Social VR in 2019: A Perimortem Or a Call to Arms?

There is hope amidst the general despair in social VR…
(Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash)

This is the first chance I have had to find a little peace and quiet, decompress, and meditate on the events of the past couple of days, and indeed the events of the past twelve months. It’s been a rocky year.

A year ago, things seemed much more hopeful for social VR and virtual worlds. High Fidelity was hosting numerous splashy events, with hundreds of avatars in attendance. New and better features were continually being added to Sansar, which was also experiencing record attendance at big events like the Monstercat launch. Prospects seemed so bright as we entered 2019.

And then, things started to go wrong, or perhaps more accurately, stubbornly refused to go right. High Fidelity abruptly switched direction away from consumer use in an ultimately futile attempt to pursue the business market, and now the company has announced it is essentially shutting down its flagship platform in the new year. Linden Lab, despite assurances earlier in the year that it would be “business as usual” while they were still trying to build an audience for Sansar, suddenly laid off many of its talented staff working on the project (and at the worst possible time: halfway through a complete redesign of their human avatars). Even worse, LL has had to back out of a recent disastrous decision to replace the Atlas with the Nexus and the Codex, only after many users threatened to pull their worlds in protest. 

After the bruising year that has befallen Linden Lab’s Sansar project and Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, an observer might be forgiven for wondering why any company would choose to embark on building a metaverse at all. In a recent blogpost, Philip blames problems with the current state of VR hardware for HiFi’s failure to thrive, but that does not absolve him of his tactical decision to go all-in on virtual reality, at a time when the majority of users were still in desktop mode (and likely will be for quite some time). Ebbe Altberg similarly gambled that VR would take off much sooner than it has, a gamble that he (and frankly all of us) bet the house on. A bet we appear to be losing.

In one of my darker moments of gallows humour this week, while writing the blogpost about the demise of High Fidelity, the thought occurred to me: that I might be the one blogger who documents both the rise and the fall of social VR. Was all this just a fad? Will virtual reality continue to be a niche, unprofitable market? Will High Fidelity and Linden Lab be the first of many metaverse-building companies to downsize, backtrack, and even fold in 2020?

In 2020 all eyes will be on Facebook as it launches its latest and greatest attempt at social VR, Facebook Horizon. Will Facebook be able to leverage its existing reach (and its deep pockets) to make social VR a viable proposition? If mighty Facebook fails, despite using all the powerful tools and tectics at its disposal, then perhaps that will be clearest signal yet that social VR (at least, as it is currently being conceived and marketed) is not what consumers want or need. 

We could land up back at the drawing board, a discomforting thought. Or, perhaps, one or more companies and/or communities of users will bring some outside-the-box thinking that is sorely needed to kickstart this market and bring it out of its comatose state. 

Look at Mozilla Hubs. It runs on just about every single piece of hardware you can throw at it, from high-end VR headsets to the cheapest cellphones. It’s so dead simple that you don’t even need an account to use it! Yet despite its limited features, I have had some truly wonderful meetings and experiences in Hubs this year. 

Look at Cryptovoxels, a one-man labour or love that started off with slow, organic growth, and is now growing and thriving, with an invested community and a thriving art scene. 

Look at NeosVR, which is probably unique among all social VR platforms in that a majority of its users are actually in VR headsets (a claim that even VRChat cannot yet make), and which is doing some truly amazing and innovative work that is attracting notice.

Look at ENGAGE, which is already profitably using social VR for educational purposes.

This is not the time for a perimortem or a postmortem; it is time for a call to arms. A time to put our brains together and come up with new ideas and approaches, new niches and markets for this amazing technology. Yes, there will be failures and missteps, but there will likely be more successes like Mozilla Hubs, Cryptovoxels, NeosVR, and ENGAGE.

This is not a time to give up hope. It is a time to keep going, keep pushing, and keep trying new things. To keep moving forward, despite setbacks. 

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High Fidelity Suspends Its Remote Workteams Project, Announces More Staff Layoffs, Closes Its Open Source Codebase, and Withdraws Its Apps, Effectively Shutting Down on January 15th, 2020

In a new blogpost titled Updates, and a New Beginning, Philip Rosedale announced some more changes at High Fidelity:

…we have been heads-down developing and testing the use of High Fidelity for remote workers. We’ve developed a streamlined desktop version which has been tested by teams from 75+ organizations. In total, we’ve logged thousands of hours in-world as these groups tried working in a virtual environment. We’ve learned a lot and it’s hard to imagine our team working in any other way.

