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!

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Two Virtual Reality Designers Discuss Techniques and Strategies for Implementing Safer Social VR (Including an Example from the Forthcoming Facebook Horizon Platform)

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Back at the start of November, two VR designers, Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, wrote an article for Immerse on aspects of designing safer social VR spaces. That article was recently reprinted on The Next Web news site, titled How to protect users from harassment in social VR spaces, and it’s an excellent read on the subject, which I highly recommend.

In particular, female-identifying users of social VR platforms are often the victims of sexual harassment, research conducted by Jessica Outlaw and others has shown. Michelle Cortese writes:

As female designers working in VR, my co-worker Andrea Zeller and I decided to join forces on our own time and write a comprehensive paper. We wrote about the potential threat of virtual harassment, instructing readers on how to use body sovereignty and consent ideology to design safer virtual spaces from the ground up. The text will soon become a chapter in the upcoming book: Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Visual Arts: London).

After years of flagging potentially-triggering social VR interactions to male co-workers in critiques, it seemed prime time to solidify this design practice into documented research. This article is the product of our journey.

The well-known immersive aspect of virtual reality—the VR hardware and software tricking your brain into believing what it is seeing is “real”—means that when someone threatens or violates your personal space, or your virtual body, it feels real.

This is particularly worrisome as harassment on the internet is a long-running issue; from trolling in chat rooms in the ’90s to cyber-bullying on various social media platforms today. When there’s no accountability on new platforms, abuse has often followed — and the innate physicality of VR gives harassers troubling new ways to attack. The visceral quality of VR abuse can be especially triggering for survivors of violent physical assault.

Cortese and Zeller stress that safety needs to be built into our social VR environments: “Safety and inclusion need to be virtual status quo.”

The article goes into a discussion of proxemics, which I will not attempt to summarize here; I would instead strongly urge you to go to the source and read it all for yourself, as it is very clearly laid out. A lot of research has already been done in this area, which can now be applied as we build new platforms.

And one of those new social VR platforms just happens to be Facebook Horizon, a project on which both Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller have been working!

What I did find interesting in this report was an example the authors provided, of how this user safety research is being put to use in the Facebook Horizon social VR platform, which will be launching in closed beta early this year. Apparently, there will be a button you can press to immediately remove yourself from a situation where you do not feel comfortable:

We designed the upcoming Facebook Horizon with easy-to-access shortcuts for moments when people would need quick-action remediation in tough situations. A one-touch button can quickly remove you from a situation. You simply touch the button and you land in a space where you can take a break and access your controls to adjust your experience.

Once safely away from the harasser, you can optionally choose to mute, block, or report them to the admins while in your “safe space”:

Handy features such as these, plus Facebook’s insistence on linking your personally-identifying account on the Facebook social network to your Facebook Horizon account (thus making it very difficult to be anonymous), will probably go a long way towards making women (and other minorities such as LGBTQ folks) feel safer in Facebook Horizon.

Of course, griefers, harassers and trolls will always try to find ways around the safeguards put in place, such as setting up dummy alternative accounts (Second Life and other virtual worlds have had to deal with such problems for years). We can also expect “swatting”-type attacks, where innocent people are falsely painted as troublemakers using the legitimate reporting tools provided (something we’ve unfortunately already seen happen in a few instances in Sansar).

Some rather bitter lessons on what does and doesn’t work have been learned in the “wild, wild west” of earlier-generation virtual worlds and social VR platforms, such as the never-ending free-for-all of Second Life (and of course, the cheerful anarchy of VRChat, especially in the days before they were forced to implement their nuanced Trust and Safety System due to a tidal wave of harassment, trolling and griefing).

But I am extremely glad to see that Facebook has hired VR designers like Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, and that the company is treating user safety in social VR as a non-negotiable tenet from the earliest design stages of the Horizon project, instead of scrambling to address it as an after-thought as VRChat did. More social VR platforms need to do this.

I’m quite looking forward to seeing how this all plays out in 2020! I and many other observers will be watching Facebook Horizon carefully to see how well all these new security and safety features roll out and are embraced by users.

Editorial: We Are the Problem and We Are the Solution

I remember when I was first invited into the Sansar closed beta in December of 2016. That early community consisted of content creators who had been contacted by Linden Lab and asked if they wanted to take part in the beta test, and many of us eagerly accepted the invitation, even going so far as to recommend other people that LL could contact to add to the community.

