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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MUST WATCH VIDEO: Jesse Damiani Talks with Voices of VR Podcast Host Kent Bye on Tech Tock

Jesse Damiani (LinkedIn, Twitter, Wikipedia) hosts a regular talk show called Tech Tock on the Microsoft-owned social VR platform AltspaceVR, and his guest yesterday was Kent Bye, the host of the Voices of VR podcast. (I have blogged before about Kent Bye here and here.)

I’m really sorry I missed this event (I’ve been busy conducting library training sessions for various classes at work all this week at the university, and I just came home last night exhausted, so I gave this a pass). But thankfully, someone has posted a YouTube recording of Kent’s entire presentation and his conversation with Jesse afterwards.

Kent Bye is an extremely information-dense speaker who hops from topic to topic with alarming ease, so you might want to set aside some time and watch this video is small bites, so you don’t get complete information overload! His twenty-minute overview presentation about virtual reality is an absolute must-watch, and the conversation afterward with Jesse Damiani is also very informative, engaging, and wide-ranging. The last half of this YouTube video is a question-and-answer session with members of the studio audience.

So set aside an hour and 40 minutes, and watch the whole thing. It’s amazing. I think that Kent Bye is one of the most informed and articulate speakers about virtual reality that I have ever encountered! Bravo, Kent. And thank you for bringing him onto the show as a guest, Jesse.

Is the Metaverse Going to Look Like Fortnite? Kent Bye Reports on Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH Talk

Bugha and his trophy at the Fortnite World Cup (image from the Guardian)

My Twitter stream has been throwing up all kinds of blogworthy stories lately! The lastest is a series of tweets from Kent Bye, the host of the long-running Voices of VR podcast, who is attending SIGGRAPH 2019, the big annual computer graphics conference, in Los Angeles.

Kent attended a presentation today by Tim Sweeney, the founder and CEO of Epic Games, the maker of the phenomenally successful battle royale game Fortnite. Launched in 2017, Fortnite now has 250 million registered users worldwide, and made US$2.4 billion dollars in revenue in the last year. (Yes, that’s Billion, with a “B”.)

You may have read in the news that the recently-concluded Fortnite World Cup (the biggest computer game tournament in history) was held in New York City, where the company handed out US$30 million in prize money, including a top prize of US$3 million dollars to 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf (a.k.a. Bugha). In other words, Fortnite is MASSIVE, a cultural phenomenon.

Picture from Kent Bye’s Twitter Feed

The title of Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH talk was “Foundational Principles and Technologies for the Metaverse”, which is perhaps a surprising presentation topic for a game developer. Kent Bye tweeted his notes on Tim’s talk at length:

The future of [a] shared entertainment medium is to have meaningful experiences that people interact with and become a part of the larger world with open world compatibility and open interfaces. The Marshmello concert in Fortnite is one indicator of where it’s going. The metaverse is going to evolve from individual creators creating experiences that interoperate with other experiences.

Need virtual worlds to scale beyond a 200 players on a shard. Need 1 shared world w EVERYONE. Needs a programming environment to scale to unlimited sized. Not single thread C++. Large-scale concurrency w safe transactions that are consistent, durable, isolated.

A viable Metaverse is going to need a successful economy so that creators can make a living, which is absolutely essential. We need a rich set of different economic models. The app store with microtransactions is merely one model. Ad models are dysfunctional.

Kent concluded his series of tweets by saying:

I’m super impressed with Tim Sweeney’s vision of the open metaverse. It’s a breath of fresh air relative to other major players who are trying to own virtual worlds through walled gardens and app store ecosystems. A viable metaverse needs to be open and interoperable.

Wagner James Au, of the long-running blog New World Notes, is less impressed:

Who really needs this? Who actually wants this? I’ve yet to see a succinct, compelling answer to either question beyond the implicit one: Because it’ll be really cool. I’m certainly in that camp, but then again, I’m a gamer/science fiction fan. So yes, I’ve loved the idea of a unified 3D Internet where gaming is significant and meaningful for decades. But I’ve become convinced that metaverse advocates are mistaking their personal preference for a market need — a desire to institutionalize gaming culture as the fundamental, universal culture of the Internet.

In response to skeptical questioning from Wagner on Twitter, Kent Bye responded:

The metaverse was first conceived in science fiction before the modern explosion of 3D gaming and immersive and interactive environments. It was an active feedback loop between game dev architects, but the metaverse today is going to be more of a blend of Fortnite and the open web.

So, what do I think about all this? I must confess that, like Wagner, I am rather skeptical that Fortnite, as it is right now, would form a useful model for the future metaverse. Games are designed to be focused more on linear play-through and set objectives, while virtual worlds are meant to be more open-ended and less goal-oriented in nature (although you can certainly have games within virtual worlds). As well, you can have thriving social communities in MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, so there is a somewhat fuzzy boundary between games and virtual worlds.

I do agree with Tim Sweeney that open standards are critical to create a functioning metaverse, and I also agree with Kent Bye that walled gardens and app store ecosystems are going to hinder, rather than help, usher in a metaverse for everybody.

Tim Sweeney appears to subscribe to the strict definition of the term metaverse espoused by Will Burns: one huge virtual universe instead of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of separate experiences. I’m not 100% convinced that that’s how it is going to play out, either. I think it’s much more likely that we are going to have portals between numerous virtual worlds.

It sounds like it was a very interesting presentation, and I thank Kent Bye for reporting on it!

Kent Bye on the Drax Files Radio Hour

Well, Kent Bye, the man behind the popular Voices of VR podcast, sure gets around! Only two days after his appearance on the Endgame talk show in VRChat, he was Draxtor Despres’ guest for the Drax Files Radio Hour, filmed in Drax’s private radio studio in Sansar:

After the show, Kent Bye told me that he was also going to be doing a Fireside Chat today with Philip Rosedale over at Zaru in High Fidelity! Busy man.