…I was invited to experience a special world built by someone I know well from the RyanSchultz.com Discord, 1029Chris, who had spent two weeks creating an amazing bird sanctuary with animated ducks, who milled about, and responded eagerly when I selected food items from a nearby picnic table to feed them! It was wonderfully done, and I hope to return soon for another visit.
Chris’s world is called the Udon Bird Sanctuary, if you are searching for it in VRChat. A visit is highly recommended, especially if you are feeling stressed out!
But 1029Chris is active in so many more virtual worlds than VRChat! She has decided to bring her signature duck and opossum avatars into as many virtual worlds and online games as she can. Here are some pictures which Chris kindly shared with me:
But Chris doesn’t just do still pictures! She also does machinima (that is, videos which are recorded in virtual worlds and games):
1029Chris is only one of many people I know who delight in bringing their avatars from one virtual world to another. All of them possess skills I wish I had!
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):
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?).
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.)
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.
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.
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.)