haven’t quoted the entire FAQ; you can read it for yourself here.)

Well, as I had expected, it’s now clear that High Fidelity will not be launching on the Oculus Quest anytime soon. Philip Rosedale has bigger problems on his hands.

And the current user base on High Fidelity, many of whom are long-time committed users, are going to face a stark choice: stay or jump ship? No doubt some will consider Sansar or VRChat or another platform for their creative and development work. The fact that the company will no longer be accepting any broad-based feature requests from end users is very troubling, and it could force some people to switch platforms.

Does this mean that VR is in trouble? No, I still believe that the Oculus Quest and other new standalone and PC-based VR headsets will bring an ever-increasing audience into virtual reality. But it is now very clear that this uptake of technology will take a lot longer than most people originally estimated. The VR platform companies that will survive are those that acknowledge this fact and plan accordingly.

Also, it’s clear that the something has gone slightly awry with the more freeform software development model which had been used by High Fidelity to date, as opposed to the much more structured monthly software updates being issued by companies such as Linden Lab for Sansar. (And yes, I have confirmed from many longstanding HiFi users at the first, well-attended Federated Users Group meeting that this sort of loosey-goosey software development has been a long-standing issue at High Fidelity.)

Frankly, High Fidelity is burning through venture capital and they need to smarten up. Philip Rosedale recognizes this, and it’s not too late (despite what some people may say). High Fidelity is taking a gamble by moving to a workplace team platform, but it’s a calculated risk. (Then again, Second Life tried this too, and it failed miserably. Anybody remember Second Life Enterprise?)

What happens next? Who knows. But it will, as always, be fascinating to watch (and blog about). Stay tuned!

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