Overte: A New, Free and Open Source Social VR Platform, Built on the Original High Fidelity Source Code

Overte is a free and open source (FOSS) social VR platform, which embraces the open source philosophy through and through.

Overte is a spin-off (or “fork”) of the existing Vircadia project. Like Vircadia and its sister platform Tivoli Cloud VR, Overte is built upon the foundation of the original High Fidelity codebase, which the company open sourced after they closed their social VR platform and became a spatialized audio company. (By the way, Tivoli Cloud VR ceased operations on February 21st, 2022.) So, while Overte is a relatively new project, it definitely has a distinguished pedigree!

According to the user documentation:

Overte is open-source software which enables you to create and share virtual worlds as virtual reality (VR) and desktop experiences. You can create and host your own virtual world, explore other worlds, meet and connect with other users, attend or host live VR events, and much more.

The Overte virtual worlds software provides built-in social features, including avatar interactions, spatialized audio, and interactive physics. Additionally, you have the ability to import any 3D object into your virtual environment. No matter where you go in Overte, you will always be able to interact with your environment, engage with your friends, and listen to conversations just like you would in real life.

The key features of Overte are:

  • Collaborative world creation and editing.
  • Steam VR support, including full-body tracking.
  • Excellent scalability, allowing events with as many as 500 users in a single virtual world.
  • Scripting in JavaScript which allows creation of games, interactive event, new UI elements and custom applications.
  • Support for Windows and Linux (downloads here), with MacOS support coming soon.

Overte is operated and maintained by a German non-profit corporation, the Overte e.V Association, whose sole purpose is promoting and distributing FOSS Social VR software in general, and Overte in particular. You can read the articles of association here. Anybody can join the association as a member (currently the yearly membership fee is 60 Euros). Please note that it is NOT required to be an association member to use or help develop Overte! However, members do get to vote on the future direction of the project at regular meetings.

I did a text chat interview with the six board members of the Overte platform and their chair, Dale Glass:

Ryan: Could one or more of you please explain why you felt the need to create a fork from the High FIdelity/Vircadia code? What is the main difference between Vircadia and Overte?

74hc595: One of the most important motivations was the need for having clearer organizational structure. The idea of non-profit is motivated by KDE e.V., which is a German non-profit organization that manages K Desktop Environemnt source code.

catraxx: KDE is merely the inspiration for how we organize. We are not connected to them.

Dale: Some have issues with Vircadia’s direction and interests, and some want a better organizational structure.

Ryan: So the servers running Overte run on Linux, not Windows?

74hc595: They can run on both. On Windows it’s amazingly simple – you can create your own server hosting your virtual world with just a few clicks.

Ryan: And I understand you are also working on a Mac version, too, right?

74hc595: We already have Mac version, but not all features work there yet.

Ryan: I would like to better understand how you are structured, and what is different about being a non-profit compared to say a commercial company creating a metaverse platform.

74hc595: The non-profit itself is registered in Germany, and all board members are democratically elected by members of the non-profit. The most important thing is motivation. Being a non-profit allows us to focus on making amazing virtual world software without worrying about monetizing it in any way. There’s a membership fee to join the non-profit and get voting rights, but of course anyone is welcome to use the software. Overte is released on Apache 2.0 open source license.

Ryan: I assume that this is a volunteer organization and that nobody is getting paid or drawing a salary, right?

catraxx: We are not getting paid, that is correct.

Ryan: Would you say that this drive to monetize is what separates you from Vircadia? I believe they were exploring using blockchain/crypto/NFTs, right? And you’re not, right?

74hc595: The risk of NFTs being introduced there is one difference—we have no intentions of monetizing Overte in any way (but of course commercial worlds created by users are possible).

Ryan: Are you sharing additions to the codebase between Overte and Vircadia, or are they completely separate forks nowm each going in their own direction?

74hc595: Each is going in it’s own direction, but the license is the same, so parts of code can be shared, as long as the copyright notice remains. We aim to remain compatible for as long as that’s practical.

