OpenSim Virtual World Provider Kitely Plans to Run a Grid Based on High Fidelity’s Open-Source Code, Even as HiFi Pivots Away from the Consumer Market

Maria Korolov of the Hypergrid Business website reports, in an article on High Fidelity’s pivot away from consumers towards the business market, that OpenSim provider Kitely is planning to launch a new grid based on High Fidelity’s open-source software:

Those communities that have already begun planning a migration to High Fidelity may be out of luck. Kitely, for example, has long had a strategy of being a multi-platform company, with High Fidelity part of their long-term road map. How will Rosedale’s news affect their plans?

It won’t, said Ilan Tochner, Kitely’s co-founder and CEO… “Our service doesn’t use High Fidelity’s grid services, we use our own proprietary systems for that,” he told Hypergrid Business. “So, as long as High Fidelity Inc remains committed to continue open sourcing their platform codebase we see no reason to switch to using something else.”

That will change if they decide to stop open development, he added. “Then we’ll evaluate whether High Fidelity remains a viable option moving forward,” he said. “We’re building our proprietary services with that contingency in mind.”

In response to a comment questioning this strategy, Ilan replied:

The High Fidelity open-source project has a lot of potential. We don’t judge it based on the default UI High Fidelity offers or how well High Fidelity Inc. managed a VR-focused consumer service while the demand for such a service was close to non-existent. [The] UI can be improved, we’re pursuing a different target demographic, and our company manages customer relations differently than High Fidelity Inc. does.

We still believe in the High Fidelity open-source project because it handles many of the hard engineering challenges that must be overcome to provide a good distributed multi-user VR experience. OpenSim is a lot more mature and includes many crucial components that are required for providing consumer virtual worlds. Most of those components are still missing from High Fidelity, but High Fidelity already has many VR-related capabilities that OpenSim currently lacks.

That said, most of the proprietary components we’re developing for our High Fidelity-based offering aren’t High Fidelity specific and could be used with our OpenSim-based Organizations offering as well. In other words, most of our R&D is invested in developing differentiating features for our own services and not on building platform-specific functionality for any of the virtual world options we provide.

You might not be aware that Kitely has already contributed a fair bit of code to the open-source High Fidelity project, which anybody can contribute to. There is a possiblity that Kitely may choose to branch off from the existing open-source code at some point in the future, especially if HiFi decides to go in a direction that doesn’t meet their needs.

Kitely is not the only company looking at providing services based on High Fidelity’s code. In March 2019, former High Fidelity staff member Caitlyn Meeks founded Tivoli Cloud VR, a company focused on providing supplemental services for virtual worlds based on the High Fidelity software, in response to High Fidelity’s recent announcements (here and here).

Thank you to Theanine for the news tip!

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Episode 7 of the Metaverse Newscast: Jason Moore and The MetaMovie Project

I’m happy to announce that the newest episode of the Metaverse Newscast show is now available for viewing on YouTube. (You can find all the earlier episodes at the Metaverse Newscast channel.)

In this episode, I interview Jason Moore, who is a writer, producer and director who has worked extensively in the film and television production industry in Los Angeles, New York, and internationally. We talked about his latest project on the social VR platform High Fidelity, called The MetaMovie Project.

Jason describes The MetaMovie Project as follows on his Kickstarter page:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be INSIDE a movie? I’ve been chasing that dream for my entire life.  As a filmmaker, I’ve used every tool and technique I can find to make my own work as immersive as possible, so when Virtual Reality technology became available, I jumped right in. 

The MetaMovie project is an ongoing series of experiments exploring immersive, interactive storytelling inside the virtual reality metaverse. We combine cinema, video games, interactive theater, and role playing activities like D&D to create an entirely new way to experience a story: from the inside.  In a MetaMovie you don’t just watch the story, you’re part of it. 

Using room scale VR, audiences transport themselves into the world of our story and star in a live, interactive, immersive movie utilizing all the magic of the metaverse.

Jason and I talk about many aspects of this fascinating project in this wide-ranging interview. Among many other questions, I ask him for his opinion about Philip Rosedale’s recent announcement about shutting down all the company-hosted public spaces in High Fidelity.

If you want to support Jason’s work, he has set up a Kickstarter page for The MetaMovie Project. As of today, they have already raised US$5,500 of their US$10,000 goal. Jason says:

Our funding goal is $10,000, which will allow us to continue to perform our first MetaMovie, an exciting thriller called The Heist, throughout 2019. Additionally, we will create two other MetaMovies: a supernatural drama called The Bright Side of the Moon, and a sci-fi horror piece, Alien Rescue. Backers of the project have the opportunity to experience these in several ways: as exclusive VIPs who “star” in the performance, as less interactive Fireflies, or, simply, as fans and supporters of the project. 

