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?).

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!

Pictures from Today’s Lockdown Dance Party in High Fidelity, Presented by XaosPrincess and Tivoli Cloud VR!

The second Lockdown Dance Party in High Fidelity is now in full swing!

Caitlyn Meeks announced from the stage that the next Lockdown Dance Party will actually be held on alpha-test version of the Tivoli Cloud VR platform, a fork of the HiFi source code, instead of in High Fidelity itself. While this is exciting news, it is also a sad moment, as today’s event might very well be the last major event to happen on the now essentially closed-down social VR platform High Fidelity. It is truly the end of an era. (And here is news on what High Fidelity, the company, is planning to work on next.)

So here are a few pictures I took to commemorate the event, which is on now and running until 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time today, Saturday, May 16th, 2020, with DJ Kreolis and DJ BrainStormer spinning tunes. Here are step-by-step instructions to join the dance party!

I chat with XaosPrincess during the amazing light show by BrainStormer
Caitlyn and XaosPrincess address the crowd
Busting a move on the dancefloor to DJ Kreolis

This is also likely the last time I will ever see my customized High Fidelity avatar, which I created using the now-withdrawn Virtual You mobile app:

Of course, it wouldn’t be a HiFi dance party without Chocka dancing on the stage!

Like I said, the end of an era. The final picture is courtesy of XaosPrincess:

Join Us for a Lockdown Dance Party in High Fidelity, Presented by XaosPrincess and Tivoli Cloud VR, and Help Fight COVID-19!

If you miss the sometimes-raucous dance parties High Fidelity used to hold before they folded, are you in luck! The irrepressible XaosPrincess is throwing the second of her Lockdown Dance Parties, presented by Tivoli Cloud VR! (The first party had over 70 avatars in attendance.)

The festivities run from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday, May 16th, 2020:

Now, I did inquire, and I can confirm that the Lockdown Dance Party will take place in High Fidelity, on a private server hosted by Tivoli Cloud VR. This is because Tivoli Cloud VR has not yet launched their platform. Here are the complete instructions for those of you who are interested in attending (courtesy of XaosPrincess):


Follow these steps to join the LOCKDOWN DANCE PARTY on May 16th:
– Download and install the client for your OS
Windows:
https://tivolicloud.com/highfidelity/HighFidelity-Beta-Interface-latest.exe
MacOS:
https://tivolicloud.com/highfidelity/HighFidelity-Beta-Interface-latest.dmg
– If you are familiar with High Fidelity, fire up the interface
    and type “xaos.tivolicloud.com” into the GOTO
– If not, activate this link in your browser window: hifi://xaos.tivolicloud.com
    which will start the interface
– On the login screen click on “take me inworld!” in the bottom right corner
    to arrive on location in our club’s cloakroom where you can choose your avatar
– Toggle between the modes by pressing Ctrl 1 for desktop and Ctrl 2 for VR
– Have fun and dance the cabin fever away 
    while channeling cloud computing power to Covid-19 research 

Minimum system requirements:
– OS: Windows 10, 64-bit / MacOS High Sierra (10.13)
– CPU: Intel i5 equivalent or greater
– RAM: 8GB+
– GPU: NVIDIA GTX 970 equivalent or greater
– Internet Connection:  20 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload
– tethered HMD for VR


XaosPrincess tells me:

Saturday’s party will run on the HiFi client version 0.86 – to be safe it’d be good to check this in your installed software Windows window.

So, if you already have that version of the High Fidelity client software sitting on your computer, you don’t need to download and install the client from Tivoli Vloud VR’s servers. When I asked if users could still create new user accounts on HiFi, her response was:

Yes – that works by clicking on “take me inworld!” in the bottom right corner of the login screen…It’ll take users in as “anonymous” while they’ll still be able to create a screen name to their liking.

Apparently, the High Fidelity servers might actually still be up and working for creating new user accounts, but obviously, they could be taken down at any time now.

And the best part is, your presence will actually help in the fight against coronavirus! Here’s the info from XaosPrincess’ page promoting the Lockdown Dance Party:

Donating computing power to fight coronavirus

While the psychological intention of our party is to offer a relieving, virtual remedy for the emotional distress of social isolation, we also want to contribute to the recovery of our physical world. And once again TIVOLI CLOUD VR is here to help us with a very charitable offer: 

When the LOCKDOWN DANCE PARTY is over, their server will continue to run! 

For every person attending the party, we are  going to donate $10 in cloud computing power to fight coronavirus via the distributed computing project FOLDING@HOME which is researching Covid-19 in order to create a vaccine and drugs to restrain the pandemic.

With our last party we have been able to gather $750 in cloud computing power, and we hope that we can outshine this result with an even larger crowd on May 16th. 

So come on out, meet some old and new friends, and help donate computing power to fight COVID-19. Thanks to Tivoli Cloud VR for their generous donation, and thanks to XaosPrincess for hosting this event. (By the way, Xaos now works for Tivoli Cloud VR. Congratulations!)