High Fidelity: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

I suspect that some people are going to be very angry at me for writing this blogpost, but I’ve been watching things over at High Fidelity with a growing sense of unease.

Back in April, Philip Rosedale dropped the bombshell announcement that they were shutting down all the publicly hosted spaces, and that High Fidelity was pivoting towards the business market. As part of those changes, the regular user General Assembly would be discontinued and replaced with a monthly developers’ meetup. Here is the livestream of that last General Assembly meeting on April 4th, 2019, if you haven’t already watched it:

And here’s the livestream of the most recent Developers’ Discussion held on June 14th, 2019. Notice anything interesting about the thumbnail High Fidelity chose for this video?

Yeah, your eyes are not fooling you. They reused the image taken from the April meeting. Why, you might ask yourself? Well, here’s an actual screenshot from the second video:

That’s quite a drop in attendance, wouldn’t you say? Yes, this is a different and much more technical audience, but what happened to all the people who were active supporters of High Fidelity and who used to come out to meetings?

Most recently, longtime members of the High Fidelity discussion forums (which have been noticeably quieter lately) got a rather unpleasant surprise: their previous “trusted member” levels had been downgraded to standard membership. Some commented:

Is it just me, or is there a general overall sense of HiFi turning off the lights, shutting down various systems, and in general just downgrading services to their loyal userbase? High Fidelity has also shut down the feature request list as of June 1st, 2019, announcing they would no longer triage feature requests from users. (I would put in a link, but that list is now completely gone.)

On top of that, at the top of the redesigned homepage, there’s a brand new page extolling the virtues of High Fidelity for remote work teams. All very well and good, and looking very professional, but as I have said before, there’s absolutely no guarantee that HiFi will be successful at re-positioning its platform for business users (God knows there are already lots of companies jostling for marketshare in this arena already, many of whom seem to be struggling to attract customers.)

And yes, I have heard of at least one developer (whose work was previously proudly mentioned by Philip Rosedale) who is actively looking for another platform for their HiFi project. I’m not going to say who it is, but I doubt they are the only ones who are looking at alternatives.

Who’s staying with High Fidelity? Who’s leaving? Who isn’t sure what they are going to do next? Feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost, or join the ongoing discussion on the RyanSchultz.com Discord channel, where we discuss events happening on any and all social VR/virtual world platforms.

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Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Social VR Sustainability

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s given me an opportunity to step back, enjoy the all-too-brief Canadian summer, and reflect a little bit. I’m going to start easing back into blogging over the next week. There’s certainly no shortage of things to write about!

Yesterday, Gindipple shared his most recent compilation of Sansar user concurrency statistics, and while they do show a slight increase in the average number of users over time, it’s clear that users have not exactly rushed to embrace Sansar in the way that Linden Lab has been hoping:

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meeting, and she shares the following item from the discussion:

It’s now almost two years since Sansar opened its doors to the public, and general user concurrency is still only in or around the mid-20s level. This has raised questions of Sansar’s sustainability, and whether the Lab have set any goals for the platform that need to be achieved in order for it to be continued, etc.

Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development, responded thus to one of these questions:

I am not going to put any date on the board. I think we’re taking this day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, release-by-release, and we want to see what is happening and what is resonating and what isn’t … I believe steadfastly in the future of virtual worlds, that what we’re doing here is really important … Are we happy with the result? I’m not happy with the result; I would want a million people in here today, and we’re obviously not there.

But in terms of sustainability, I think we know what our limits are, and we are proceeding accordingly. If we have 50 people in here in a year then yeah, I’m going to be really massively disappointed. I think everybody here is working hard to make this an absolutely monumental success … I feel that everyone that’s here is here because they’re digging something about what we’re doing, and I want that to spread like wildfire quite frankly. So we definitely have hopes and ambitions.

But again, I’m not going to put a dot on the board of, “this date and this time, this number of users”. I think we want many more users in, and we want them relatively quickly, and we go from there.

While it is good news that Linden Lab appears to have no internal make-or-break date for Sansar, the fact remains that the company is putting time and money into a platform that, so far, is not attracting a lot of use.

The elephant in the room of social VR, not just for Linden Lab but for all companies in this marketplace, is sustainability. Many companies are pouring resources into various social VR platforms, in hopes that they will be able to relight the same spark that ignited over a decade ago with Second Life. Most projects have not had a great deal of success yet. The few social VR platforms which have attracted some attention to date (VRChat and Rec Room) face a daunting transition to an in-world economy, plus a slew of technical problems trying to shoehorn their experiences into wireless VR headsets like the new Oculus Quest in order to reach the broadest possible potential audience. Add to that rumours that Facebook is reportedly working on a major social VR initiative for all its Oculus VR hardware users, which will likely upend the current marketplace. The road ahead is rocky indeed.

Given the significant compromises that have had to be made to VRChat in order to get it to run at all on the Quest, and the rather disappointing results, it seems Linden Lab’s decision to not support an Oculus Quest version of Sansar is a wise one. Inara reports:

Oculus Quest support:  As has been previously indicated, this is not currently on the cards. The Quest processor and general capabilities are seen as being unable to handle to quality of content LL want to provide without massive amounts of auto-decimation, which can be problematic. However, as the capabilities of emerging VR systems continues to improve and Sansar improves in terms of performance limits, the hope is that the two will converge at some point in the future.

And that convergence may come sooner than you think. It is interesting to note that at least one eager early adopter has reported that he is able to use the PC streaming app ALVR to play Sansar on the Oculus Quest. (“PC streaming” refers to the use of sideloaded Quest apps to enable your desktop computer to stream VR games directly to your Quest. You’ll have to sideload the app onto your Quest, and then install a coordinating PC program before you can start playing. These programs, such as ALVR and VRidge, are new, highly experimental, and currently require a certain level of geek skills to set up and use. But they will no doubt become easier to use over time.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

However, as Landon McDowell says, I’m still a fervent believer in the future of virtual worlds. I still believe it’s a question of when and where, not if, social VR takes off and virtual worlds have a renaissance. High Fidelity’s recent pivot towards business users is just one example of a social VR company adjusting its sails to meet evolving conditions. Expect more such shifts as the market grows and changes.

Stay tuned! As I often say, things are getting interesting!

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!

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!