Ryan: Have you been in touch with the Tivoli Cloud VR people since they shut down their platform, and do they have any code you would like to add to Overte?

74hc595: Most definitely, yes. It’s amazing that they decided to relicense their code as Apache 2.0 so it can be used by us. They did amazing work in it. I was really sad they closed, because I wanted to achieve interoperability with their servers too.

Dale: We’re looking into incorporating Tivoli code, but so far things have been a tad busy. They’ve changed their build process considerably, and that put a bit of a damper on things, but we’ll get there…Incorporating Tivoli code will take time and effort. They did great work but we still have to look at what they did, what works for us and what may not, and to review it—we want to avoid code from any contributors that may not be onboard with the relicensing idea, for instance.

74hc595: Overte is also compatibile with Vircadia, and Vircadia worlds can be visited from our client.

Ryan: Oh I did not know that! People can just download the client software from your website, right?

74hc595: Exactly. For now it will be on our website, and probably also Windows Store soon. In the longer term, it would be amazing to provide packages for popular Linux distributions.

Ryan: What do you see as the three most important things that you have to accomplish over the next year? Your top three must-do things.

74hc595: I think that the absolutely most important thing will be upgrading our codebase to use new scripting engine, because the one we currently use is being deprecated. It would also allow us to upgrade to Qt 6, because Qt 5 libraries will get deprecated at some point too.

Dale: My personal list: 1. Finish cleaning up the code. Which is almost done, most of the required changes already made it in. This is mostly boring but important for quality. 2. Dynamic textures. It’s a big project with multiple levels. 3. Inter-domain communication. But I definitely agree with the scripting engine part as well.

Ryan: What do you mean by “inter-domain communication”, Dale?

Dale: I have this rough idea that domains could allow other domains to do things like fetching assets and connect to audio from them. So for instance, picture a large convention, where you have some sort of central hallway, then each talk is its own domain. One thing I want to have is that a domain can export audio streams that then could be played in the hallway. So you can walk past a door that actually leads to another server, but hear if there’s something big going on inside. Not necessarily limited to audio, but that’s also likely to be a big enough project, so we’ll see how that goes!

Ryan: Does Overte support spatialized, 3D audio, and if so, do you use High Fidelity’s spatialized audio product or something else? I know HiFi wanted to take that part out and sell it, and they have, to places like Sine Wave Entertainment (Sinespace/Breakroom).

Dale: High Fidelity had a proprietary audio codec, but that’s just audio compression. We don’t have to use that to have spatial audio. The actual spatial audio is in the Apache 2 licensed code so we can use it without any issues.

74hc595: For me, working on improving collaborative creation tools in Overte has topmost priority. One of the biggest strengths of our software is the ability of creating worlds together with friends, and changes to the world being persistent. I want to develop creation tools so that virtual world creation is possible entirely in game. Right now I’m working on voxel editing tools that will allow creating terrain and buildings in a similar way to Minecraft. It will be very intuitive for new users. Another of my priorities is improving graphics quality, especially by implementing real time raytracing…The collaborative creation is one of the most amazing aspects for me. For example just a week ago I was hanging out with friends at Overte Hub, while a fried was creating his art gallery there. Creating worlds together is a magical experience for me.

Ryan: Are you in touch with any of the former High Fidelity employees? Are any volunteering to help you develop Overte?

Dale: We know a few people that worked on HiFi, yes. Some prefer to be discreet, so we won’t name them publicly.

Ryan: What else do you want people to know about Overte? What do you need? Coders? Donations? More people using Overte?

Dale: I don’t think we’d say no to any of those!

Moto: We can always use contributors of course. Do we need donations? We don’t need them. The membership fees will take care of the running costs. Even without a dedicated bank account we can accept donations or sponsorships though. We actually already have a server sponsored by FOSSHOST (aarch64 build server).

catraxx: Honestly come and talk to us. We are very approachable people in general…It is important to us that our code is open and available to everyone. People should always have the ability to learn from what we do, which really includes all parts of the organization, down to even the website.