We plan to continue to use our technology as our company’s primary virtual office but we have decided not to commercialize the virtual workplace application at this time. Simply put, having taken a close look, while we can see that remote work is going to continue on its growth trajectory and we do have customers using it—the opportunity is not big enough today to warrant additional development. 

The work we’ve done over the past six months has been valuable in helping us understand how to make a 3D VR environment usable, stable, and accessible to first-time, non-gaming audiences, and that is intellectual property we will take forward into future work.  

According to Philip, High Fidelity will be working on a new internal project, the details of which will be announced at some future point in time.

Another major announcement is that the company is closing its open source codebase:

One of the many reasons we opted to develop an open source virtual world is because we wanted people, particularly creators and developers, to have the peace of mind that they were in control of the content and experiences they built and not dependent on decisions made by High Fidelity as a company. We have succeeded in that mission having open sourced the most powerful virtual reality codebase built to date: It can handle large crowds, low-latency 3D audio, live editing, interactive content, open-format file compatibility, and users can host the content however they wish with complete control.

The existing community over the past six months has continued to use the platform and contribute code with little involvement from High Fidelity. Given this, and given that our new project will further reduce our ability to manage the existing open-source repository, we believe that the best course of action is to formally turn over control of the codebase to the community.    

As of January 15th, 2020, we’re going to make High Fidelity’s Github repository private. We want to give community leaders time to create their own repositories and systems as desired. 

We know this change will lead to many questions for users, so we have attempted to provide as many answers as possible here

Another major bombshell is that the company is laying off more staff:

Our new project is different and in early development, which led us to the sobering realization that the incredible and talented team we have built, isn’t the one to take us forward. Consequently, we will reduce our team size in half effective today. We’ll be giving those affected time and support to find new positions in the New Year—these people are brilliant pioneers in VR—developers, designers, program managers, marketers, and support professionals—but we just aren’t ready for their firepower. I’ve already thanked them in private but let me publicly state my gratitude for all their work. They have pushed the boundaries of VR and I am sure will continue to do so, as other successful High Fidelity alumni have done.

And, finally…

As part of the refocus, we’ll also be withdrawing our apps on the Steam Store, Oculus Store and our Virtual You: 3D Avatar Creator app from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Since there are no High Fidelity supported environments, we’re not offering registration for new accounts which these enable. 

According to the FAQ, High Fidelity is withdrawing from the Early Access programs on both the Oculus and Steam stores as of January 15th, 2020. High Fidelity will no longer allow new users to create accounts on the platform (existing accounts will continue to work, however).

Also, HiFi is shutting down its Marketplace and will suspend cashouts of its High Fidelity Coin (HFC):

The Marketplace will close. The public Marketplace pages will be removed, you will not be able to purchase new items, you will not be able to add new items available for sale, and you will not be able to edit existing items’ details. We will also no longer offer cash-out of HFC after January 15th, 2020.

In addition, High Fidelity will no longer be providing any support services to users after January 15th, 2020, and they will be shutting down the official user forums on that date.

Essentially, High Fidelity will soon be a dead platform, the first major victim of the social VR wars (but probably not the last). R.I.P.

When I asked Caitlyn Meeks, who is hard at work on a fork of the existing HiFi open source code for her new company, Tivoli Cloud VR, if the news that High Fidelity is closing their code base means that they will have to scramble, she told me:

Not in the slightest, we’re mostly creating new infrastructure from scratch. The work we’re doing on the open source code is mainly subtractive, removing things to make a faster experience and making room for better features.

Philip Rosedale: Four Reasons Why Virtual Reality Has Not Taken Off Yet Among Consumers

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Image by jazilykenneth from Pixabay

Philip Rosedale (the founding CEO of Second Life and the CEO of High Fidelity) used to have a very ambitious goal printed across a large banner hung over the stage at HiFi events: One Billion People in VR, it read.

It was the company’s goal to get millions of people in VR headsets and using their social VR platform. But those millions of people never came, and Philip Rosedale has been spending some time lately doing a bit of reflection about what went wrong, and why that never happened.