Promotional Poster for The Heist

Jason Moore and his team are really pushing the envelope when it comes to creating interactive and immersive movie-like experiences for audiences. I hope that you enjoy this episode of the Metaverse Newscast, and choose to support Jason’s crowdfunding campaign. You could even become a VIP or a Firefly at one of his performances!

Lights, camera, action!

High Fidelity: Some Thoughts on the Morning After

First, a disclaimer: I’m a librarian and a blogger, and I don’t really know what it takes to run a successful software company. I’m sure the only people who really know how Philip Rosedale is feeling right now are Ebbe Altberg and other software company CEOs who often have to make difficult decisions, including letting people go. It’s a tough job, and one that I wouldn’t want.

And I must confess that, from my admittedly outsider perspective on High Fidelity, that I was absolutely gobsmacked by the swiftness of this recent turn of fortune. One minute, High Fidelity was merrily cruising along and planning big splashy events; the next, they were slashing server costs by abruptly shutting down public spaces. It was, and still is, a rather stunning reversal that most observers didn’t see coming.

There are a lot of factors that led to this point. Let’s take a look at a few of them. 

First, almost all of the rosy predictions made when the first consumer VR headsets appeared have turned out to be flat-out wrong. As Philip himself has said, he expected millions of people to be in VR headsets at this point. He was mistaken. But then, so were a lot of other people. It’s just unfortunate that it took this set of circumstances to force High Fidelity to pay more attention to the users they should have been paying attention to all along: non-VR users who are looking at virtual worlds through their flat computer monitors. Catering almost exclusively to VR users, and treating desktop users as almost an afterthought, is one of the reasons that High Fidelity finds itself struggling today. For example, there is still no default, built-in text chat system in High Fidelity (although there are third-party solutions on the Marketplace).

Second, High Fidelity has struggled to set up something that was key to the early, resounding success of Second Life: creating and encouraging a space where content creators could make money selling their products to other users. Compared to the nearly 22,000 items now available for sale on the Sansar Store, The HiFi Marketplace is struggling to attract content. The process involved in creating a sales listing is still too geeky and cumbersome, and High Fidelity has created an unnecessary bottleneck by insisting that they review every single item placed on the Marketplace. It’s small wonder that there are only 1,200 items for sale so far, about a twentieth of what is on the Sansar Store. Many potential content creators have simply given up on High Fidelity and walked away after encountering these and several other obstacles. 

Third, there was a strange overemphasis on company-hosted events, which gave High Fidelity some much-needed press and a reason to boast about avatar concurrency records being set, but which also took up valuable company resources which, perhaps, could have been better placed somewhere else. They say hindsight is 20/20, and it’s now clear to me that High Fidelity probably spent a lot of money on setting up and running powerful servers to handle such big events with large crowds. And, in the end, it was probably something that was not sustainable long-term. (Then again, server costs are much cheaper than programmer salaries.)

Also, there were many people who showed up at HiFi’s events because they were getting some sort of financial inducement to do so (like the US$20 gift cards given out at the first couple of stress testing events). High Fidelity was literally paying all the contest entrants in their most recent Avatar Cosplay Contest! Somebody (not me) has said that High Fidelity was essentially bribing people to use their platform, and when the inducements were no longer there, people stayed away.

Take a look at High Fidelity’s new website homepage:

How many companies do you know that would continue to throw resources into a project if, after six years of hard work, their product only has 2,573 users? The writing has been on the wall for quite some time now; it’s just that people haven’t wanted to admit it. Sometimes when you build it, people will not come.

Despite a few modest successes here and there (notably VRChat and Rec Room), social VR as a whole is struggling to attract users. Some companies can rely on venture capital (High Fidelity) or profits from other products (Linden Lab) to get them through the lean times, but that money won’t be there forever. Eventually, social VR has to stand on its own. And sadly, I think we are going to see other companies in this market founder, struggle, restructure, and even close their doors.

So now High Fidelity is pinning its hopes on becoming a workplace teams platform, squarely aimed at the business market. (In fact, they won’t even let you sign up for a sneak peek at the new service with a Gmail email address, which is frankly insulting to those businesses who choose to use Gmail.) There’s no guarantee that this endeavour will succeed, but I do wish Philip and his team the best of luck. They’re going to need it.

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!