UPDATED! A First Look at High Fidelity’s New Browser-Based Platform with 3D Audio

In a blogpost posted yesterday on the official High Fidelity blog, CEO Philip Rosedale wrote:

Today, after some successful alpha testing with friends and family, we are releasing a beta version of our new service that lets you gather together in groups of up to 150 people, using 3D audio to create a unique new experience that is comfortable, fun, and empowering. We hope people will be able to use it to connect and reconnect with each other for a wide variety of reasons — from listening to live music, to family gatherings, parties, festivals, classrooms, happy hours, or anything else you can dream up. 

There is no download. High Fidelity is cloud-based and works using a browser on your smartphone or computer. Everyone in your family, all of your friends and colleagues, have a device that should be able to use it. 

To get your own space right now, complete the form at the bottom of this post or on our homepage. You will get a link to your own High Fidelity space that you can immediately invite others into simply by sharing your link. You can easily change the background of your space to an image of your choosing, as well as add more advanced things like links to other media.  

The new version of High Fidelity builds on the patented technology that our team has been building for the past seven years to enable warm, rich 3D audio that enables large groups of people to talk and interact at the same time. As you move around in High Fidelity, you will hear the others from the correct direction and distance, as you would at a physical gathering in real life. You can move close to someone and whisper in their ear, or move away from others and listen to the murmur of a crowd from afar.  

During this beta release phase, all available High Fidelity servers will be free to users. Eventually we intend to charge based on usage, but hope to keep costs low enough to be affordable for a wide range of events and experiences. In the coming months, we will expand the capacity of High Fidelity to thousands of concurrent people, to enable larger events such as political rallies or big festivals.

I did submit a request, and the email that I received provided a bit more information about the platform:

  • It is a 3D audio experience in a 2D environment designed for flat screen devices, like computers and mobile devices (not VR headsets).
  • Be careful how and who you share your server link with. Anyone who has the link, can access it. 
  • Max capacity for default servers is 50 people. (If you need something bigger, please contact us and we’ll see if we can fire up a bigger one for 100 people)
  • It is currently designed for Chrome browsers only. (Exception: iOS devices require a Safari browser.)
  • Expect bugs and regular software updates.

Clicking on the provided URL takes you to the following sign-in screen, giving you both headphones and non-headphones options:

You are then asked to confirm your choices for audio input and output devices:

You are then assigned a randomly-generated name (I had a good laugh at mine, so I decided to keep it!), and you can also upload a user icon:

Overall, this whole sign-on process reminds me strongly of that of Mozilla Hubs, so I will compare and contrast the two platforms in this mini-review.

The first disappointing thing is that, unlike Mozilla Hubs, you don’t even get an avatar! You just have a user icon, which pulses according to the sound waves when you speak (like the heads on the Hubs avatars do). You can move around using the arrow keys, but you are stuck in 2-D flat mode; you cannot move away from looking straight down at the ground! The backgrounds are blurry and very pixelated.

Overall, this gave me a very negative first impression! Who on Earth would use this for a political rally or a music festival, especially with so many other social VR platforms and virtual worlds offering far better features?

My “avatar” in-world: Not a great first impression.

Obviously, High Fidelity is aiming for mobile users here. You can invite other users to join you via QR code or URL:

According to their knowledge base, you can change the background image, but it’s a bit cumbersome:


To change the background image in High Fidelity to one of your own choosing, simply change the URL you are using to get to the server. For example, for a server with the URL

https://map.highfidelity.com/NXZL6Cx9LhsUbDBq/

You would add a link to the image you want as your background to the end of it, like so:

https://map.highfidelity.com/NXZL6Cx9LhsUbDBq/?map=backgroundURL

In the above, backgroundURL is a URL to file hosted elsewhere. The final link would look something like this:

https://map.highfidelity.com/NXZL6Cx9LhsUbDBq/?map=https://hifi-content.s3.amazonaws.com/ryan/garden3.jpg

When you have your link, open it in your browser to access High Fidelity with the new background image. NOTE: Background images must be 2048 x 2048 PNG or JPG files, no larger than 2MB in file size. You must specify an HTTPS image, rather than HTTP, or else users will see “Not Secure” in their browser when they visit your server.

The above only changes the background image for you. For others to see it, they need to come in to High Fidelity using the same link you are using.

To stream audio into High Fidelity, you have to use a separate program called Voicemeeter Banana (here are the instructions from the Knowledge Base):

Image taken from the Knowledge Base on how to set up Voicemeeter Banana
to stream audio into High Fidelity.

Those of us who were crossing our fingers and hoping for something a bit more exciting from High Fidelity as the company’s next act are going to be seriously disappointed by this.

High Fidelity took one, single feature from their former social VR platform and built an absolutely bargain-basement, lowest-common-denominator platform to give people 2D access to their patented spatialized, 3D audio. And frankly, I don’t think that spatialized audio is going to be enough to attract people to this new platform.

If I had to sum by my in-world experience in one word, it would be underwhelming. (Or perhaps, meh.) Sorry, but at this early beta stage, I have to give this project a thumbs down. I would suggest that the team at High Fidelity take a good look at Mozilla Hubs to see what they should be offering in addition to the 3D audio (and which, by the way, works on all the devices that High Fidelity also seems to be targeting, including mobile phones and tablets).

Meh.

UPDATE 8:21 p.m.: Kent Bye of the Voices of VR podcast, who published a 40-minute interview on Periscope with Philip Rosedale today, described the new HiFi as “a remote work solution that brings conversational clustering to recreate a cocktail party vibe” which allowed him to “navigate via a 2D blueprint UI, but with fully spatialized audio in a virtualized space”. He also said:

I do a lot of audio, and the frequency response is one of the best I’ve heard for voice.

