Comparing the New High Fidelity with Online Town and Gather: “Choices!”

You know, if somebody had asked me to make predictions about the future state of virtual meeting spaces, I would not have predicted a return to two-dimensional spaces. And yet, here we are! (Everything old is new again, it would appear.)

Somebody on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server pointed out that the new High Fidelity is not the only game in town when it comes to 2D meeting spaces with audio. A team of three engineers from San Bruno, California have built a couple of such platforms, called Online Town (for smaller gatherings) and Gather (for larger ones).

You can tell from the websites that they are optimized for mobile devices, and it seems pretty clear that the same design decisions were made for Online Town and Gather as they had been for the new High Fidelity: to sacrifice the visual experience for the sake of including people using as many different devices as possible.

What sets Online Town and Gather apart from the new High Fidelity, however, is the integration of video, which (like the audio) fades in and out as you approach and leave conversations in the two-dimensional space, as shown in this video (there’s no audio):

According to the Online Town website:

Online Town is a new video-calling experience designed to help people gather online. It does this by combining a standard video-calling interface with a low-fidelity 2D game.

As you move around the map with your keyboard, the webcam video and microphone audio of the other people in the room fades based on your distance to them.

Different maps make it easy to use Online Town for parties, reunions, happy hours, conferences, remote work and many other kinds of gatherings.

As far as I can tell, however, Online Town and Gather do not use the patented, spatial audio that the new High Fidelity uses. However, the new High Fidelity does not provide video. If you are in the market for something like this, you might want to test drive both and then make a decision as to which feature is more important to you (both are free, and both allow you easily create and share a virtual space, inviting your friends, family, and coworkers with a URL).

As I said up top, as a visually-oriented person, I find this sudden return to 2D environments perplexing. I particularly find High Fidelity’s complete pendulum swing from offering a social VR platform that supports tethered VR headsets to a 2D space with 3D audio to be…a choice.

As Tatianna the drag queen said numerous times while on my favourite reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race: “Choices!” (drag queens have the best catchphrases!):

And yes, I will be adding both Online Town and Gather to my comprehensive list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds (obviously, they fall into the latter category). If you are following this blog, you already know that I am working on reorganizing this rather unwieldy, exhaustive list of over 150 platforms! Please bear with me.

Also, I might just shorten “the new High Fidelity” to the acronym TNHF and leave it at that. Keeping the exact same name, and reusing it for a completely different platform, is going to prove difficult (and very confusing) for people searching Google for information about this new product, for example. I would have picked a variation of the name myself (High Fidelity 2: Electric Boogaloo, perhaps?).

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UPDATED: Taking a Second Look at the New High Fidelity

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: I realize that when I talk about High Fidelity now, I could be talking about two entirely separate platforms:

  • the old, social VR platform High Fidelity, which of course is now essentially shut down (although those of us with accounts can still visit it); and
  • the new platform, a 2D virtual world with 3D audio.

Because of this, from now on I will always refer to “the old High Fidelity” and “the new High Fidelity” on this blog, to make it clear which platform I am referring to. I will also create a new blogpost category called The New High Fidelity. Of course, High Fidelity is the perfect name for this new platform, with its primary feature of spatial audio! (This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to have a separate platform name from your company name, however.)


Today, Kent Bye of the Voices of VR podcast invited a group of people to join him in a specially-created instance of the new High Fidelity:

I created a map for High Fidelity with 21 audio zones (9 big and 12 small), tagged with different contexts to facilitate emergent conversations. Audio-falloff is annotated with speaking & lurking rings. I’m hoping to test and iterate on it more this weekend.

This is a design based off of Kent’s earlier work on a categorization of social VR platforms based on types of presence:

Four Qualities of Presence in Social VR (from a presentation slide by Kent Bye)

Now, I really have to hand it to Kent. Many days, I seem to be operating in a pandemic-lockdown-induced brain fog, but he took Philip Rosedale’s new platform and ran with it.

Basically, Kent took his taxonomy of social VR and created a diagram for people to inhabit, complete with chat circles indicating the sound fall-off! It’s a novel, even genius, way to frame a conversation in a virtual world, and it was so simple to do; all he had to do was create and upload an image and embed it in the invitation URL he sent around. The following diagram gives a sense of scale:

And, after spending half an hour or so conversing with the people he invited to his world, I am now beginning to see some of the benefits of such a platform. As I said before in my initial, somewhat negative first impressions of the new High Fidelity, I am primarily a visually-oriented person, as opposed to an audio-oriented person. In fact, I don’t even own a set of headphones! Instead I used the microphone on my webcam, and I still found that I was able to join and leave conversations easily.

One of the things that Kent really likes about the new High Fidelity is the ability to break off into side conversations easily, by physically moving away from other groups. For example, Jessica Outlaw (a social VR researcher whom I have written about before) and I had such a conversation, talking shop about various social VR and virtual worlds in the Social & Mental Presence circle:

Jessica (who was also planning to attend an engagement party in the new High Fidelity later today) mentioned to me how she had difficulties getting people to use even simpler social VR platforms like Mozilla Hubs, and how she thought that this would be a much easier way to introduce inexperienced people to virtual worlds. And yes, I agree: even the dead-simple Mozilla Hubs can be a somewhat steep learning curve to somebody that is brand new to virtual reality and virtual worlds, let alone much more complicated platforms like Second Life, where newbies need to spend at least an hour getting their bearings!

Among the guests was Alex Coulombe (whose work I have written about before), who in another side conversation, talked about how he could see offering a choice for people attending a theatrical production in VR: higher-end users could choose to watch and hear the play in a VR headset, while lower-end users might opt to just hear the play in 3D audio via the new High Fidelity platform, maybe even while out on a jog!

So, I am slowly warming to the potential applications of the new High Fidelity! Thank you to Kent Bye for inviting me to the conversation.

UPDATE 3:51 p.m.: Kent Bye gave me permission to quote from our discussion afterward on Twitter:

Thanks for coming out! Glad you were able to get some new insights for how High Fidelity might fit into the ecosystem. I’m personally really excited for it as a way to rapidly prototype 2D blueprints of spaces that facilitate specific social dynamics.

The interstitial hallway conversations and serendipitous collisions are some of the hardest things to recreate in VR and embodied virtual worlds — at least so far. Setting and maintaining deep context across a large number of people is hard, even at conferences where there’s a pretty specific context already. Connecting people with their problems to solve and innate interests is a persistent problem across all mediums. High Fidelity has the opportunity to start to do something different that other solutions haven’t yet. I think of it as a potential portal into an embodied experience, but also to facilitate these more ephemeral threshold spaces where a lot of the best conversations end up happening.

It starts to solve the problem of: I want to talk about this topic, but I don’t want to sit in an empty VR/virtual room until someone comes about. So you can hang out with the audio while doing other things and be more patient with waiting folks to drop by. Setting a deeper context for gathering usually happens with Birds of a Feather: Meet at Location X and Time Y and we’ll talk about Z. This sets an intention to have a very focused and productive conversation with deep and meaningful shared purpose. By annotating spaces, then you can start to potentially remove the “at Time Y” part of the equation, and have a persistent location where people will organically gather around topics. Mixing the planned and unplanned will go into my next design iteration.

I need a lot more iterations to be able to set the proper context and rules that facilitate this, but having the context deeply embedded into the architecture of a space has the potential to create a hub where people go to meet and collide with others in the industry, kind of what happened today based upon who saw my few Tweets about it.

Thanks, Kent!

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?