Yesterday, he penned a post on the official High Fidelity blog, titled Requiem for the HMD, outlining what he sees as four key problem areas that need to be addressed before we can expect to see widespread consumer uptake of virtual reality headsets:

  • They need to be light and comfortable enough to wear all day: “The weight needs to drop to the same as ski goggles — about 300 grams.”
  • Good see-through display: “You need to be able to see the world around you while you are using these things.”
  • They allow you to type at a normal speed.
  • The display is the same quality as a desktop screen.

Philip writes:

It’s hard to say when these challenges will be solved and packaged into one elegant solution at mobile-phone price points. I’m clearly not the only person who thinks we’re in the thick of winter for consumer-grade VR headsets. In the meantime, I’ll keep rooting for the commercial-grade applications that show the world what’s possible and to funnel enough money into the industry with the hope that the next screen comes out in the not-too-distant future.

If you want to read Philip’s blogpost in full, you can do so here.

What do you think? Is Philip right or wrong, and why? Please feel free to leave a comment below. And I also cordially invite you to join the conversation over on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! Over 300 people from around the world, representing many different social VR platforms and virtual worlds, meet daily to chat, discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and companies building it.

Tivoli Cloud VR: A Brief Introduction to a New Social VR Platform Based on the Open-Source High Fidelity Code

Tivoli Cloud, the company started by the former Strategic Evangelist and Director of Content at High Fidelity, Caitlyn Meeks, after HiFi’s abrupt pivot to enterprise users, has moved from San Francisco…to Adeje, on Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, off West Africa. Tenerife is dominated by Mt. Teide, a dormant volcano that is Spain’s tallest peak.

In a new blogpost titled Hello! We’re building a spatialized metaverse from a volcanic island, Caitlyn writes:

Unlike a super villain’s volcanic island lair from a James Bond film, ours doesn’t include an atomic doomsday laser, but does have shirtless German tourists and open air restaurants. It is from here, the volcanic island of Tenerife, that we started engineering a spatialized metaverse architecture.

By we, I mean Caitlyn Meeks, former chief evangelist at High Fidelity (that’s me), and my partner, our CTO and co-founder, Maki Deprez, an accomplished programmer and VR content creator. Together, we’re building a spatialized metaverse on the architectural foundations first laid by the open-source virtual reality company, High Fidelity. We believe this architecture, and its future progeny, will become the foundation of the spatial networking metaverse we’ve all been waiting for.

She goes on to explain what they hope to do with a fork of HiFi’s code:

Spring 2019 was a tough season for High Fidelity, when business circumstance pivoted the company away from the metaverse and production shifted towards a seemingly more commercially viable remote coworking product. The company’s virtual world servers were abruptly taken offline.  The metaverse project largely dropped off the radar. There’s a lot of theories about why the company decided to sunset its metaverse project, and I’ll not go into them here.  What’s important is that the company made core parts of the architecture open-source so it could survive exactly this kind of situation.

The Xerox Alto, first created in 1973, introduced the point and click desktop interface used everywhere today. It never went to market. Today, this interaction model is at the heart of every Macintosh and Windows computer. Similarly, we feel that the spatial computing architecture engineered at High Fidelity, and its progeny, will become the backbone of spatial computing for decades to come.

VR Winter is probably coming, but like the title says, we’ve been literally working from a volcano in the Canary Islands.  It’s keeping us warm and fired up.  To that end, we’re weaving together our own spatialized metaverse using some of the core architecture innovated at High Fidelity, Inc.

It is the small mammals that survived the ice age. We’re not a big company by any means, we’re just a plucky little startup who wants a metaverse. We’re haven’t got money to make sexy videos, our shares are currently worth way less than penny stock, we’re not going to have a flashy “initial land offering” on a blockchain. In fact, we’re going to stay away from using the blockchain for now. What we do have is more than enough server resources, donated to us by Amazon, Google and Digital Ocean via the WXR Accelerator and First Republic Bank.  What we do have is a groundbreaking open-source metaverse engine, seven years in the making. Most importantly, what we have is an understanding of what needs to be done to get people to actually use it, and perhaps even love it. And as far-fetched as it may sound, we think we’ve got just enough technical skill and moxie to do it.  

Caitlyn Meeks and Maki Deprez, the co-founders of Tivoli Cloud

If you want to follow their progress on this undertaking, here is their blog. You can also be among the first to follow the company on Twitter.