I believe that the reason that Kent and I have such different opinions about the new High Fidelity platform is because he is (of course) all about the audio quality, being first and foremost a podcaster, and I am primarily a visually-oriented person, which is why I found the graphics so disappointing.

It’s a great interview, and Philip explains many of his design decisions for this new platform, including why they decided to use user icons instead of avatars. So I have a much better understanding, after listening to this, where they were coming from, but I still think the visuals could use a bit more polish. Maybe the next iteration?

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Spatial, Originally a Social Augmented Reality Platform, Expands to Virtual Reality and Offers a Free Version During the Pandemic

When I first wrote about Spatial back in October of 2018, it was a social augmented reality (AR) platform which only ran on the first generation of AR headsets available for purchase by consumers: the much-hyped Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

(By the way, if you are looking for definitions of terms such as augmented reality, I have compiled a handy list of definitions for my blog readers.)

Since I wrote that first blogpost, Magic Leap has struggled, laying off about half its employees in April 2020, and choosing to focus on enterprise users instead of chasing the consumer market. (It is interesting to compare the recent troubles of Magic Leap with that of Sansar and High Fidelity. In all three cases, the lack of the previously-confidently-predicted massive consumer uptake of VR/AR/MR/XR headsets led directly to their downsizing and restructuring.)

Well, VentureBeat reported on May 13th, 2020 that the company is making Spatial available for free during the pandemic, and they are now supporting the Oculus Quest standalone VR headset:

First, the company is offering multiple months of free access to its premium-level Spatial Pro enterprise service, including support for users without full-fledged AR or VR devices. Businesses will be able to share any Spatial room with team members using just a web link, enabling desktop, laptop, and small device users to join meetings with a web browser, no download or headset required. Spatial’s headset UI has been carried over to the web, enabling 2D screen users to easily observe the 3D spaces.

Second, Spatial is making an Oculus Quest app generally available today, including a “much improved experience” compared with the prior private beta. Although Facebook hasn’t announced sales figures for the hybrid standalone and PC-tethered headset, Spatial characterizes the repeatedly sold-out Quest as “the most widely available XR device today” and says it has refined its user interface to make the experience easier for new users.

Here’s a screencap of Spatial’s pricing page, reflecting this change:

Spatial is free during the coronavirus pandemic!
Spatial is now available on the Oculus Quest, Microsoft HoloLens 1 and 2,
Magic Leap One, and Via Desktop/Flatscreen Web and Mobile Devices

Now, choosing to expand to include the popular Oculus Quest wireless VR headset is a smart move. Facebook does not disclose sales figures for the Quest, but some have estimated (based on game sales) that the company has sold approximately 425,000 Quests in 2019. Contrast this with the poor sales reported of the Magic Leap One:

The Information‘s Alex Heath is reporting that Magic Leap managed to sell just 6,000 units of its $2,300 Magic Leap One headset in its first six months on sale, a figure made worse by CEO Rony Abovitz’s internal claims that he wanted the startup to sell at least one million units of the device in the first year, a goal the report states he was later convinced to rethink — Abovitz later projected the company would sell 100,000 units in the first year.

Of course, such sluggish sales were one of the reasons that Magic Leap essentially gave up on trying to sell to the consumer market, and focused squarely on the corporate market. (Microsoft is a little more forthcoming with its HoloLens sales figures, but at roughly 50,000 units reported sold in 2018, they also are dwarfed by Quest sales.) It only makes sense for the company to add a headset which beings more potential customers—and, hopefully, enterprise sales—to the table. Spatial already boasts Ford, Mattel, T Mobile, Purina and Pfizer among its corporate clients.

Here’s an 11-minute YouTube video demonstrating how Spatial works on the HoloLens 2 AR headset, from 2019:


I happen to own an Oculus Quest, and normally I would leap on an opportunity to test-drive Spatial, except for one small problem: the large space I cleared in my bedroom for my Oculus Quest is now piled high with my pandemic stockpile of non-perishable food, Lysol disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper! So obviously, that’s not going to happen. So I am going to have to rely on second-hand reports on how well Spatial works with the Quest (I am rather curious to know what differences would appear in someone using Spatial in virtual reality as opposed to augmented reality.)

In a separate VentureBeat article, reporter Jeremy Horwitz waxes rhapsodic about his experience using Spatial on his Oculus Quest:

I’m not often at a loss for words, but as I re-entered the real world after my second holographic media briefing this month, I realized that I was struggling to speak or type. Mentally, the sensation was awe — my sincere belief that I had just experienced the future of remote work and meetings…

The breakthrough here is Spatial, a collaborative workspace app that just became available for the popular Oculus Quest VR headset. It’s not hyperbole to say that Spatial has unilaterally reignited my enthusiasm for the Quest, which has recently gathered dust on my desk, as the potent pairing enables me to quickly participate in 3D group meetings filled with multiple realistic participants. Instead of using cartoony avatars or floating video tiles, Spatial users appear as “holograms” with real faces, motion-sensed head and hand movements, and even lip motions keyed to their live voices.

The text under the three smaller pictures along the bottom of this image, which is a bit hard to read here, says:

– Create your 3D-realistic avatar from a single selfie in second
– Your avatar comes to life as you talk, move and interact
– Shake hands and high-five each other

So, if anybody out there wants to try the free version of Spatial on their Oculus Quest, and write up a review, I would be happy to provide the blogpost for a guest review! Thanks! I hope somebody takes me up on my offer.

If you want to learn more about Spatial, you can visit their web page, or follow them on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.