Editorial: Why I Think High Fidelity is Doomed

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? More details here


Look, I realize that I have been exceptionally cranky lately when it comes to High Fidelity. The company is just trying so hard to make its remote teamwork social VR platform a thing, but, sweet minty Jesus, I think they are failing (and flailing) big time.

I follow the High Fidelity corporate Twitter account, and this morning, somebody posted the following tweet:

Clicking through takes you to the High Fidelity Marketplace, where you can pick up Piper Peppercorn’s virtual coffee mug for 25 HFC (High Fidelity Coin):

So, the thinking here is something along the lines of: “Hey, we want to get people visiting and using High Fidelity, so I have an idea! Let’s promote various items from the Marketplace on Twitter! Somebody will want that coffee mug so much, that they will:

  • download and install the High Fidelity client software;
  • create an avatar;
  • MAKE AN APPOINTMENT TO VISIT THE BANK to get some HFC;
  • go shopping on the High Fidelity Marketplace and buy that coffee mug.”

I’m sorry, but that is a completely insane expectation. Between tweets for various objects for sale like this coffee mug and a scarf (yes, a scarf!), and numerous generic tweets about the joys and benefits of remote working, I am seriously starting to wonder what the hell is going on:

High Fidelity should stop trying to promote remote teamwork in general, and start focusing squarely on selling their platform. They are not going to convince any company to try using remote workers through these ineffective tweets. If they think this will actually make any sort of difference with executive decision makers, they are sadly mistaken.

The virtual coworking island cam fiasco is a perfect example of a company seemingly completely adrift, without any clear indication that they know what to do, or how to market themselves. It took two days—two days—for the company to even notice that its livestreams had no audio. And the livestreams hardly showed off the platform in its best light, even though they have some innovative product features such as spatialized audio. Nobody is going to watch these videos and think, “Hey, this is cool! I want this for my business!”

High Fidelity is one of the clients of a professional PR company, called Firebrand Communications; do they not listen to their advice at all? Or is this the best advice they are being given at this point? (One blog reader astutely pointed out that any good PR company would be monitoring mentions of their clients on social media and blogs, and stepping in when somebody posts highly critical, deeply negative blogposts like I have written about High Fidelity recently. That’s what PR companies do.)

High Fidelity is a sinking ship, and it just breaks my heart. I’m just going to come right out and say this: I now believe that the company is doomed. Their user forums are a virtual ghost town (nobody has posted anything for a week now, a troubling sign). Many people, like Jason Moore of the MetMovie Project, have abandoned HiFi for other social VR platforms. You load up the HiFi client and visit, and except for a few events like the weekly salon hosted by DrFran, the platform is empty.

High Fidelity is a case that should be studied at university business schools of how not to treat your existing userbase, and how not to promote yourself to try and get new customers. High Fidelity desperately needs help, particularly when it comes to marketing and public relations, and I’m not sure that they are going to get that help before they run out of the millions of dollars of venture capital they received, and simply close up shop.

So, what do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling conversations, arguments, and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum! We’d love to see you there.

Advertisements

High Fidelity Releases Virtual You, a Mobile App to Create a 3D HiFi Avatar from a Selfie

Today, High Fidelity issued a press release:

High Fidelity, the open-source VR software platform, today released Virtual You: 3D Avatar Creator on the Apple App
 and Google Play stores. It enables people to produce a customizable avatar ready for High Fidelity in less than five minutes.

Powered by VR/AR developer Wolf3D, the free Virtual You app generates a 3D avatar from a selfie. Users can then choose from thousands of wardrobe combinations and customize every aspect of their appearance, such as hair, makeup and body shape. Virtual You avatars are sent directly to a user’s High Fidelity account and are compatible with any virtual environment that uses its open source software. 

Virtual You on the iOS App Store

“As VR begins to transform our daily lives, we will often want to easily appear in virtual worlds as we do in the physical world,” said Philip Rosedale, CEO and Co-founder of High Fidelity. “Avatars have always been a pillar of VR and virtual worlds, but unless you’re a dedicated enthusiast, creating them hasn’t been easy. By making 3D customizable avatars available through a mobile app, we’ve cleared an important step towards bringing VR to billions of people.”

Now, obviously, you’re not going to get the high quality results you would see with a multiple-camera, full-body scanning service such as that offered by Doob, but it’s still an attractive option for a somewhat personalized avatar. So I decided to give Virtual You a spin, using my trusty iPhone SE.