Ryan: How much of the original HiFi codebase have to had to scrap and rebuild from scratch?

74hc595: Almost all the codebase remains and we are building on top of it. We will probably remove some unused, but remaining code for things like financial transactions.

Dale: The original HiFi code, in my opinion, is mostly excellent. I mean, some bits are crustier than others, but I think on the whole they did a very good job.

catraxx: It was a big project.

Dale: There’s the audio codec, which is proprietary, but that was already replaced in the Vircadia days with Opus.

catraxx: That in itself is a good campfire story.

Ryan: Noted. For a future blogpost, perhaps. How easy is it to bring an avatar into Overte from say, VRChat?

74hc595: A lot depends on bone naming conventions, but generally it’s less than 2 hours of work, and some work immediately.

Ryan: So speaking of Github, basically anybody can add to the open source code, but there’s a process to what gets added to the official Overte platform, right? Is this where the voting part comes in? (I’m not super knowledgable about Github, by the way.)

74hc595: True. Every change (pull request) is reviewed, and then carefully tested on different platforms.

Ryan: Well, I can’t think of any other questions at the moment. Is there anything you think I should ask? And I definitely need to download the Windows client and visit in my Valve Index! When are your weekly meetings in world??

74hc595: That would be awesome! We meet on every Saturday at 19:00 UTC…I’d like to add that everyone interested is welcome to join our Matrix and Discord servers and out weekly meetup at 19:00 UTC on Saturdays. We typically get about 11-13 people.

Here’s a gallery of images showing you what the Overte platform looks like (please click on any image to see it in full size). As you can see, you can already do a lot!

Since Overte is an open source project, you are very welcome to contribute to the development project! A weekly developer meeting (where all merge request will be discussed), takes place:

Where: the Overte VR – Overte Hub
When: Saturdays at 19:00 UTC (noon, Pacific Standard Time)

For more information about Overte, please visit their new website, join their Discord server, or follow them on Twitter. You can check out Overte’s user documentation, API documentation, and the project’s GitHub repository.

Tivoli Cloud VR Shuts Down

Yesterday, Caitlyn Meeks posted the following message to the Tivoli VR Discord server, which has now shuttered most of its channels:

Hey Folks!! It’s been a while! Obviously the two of us have been pretty distant from the platform of late, as we have been living our lives and evaluating our priorities. Anyway, no point dilly-dallying around it: we’re taking good old Tivoli Cloud VR offline.

We’ve had a great time, we’ve met terrific people in the community, written some great code. It’s quite an experience operating a multiuser VR platform, complete with backend services, and sustaining it in operable condition over a couple of years, especially for a two person team. We’ve decided we’d rather make new things, fun things, and see where creativity, serendipity and fortune take our little hearts.

We will be publishing the entirety of the Tivoli code base on Github where it will be freely available, including our backend and metaverse services, Blender tools, awesome assimp importer, and much more, to folks who continue to further the Excellent High Fidelity code base.

To those who participated and contributed, thank you so much. You’re all so unique and creative in your own ways, and it’s been delightful to get to know each and every one of you who we’ve met on the platform. A huge thank you to the original High Fidelity team who made Tivoli possible by open sourcing the original.

We’ll be moving the Squirrel Nut Cafe over to VRChat and probably hang around there once in a while for old time’s sake. For fans of the platform, we suggest you check out the new Overte fork. They’ve got some smart people, and the right vision. And perhaps they’ll pick up some of the code we are making available from our codebase.

If you’ve got files on Tivoli Files or content we are hosting on our servers, let us know and we’ll do our best to recover them for you. Just DM me directly. Once that’s done, all personal data will be deleted and destroyed.

Big love from both of us!

Caitlyn, Maki, Eentje and the rest

Tivoli Cloud VR was one of two successor platforms to the old, now-shuttered social VR platform built by Philip Rosedale’s company, High Fidelity (the other was Vircadia, which is still running).