It was a heady, exciting time. People were feeling energized and invigorated by the challenges of working on a brand-new, VR-capable platform. We used Slack as our main means of communication, as well as meetups in Sansar, and together we worked to test things to see what would break, and to report bugs and make suggestions for improvement to the team at Linden Lab. Jenn was out first community manager, working double-duty between Second Life and Sansar in those earliest days.

It’s now August 2019, thirty-two months later. Slack was replaced by Discord. Jenn went back to Second Life full-time, and was replaced as Sansar community manager by Eliot, who in turn was replaced by Galileo. Many new features have been added to Sansar in that time.

Many of the people who were heavily invested in the earlier days of Sansar have pulled back, or pulled out of Sansar completely. Each had their own personal reasons for doing so. Some left because they were frustrated at what they saw as slow development of features that they considered fundamental. Some left because they didn’t like the way that Linden Lab was running things with respect to fees and payments. Some left because of harassers, trolls and griefers, either on the Discord or in-world. Some left because they felt they weren’t earning enough money to make their work worthwhile. Others left because they just felt burned out, and they needed a break, and they simply never came back. And all of these are perfectly legitimate reasons. Communities grow and change over time. Some people leave; others join.

But I have noticed a particularly troubling and dispiriting trend in the Sansar Discord channels lately. In the early days, disputes and arguments were relatively few, and (usually) quickly settled. But the number of disputes, attacks, arguments, and just overall ill-will has risen sharply in recent months. People seem to have shorter tempers, and they seem to be much more likely to start attacking each other personally. And I’m as guilty of this as anybody else.

The earliest members of the Sansar community knew that things were not perfect, but almost all of us felt that Linden Lab was working hard and in good faith to fix the bugs and add the features we wanted to see for Sansar to be a success, if not immediately, then in the future. But now, it almost feels like everybody’s patience has been stretched too thin. We (and I do include myself) are quicker to take offense, quicker to lash out, and quicker to assume ill intentions from the actions of other people and from Linden Lab itself.

This is a problem that can’t be resolved just by moderation on the Discord and ejecting troublemakers in-world. Galileo and Lacie and Harley are good moderators and bouncers, but they can’t be around 24/7/365, and they shouldn’t have to be.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

The problem is us. I—we—all of us—need to stop and look in the mirror before pointing fingers at other Sansar users, or at Linden Lab. We all need to address what we do in that infinitesimal gap between the trigger incident that made us upset or angry, and the response we choose to make. The response we CHOOSE to make. Hiding behind a username or an avatar is no excuse.

The solution starts with us. We need to communicate in ways that build people up instead of ripping them down. We need to disagree in ways where we don’t attack other people. We need a return to manners, civility, and etiquette. We need to emulate the behaviour we want to see in newcomers to our community. We need to become better people.

Behavioural scientist and researcher Jessica Outlaw has started a nine-part series on how to build a strong culture in social VR. So far, she has posted the first 3 parts:

Please take the time to read Jessica’s articles, and please reflect on what we can do, individually and collectively, to make the Sansar community the best place it can be. We are the problem, but we are also the solution.

Jessica Outlaw’s Survey on Virtual Harassment: Half of All Women Surveyed Have Experienced At Least One Instance of Sexual Harassment in Social VR

mihai-surdu-415698-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Jessica Outlaw, whose previous research on women and social VR I talked about previously, has published the results of her latest research: a survey of over 600 people of all genders on their experience with harassment in social VR.

She reports:

Harassment is commonplace in VR. In past qualitative research, I studied sexual harassment of women. In my new project, in partnership with Pluto VR, I surveyed 600+ people who regularly use VR (Rift, Vive, PSVR, or Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality). It turns out that all genders are subject to multiple types of harassment in VR:

49% of women reported having experienced at least one instance of sexual harassment

30% of male respondents reported racist or homophobic comments

20% of males have experienced violent comments or threats

The full report can be viewed here. She summarizes her findings as follows:

  • People want to be with their friends in VR
  • 70% of those who have used multiplayer VR agree that it’s better with people they know
  • People use single-player apps to avoid harassment
  • Many avoid social VR spaces entirely

Thanks to Enrico Speranza who told me about this report!