I downloaded and installed the app, following directions to take off my glasses and slick back my hair to get the clearest possible face shot. The app then walked me through choosing my hair colour, hair style, eye colour, and style of glasses. You are then presented with a first draft of your avatar, so you can make various adjustments to skin tone, body shape (height, weight, etc.), head shape, eyes, nose, lips, hairstyle, hair colour, makeup, eyebrows, glasses, and clothing:

Here is the final result:

I was then asked to sign into my High Fidelity account, and it sent my avatar off to High Fidelity!

I had to wait a while for the “Sending your avatar to High Fidelity” to clear. From start to finish, the process took me fifteen minutes!

Then I signed in to High Fidelity to see my avatar in-world. The avatar was immediately available in my inventory:

And here is what my customized avatar looks like! I am actually rather pleased with the results.

It’s hard to take good selfies in HiFi; there’s a mirror mode (which I used to take these pictures), but there doesn’t seem to be a freecam mode to allow me to zoom in on the bottom half of my body, or take a side view of my avatar.


There was once a service in Second Life that generated a classic system (i.e. non-mesh) avatar skin based on a single selfie, but the results were pretty abysmal, as you can see from this old photo I took, comparing the original photo of actor Jake Gyllenhaal with the resulting avatar:

I created this avatar to play Jack Twist for Brokeback Mountain roleplay in Second Life over a decade ago, and I thought the result was good enough at the time for that purpose:

The create-an-avatar service eventually shut down, and I never found a replacement for it. I only used it a couple of times. I also made a Heath Ledger-lookalike avatar to play Ennis Del Mar, but the results were even worse than they were for Jake:

I couldn’t find a really good, well-lit full-frontal facial photo of Heath Ledger, so the result doesn’t really resemble him at all, in my opinion!


So you might just want to download the Virtual You app to your iOS or Android mobile device and try it out for yourself! This is a service that I would like to see more social VR and virtual world companies provide. Perhaps Wolf3D could be convinced to export its app-generated avatars into other virtual worlds? I do think that there is a market for this.

Editorial: Employee-Customer Communication at Social VR and Virtual World Companies

Need to vent? Some companies make it
easier than others to give feedback.
(photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash)

I have been thinking about writing this editorial for quite some time. Social VR and virtual worlds have been a part of my life since I first encountered Second Life back in 2007 (in a story I relate here). I have set foot in literally dozens of different worlds, old and new, and I have shared many of my experiences with you, my faithful blog readers, over the past couple of years.

In those 12+ years of metaverse hopping, I have seen all kinds of interactions between the staff employed by the companies that are building the various social VR/virtual world platforms, and the customers of those platforms, including the content creators. And I have seen many examples of both good and bad communication between employees and users. So I think it’s an opportune time to focus specifically on this topic, especially in light of this week’s events.

It is, of course, entirely up to the company to decide if, when and how it communicates with its customers. Some have taken a highly informal approach, where you can simply grab the person you know is in charge and bend their ear. This works very well for platforms with one-or-two-person development teams (like NeosVR and Cryptovoxels), but obviously, it doesn’t work well for larger and more formally structured companies like Linden Lab, VRChat, and High Fidelity.

The current level of access Sansar users and content creators have to Linden Lab staff via the official Sansar Discord is unprecedented, as many people have already noted. Staff up to and including the CEO, Ebbe Altberg, are available to answer questions. Regular in-world meetings are held with the users. While we should take advantage of that openness, we also can’t abuse this privilege.

And frankly, we should not expect that this unprecedented level of openness will stay that way forever. Why not? Because it simply doesn’t scale effectively. In the early days of Second Life I have been told that it was much the same, but over time, as millions of user accounts were created, Linden Lab has had to put various formal systems and structures in place to handle that load, and insert a bit of distance between their staff and their userbase. That’s an inevitable step as a product becomes popular, just to maintain some sanity for people providing product support. It happened with Second Life, and it will happen over time for Sansar as well.

But I do want to compare and contrast two examples of employee-user communication that happened this week. One has to do with the disastrous co-working island cam livestreams by High Fidelity. The other is related to the brouhaha over ample coverage of Sansar avatars, which I wrote about yesterday.

In the case of High Fidelity, I have been sharply critical of how the company has essentially abandoned its original userbase in its recent pivot to focus on enterprise use of their platform to support remote teamwork. It’s not so much what they did that upsets me as much as how they chose to do it. For example, High Fidelity shut down the regularly scheduled community meetings where regular users could pose questions and raise issues.

It is now so hard to actually reach anybody at High Fidelity, and the company is now so thoroughly insulated from its user base, that in desperation I had to resort to using a HiFi staff member’s personal Twitter account to report this week’s problems with the livestreams. (I have now been asked by that person to not use that method to contact her about High Fidelity business in future.)