I’m feeling pretty gutted that Tivoli Could VR has ceased operations, but I also understand just how hard it can be to get a social VR platform up and running, even if you are starting with the open-source software code from the old High Fidelity platform. I wish Caitlyn, Maki, and everybody on the Tivoli Cloud VR team every success in their future endeavours!

One of my many fond memories of Tivoli Cloud VR was talking to an AI-powered toaster around this tropical beach campfire, which every so often would shower down a rain of waffles! Good times.

What was the website URL now points directly to their GitHub. I hope that somebody makes good use of that open-source code to build something even more remarkable.

Note: I have been aware of the Overte fork of the Vircadia social VR platform for some time, but I wanted to wait until they had a website set up before blogging about them. There’s actually a bunch of developments with respect to both Vircadia and Overte that I have been wanting to write about, so expect a blogpost soon!

UPDATED WITH AUDIO LINKS! Philip Rosedale: Second Life Stories, and Designing the Metaverse—Some Notes from a Wide-Ranging Conversation Multicast on Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse, Callin and Second Life

Today at 11:00 a.m. CST, Philip Rosedale (the founder and former CEO of Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life, and the current CEO of High Fidelity) hosted a discussion titled Second Life Stories, and Designing the Metaverse, where people had an opportunity to ask him questions. Dr. Fran Babcock and Dr. Hayman Buwaneswaran Buwan from the MetaWhat? The Metaverse Show were key organizers. Philip is always an engaged, articulate, and informed speaker, and if you missed this event, I will update this blogpost with links to an archived version which you can listen to via Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse, and Callin. UPDATE 7:14 p.m.: Links are at the end of this blogpost.

Philip was on Twitter Spaces, with well over 100 listeners in the room, but the conversation was also extended to the social audio apps Clubhouse and Callin, plus there was a virtual auditorium set up in Second Life, with almost 50 avatars present! Participants in all four spaces could both hear and ask questions. To my knowledge, this is the first time something like this set-up had been attempted.

Philip shared a couple of “first stories” from his experience with Second Life, real stories from the early years of the company, both pre- and post-launch in 2003, e.g. Steller Sunshine’s beanstalk. He talked about how it was a challenge to provide backwards-compatibility, and how this affected the design of SL over time (for example, changing the friction elements would affect how people could climb the beanstalk). He talked about how he was able to drop a virtual pebble into the virtual water to create ripples (something which was later taken out because it was so computationally expensive!).

When asked why Second Life did not create mobile apps, Philip says that SL, when launched in 2003, predated mobile devices like the iPhone (introduced in 2007) and apps like Facebook (launched in 2004). While Philip is an advisor to Linden Lab, he is not a member of the executive team running the company day-to-day. He says that running SL on a mobile app is a “hard problem” to solve (I agree).

I asked Philip about his opinions regarding Meta’s surveillance system to enforce good behaviour, which includes constantly recording what happens in Horizon Worlds in case someone wants to send an abuse report to the moderators to act upon. Philip talked about his misgivings about AI-based surveillance and targeting systems in the metaverse, and how they could be used to gather information about us in new and disturbing ways, such as using how we are feeling to decide what ads to show us.

Philip has grave concerns about a business model of metaverse designed around advertising and surveillance. Talking about moderation, Philip wants the metaverse to be designed largely driven by the actions of the (human) people who are there, rather than implementing an automated behavioural surveillance and reporting system.

In answering a follow-up question, Philip said he felt that it it is indeed possible to have a metaverse with consequences for trolls and griefers, while still building strong social connections between people, citing as an example banning a person from a public place such as a restaurant where they were misbehaving.

Philip mentioned, in an interview he gave to a media outlet earlier today, that Second Life still has a higher revenue per person per year than YouTube does, with most of that income coming from fees: fees on sales and fees for virtual land (tier). He feels that a business based on fees (as opposed to surveillance advertising) is most definitely scalable, citing the approximately one million users in Second Life.