And recently, I had to openly beg on the official HiFi user forums to find out to whom I should be directing a New Yorker magazine writer:

The current sad state of affairs is best illustrated by something that happened to me last Friday. Early that afternoon, I had been in contact with a magazine writer who was planning to write a story about virtual reality, and who asked me (via my blog) about people she could interview in an upcoming trip to San Francisco. I suggested she pay a visit to both Linden Lab and High Fidelity, and interview Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg and High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale.

I posted a request to the official Sansar Discord, and within ten minutes, a Linden Lab employee was in touch with me and gave me the name of a contact within the company that I could pass on to the writer.

And High Fidelity? After posting requests for assistance on both Discord servers and the official High Fidelity user forums, and waiting all afternoon for someone from the company to get back to me, I finally posted in exasperation:

“Is there NOBODY from High Fidelity monitoring these forums?!?? I got a response back from Linden Lab within half an hour, with the name of a contact person. I’ve been waiting all afternoon and nobody from HiFi has given me the name of a contact person that this writer could set up a meeting with.
Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!?? This is potential marketing for your platform.”

Eventually, one person (someone not associated with the company) suggested I message Jazmin Cano, High Fidelity’s User Engagement Manager, on Twitter, which I finally did late Friday evening. Jazmin was able to provide me with information that I could pass on to the writer.

High Fidelity’s community manager, Emily, did finally get back to me on Monday morning—a whole weekend later. It seems pretty clear that HiFi staff are not monitoring the Discord servers or the official community forums on a regular basis. And I don’t blame Emily or any one person for this current state of affairs. This is a sad case where the company has pretty much completely abandoned its original user base, the raving fans who were the platform’s best advertisement.

High Fidelity is a textbook-classic example of how not to communicate with your customers. The current situation is now so bad that its own users have rebelled and formed their own discussion forums and their own Discord server, in opposition to the company’s own official forums and Discord. To have generated such a level of distrust is truly amazing. You have to really work at it to screw things up that much!

Now let us contrast this with Linden Lab. Yes, yes, I know, I know…Linden Lab has often made some stupid mistakes in communication throughout its long history. You can find numerous examples in this blogpost of the Top 20 Controversies in Second Life.

A more recent example was the whole handling of what I now call “the Tilia thing” in Second Life, which eventually led to such an uproar that they held an in-world town hall meeting just to address all the questions and misconceptions that people had. Unfortunately, these types of mistakes have led to a sort of ingrained mindset among many longtime Second Life users that automatically assumes ill will or malicious intent on the part of Linden Lab, which is really rather unfair to the company and its employees.

However, Linden Lab, particularly under the capable leadership of its CEO Ebbe Altberg, has shown a remarkable willingness to make themselves available, to discuss issues of contention with its users, and to incorporate changes to their policies based the feedback they receive. A good recent example of this was the decision not to cut the number of groups that basic, non-Premium Second Life accounts could belong to (please see the update at the end of that blogpost for the company’s official statement).

And every day, I marvel as just how accessible, engaged, and helpful so many Linden Lab staff have been on the official Sansar Discord. A perfect example of that was the lively discussion that took place after yesterday’s blogpost, which, I will openly admit, was biased more towards the content creators than the company. Galileo, Harley, and various other Linden Lab employees took the time to educate this blogger about some of the bigger issues that weren’t so immediately obvious, and they also provided some valuable context as to why (for example) Sansar simply can’t have Ken and Barbie-like naked avatars, and why “ample coverage” is so important.

But the point that I am making in this very long-winded editorial (and yes, there is one!) is that companies like Linden Lab, which engage with their customers, listen to their concerns, and address their questions, are much healthier than companies like High Fidelity that passively (or even actively) discourage such communication.

Does that mean that everybody is happy with everything that Linden Lab is doing? No, of course not. Some end users and content creators are still very upset. Some have voted with their feet. But at least, we can talk about that corporate response in a way where we feel we are being heard. And that goes a long. long way towards happier customers overall.

I have talked about only two companies in this editorial: High Fidelity and Linden Lab. But there are many other examples of good and bad communication between employees and customers throughout the metaverse. We need both to applaud examples of good corporate communication, and to critique examples of poor corporate communication. And I intend to continue to do both on this blog.

Do you have any examples of good (or bad) communication between metaverse company employees and customers that you would like to talk about? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost. Also, there’s the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! I’d like to extend an invitation to have you join us and participate in the many discussions and debates that take place there.

UPDATED: High Fidelity’s Virtual Coworking Island Cam: Really? REALLY?!??

Screen capture from the video linked to below

Look, I am just going to come right out and say this: whoever is doing the marketing for High Fidelity needs to be fired.