Philip talked about how presence can change communication dynamics, such as how how walking up to another avatar, and being physically near another avatar, triggers a response where people tended to be more civil than they might be in a text-only environment like a chatroom, and how quickly such presence could help defuse potentially negative communications.

Among the speakers present were Avi Bar-Zeev, the person who created SL’s primitive system, the digital atoms used for building anything and everything in the early days of Second Life! In fact, many content creators in the metaverse got their start by prim-building in SL. (One SL historian remarked that today was the 20th anniversary of the first-ever created prim in Second Life, made on January 25th, 2002.) Philip talked about how Second Life’s prim permission system could be seen as a forerunner of newer digital asset systems being considered for the metaverse.

Avi also talked about the necessity to design the metaverse to be human spaces, a place to rehumanize rather than dehumanize those who participate.

Philip talked about how VR headsets are still not affordable and accessible enough (i.e. uncomfortable if you have to wear them all day), to be able to have the kind of social community that we experience in virtual worlds like Second Life. He said (and I was transcribing madly while he spoke, so this is a paraphrase!):

It’s difficult to get people to communicate normally in a virtual world. It’s easy to forget that this is an experience that most people would not be comfortable with, yet. We’re not there yet, and the way we get there is to make avatars more visually expressive, which is a tough problem to solve.

—Philip Rosedale

Philip talked about spatialized audio products such as High Fidelity’s 3D audio as an aid to community-building, but adds that we still need to work on nonverbal communications (the listener leaning in to the speaker to indicate engagement, etc.).

There was a lot more discussed, including Philip Rosedale’s thoughts about virtual economies and NFT real estate, which unfortunately I did not have a chance to transcribe. Philip is always an articulate and informative speaker, so you will want to listen to the recording if you missed this event.

I will, however, provide a link to an archive of this wide-ranging and fascinating discussion on Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, and Callin, once Dr. Hayman posts it! He is to be thanked for juggling everything in order to make this multicast such as success.

UPDATE 7:14 p.m.: Here, as promised, are links to the recordings made:

Twitter Spaces recording 1:43:44 (Dr. Hayman tells me, “this recording has less of the interruptions from Second Life, as I muted the mic when feedback and keyboard noises were present in SL”)

Callin recording 1:40:08

Enjoy! I know I will be relistening to portions of this.

UPDATED! High Fidelity Invests in Linden Lab, the Makers of Second Life, and Philip Rosedale Rejoins Linden Lab as a Strategic Advisor

The Second Life website (image source)

Today, Linden Lab (more formally known as Linden Research, Inc., the makers of Second Life) dropped a press release:

High Fidelity announced today that it acquired an interest in Linden Research, Inc. (“Linden Lab”), the pioneering developer of the virtual world Second Life. The deal includes a cash investment and distributed computing patents. Members of High Fidelity’s metaverse team are joining the company, and Philip Rosedale, who is a founder of both companies, is also rejoining Second Life as a strategic advisor.

The transaction will help Second Life further scale its operations and strengthen its commitment to growing an innovative, inclusive, and diverse metaverse where its inhabitants’ ingenuity drives real-world value for themselves and others.

“No one has come close to building a virtual world like Second Life,” says Second Life founder and High Fidelity co-founder, Philip Rosedale. “Big Tech giving away VR headsets and building a metaverse on their ad-driven, behavior-modification platforms isn’t going to create a magical, single digital utopia for everyone. Second Life has managed to create both a positive, enriching experience for its residents — with room for millions more to join — and built a thriving subscription-based business at the same time. Virtual worlds don’t need to be dystopias.”

High Fidelity is the company Philip Rosedale founded after leaving Linden Lab. Its first product, an ambitious social VR platform called High Fidelity, failed to catch on and was shut down in early 2020. Its successor product (also called High Fidelity) is a 3D spatialized audio system for use in other metaverse platforms. So, when I’m talking about High Fidelity (HiFi for short), I always make sure to indicate whether I am talking about the company itself, its former social VR product (the old High Fidelity) or the new 3D audio product (the new High Fidelity)!

The website for the new High Fidelity (image source)

Wagner James Au, writer of the long-time virtual worlds blog New World Notes (from whom I first learned about this breaking news), has this to say:

Just got this message from Philip Rosedale, about the future of Second Life:

“I’m not back full-time, but it feels great to get to be talking to Lindens about design! I think the vital thing to focus on is demonstrating that a virtual world can scale to greater capacity while being inclusive and fair and safe for humanity.”

Exciting and welcome news, indeed! I will update this blogpost with more details as I acquire them. Stay tuned!

UPDATE Jan. 14th, 2022: The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled Second Life Founder Returns to Take On the Metaverse (archived version), reported yesterday:

Philip Rosedale in 2003 launched the online game where players using avatars can hang out, socialize with other players and make purchases. Second Life is a forerunner of the virtual worlds that big tech companies are now trying to create and that are often referred to as the metaverse. Mr. Rosedale is returning to the company he left in 2010 to serve as a strategic adviser and shepherd its expansion as the metaverse gains wider traction, he said in an interview…

Mr. Rosedale said that the business models underpinning some of the current tech giants, such as tracking user behavior to target ads, would be potentially harmful in the metaverse, which is more immersive than current digital platforms. “I think that there is a real genuine, existential risk associated with how that gets done,” he said.

Second Life may have had a head start on some of the metaverse companies it aims to compete with, but to some extent is the underdog. Second Life rolled out before Facebook was founded, but has hovered at around one million users since 2008, according to a company spokesperson. Meta’s Facebook, Instagram and other services sported more than 3.5 billion monthly users combined, according to its most recent earnings. Epic Games Inc.’s Fortnite videogame and game company Roblox Corp. , which are also making moves in the metaverse, have many times the number of users that Second Life has.

Brad Oberwager, chairman of Second Life parent company Linden Research Inc., said he is working with Mr. Rosedale to inject momentum into the business. Second Life already offers the ability for people to withdraw money from in-game sales into the real world, a feature lacking in some other emerging metaverses, which should attract users, he said. Coming upgrades focused on further improving the social and economic components of the game, such as the avatars and digital marketplace, promise to drive user growth, he added.

The Wall Street Journal article goes on to state that “Mr. Rosedale is bringing with him to Second Life a small cadre of developers, a number of patents and an unspecified financial investment from the company he founded in 2013, High Fidelity Inc.”

In an interview with c|net, titled Second Life founder returns to revamp his original metaverse, Philip goes into a little more detail:

Rosedale is going to be a “strategic adviser” for Second Life, while his company High Fidelity looks to infuse Second Life with some new ideas, simultaneously working on other ideas for future tech, including – at some point – VR again. “We’re announcing that we’ve shifted a group of seven people, some patents, some money. We’re investing in Second Life, to keep working on Second Life,” Rosedale told me. “Two of those patents are moderation in a decentralized environment patents, which is really cool.”

The reason for the shift is that Second Life still makes money and still has a considerably larger community than most VR platforms: It’s had over 73 million accounts created since it launched, and estimates of active users hover around 900,000. Rosedale sees the shift as solving problems while VR hardware still gets thought out. 

Despite the seeming success of the Oculus Quest 2, he still doesn’t think it’s enough. “The headset is so broken that it’s going to actually take, I think, five years to get to something that’s good,” he says, “and we as a startup would neither survive, nor would it make sense for us to sit around for five years.” He sees building up Second Life as a better platform that will be VR-optional until that magically perfect hardware arrives. 

The entire c|net article is well worth a read, by the way. This news has also been covered by publications such as The Verge, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and CoinTelegraph.

Honestly, the more I read, the better this sounds! I think this is exciting news for both Linden Lab and High Fidelity, and I wish all involved every success in this endeavour.