Check out this four hour livestream posted to the official High Fidelity YouTube channel, of what they call the Virtual Coworking Island Cam (no, don’t adjust your sound, there is no sound):

A commenter on the RyanSchultz.com Discord, who alerted me to this disaster, said:

No audio and the entire thing’s frame rate is god awful. I showed this to friends and they seriously thought this was Second Life, and to be fair, I can’t blame them.

A commenter on the actual YouTube video said:

What is this? This looks like an Older Version of Second Life? Or maybe a Crappy Sims game. AND WHERE IS THE AUDIO!

I’m watching the video now with my jaw ON. THE. FLOOR. in disbelief that they actually released this video. It’s already had 185 views, too.

About halfway through the video, I noticed that High Fidelity seems to have added AltspaceVR-type emoticons over avatars’ heads, which I don’t remember seeing before. A new feature, perhaps?

Sooo… your product supports VR and you’ve got 3D spatial audio, but you’re relying on 2D emoticons over your head to communicate? You chose to emulate one of the corniest features on AltspaceVR, to appeal to your new target market of business users?!??

I commented on my Discord:

Somebody should save a copy of this for posterity. They can’t have put this up without checking it, surely?!

And they seem to have added AltspaceVR type emoticons over the avatars’ heads, too.

WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

If this is the best way that High Fidelity thinks they can attract business users for their repurposed social VR platform, then I think it’s time to start a HiFi Death Watch.

I give up.

UPDATE Sept. 17th: I’ve had a good night’s sleep and I’ve re-read this, and I’ve checked the video again. It’s still up, and now it has 259 views. Isabelle Cheren made the following comment on the automatic cross-posting of this blogpost to my Twitter:

If it’s virtual co-working does that indicate the conversation may have been confidential with the no sound? Just a thought but yeah why put it up on YouTube LOL. Good Lord.

And, even given this extremely charitable, possible explanation as to why there is no audio, I still find it almost impossible to believe that High Fidelity actually posted this four-hour, silent video to their official YouTube channel.

People have been talking about this at length on the #highfidelity channel on the RyanSchultz.com Discord all evening and into the wee hours of the morning as I write this update. Here’s an anonymized sample of what they are saying:

A: I mean, I threw them a bone in saying that they can focus their efforts on making this all work but like… really? I give them a single ounce of a break and then this happens.

B: No spawned media during the entire stream.

A: Wait… I didn’t even look for that. Yeah, they didn’t spawn any media/web entities? Oh boy…

B: I don’t think they realize that remote work apps coming out have [the] ability to share files and screens easily. Or how important that is.

Yes, I was extremely harsh in my assessment. But I am not alone. Many other people are looking at this gaffe and are saying the same things about High Fidelity that I am. Way, way harsher than I, was one comment posted to my tweet by Will Burns, whom I have blogged about before, who said:

SECOND UPDATE Sept 17th: Well, High Fidelity is livestreaming again today, and once again, there is no audio. It’s just up there on their YouTube channel, without any explanation or context whatsoever:

There is one difference from yesterday’s livestream, however. High Fidelity has turned off the ability to leave comments on this video. In other words, they don’t even want feedback on this.

To have this happen once could be seen as a mistake. To have it happen two days in a row is a deliberate marketing decision. I also noticed that High Fidelity took down yesterday’s four-hour livestream video, for whatever reason (perhaps because of the negative comments).

Finally fed up with this nonsense, I had to resort to contacting Jazmin Cano, High Fidelity’s User Engagement Manager, via Twitter (the only way I have at present to reach out to anybody on the HiFi team):

Hello Jazmin! Sorry to bother you again, but is High Fidelity aware that the daily Virtual Coworking Island Cam livestreams they are posting to their official YouTube channel have no audio at all? Yesterday’s didn’t and neither does today’s.

I’ll keep you posted if/when I get any sort of reply from the company.

THIRD UPDATE, Sept. 17th: Well, Jazmin didn’t bother to respond to me, but at least High Fidelity has now taken down today’s embarrassing video.

Sweet minty Jesus, what a fucking circus.

FOURTH UPDATE, Sept. 18th: Well, I finally got a reply back from Jazmin:

Hey Ryan, I’ve got time to message you back now that I’m off work. Please know that this is a personal account and not an official High Fidelity channel, sorry!

So, I still have no idea whether or not the livestreams were intentional or an accident, or if my message to Jazmin was what finally alerted High Fidelity that their co-working island cam livestreams had no audio. At this point, the only possible way I can actually communicate with High Fidelity staff is to post a message to their official user forums, and hope that somebody from the company (eventually) responds. The last time I did that, I waited over three days for a response. This is no way to run a company!

A quick-thinking viewer did save a copy of the original Sept. 16th livestream for posterity, though, and you can watch it here (remember, there was no audio in the original or in this copy):