Category Archives: Other Worlds

The Drax Files Radio Hour: giving it the HiFi!

radio-hourOne of the big use-cases is going to be kids maybe doing an extra, like instead of doing their homework in the normal way in the evening, they go on-line where they join a study group where they join a teacher..

So opens segment #75 of the with some thoughts from Philip Rosedale, co-founder of Second Life, and more particularly now the CEO of start-up virtual worlds company, High Fidelity.

At just over 89 minutes in length, this is a special show, exploring High Fidelity from the inside, so to speak, complete with conversations with Mr. Rosedale, Ryan Karpf (HiFi’s co-founder and ex-Linden), Chris Collins and Ozan Serim, while David Rowe (perhaps more familiarly known to SL users as Strachan Ofarrel creator of the Oculus Rift compatible CtrlAltStudio viewer), who has been working with the HiFi team, becoming a guest host for the segment.

Since its founding, High Fidelity has made remarkable strides in developing its next generation, open-source virtual world environment, both technically and financially. Since April 2013, the company has undergone three rounds of funding, attracting around US $16 million, most of which has come from True Ventures, Google Ventures and, most recently, Paul Allan’s Vulcan Capital (which also participated in the October 2014 US $542 million investment round for Magic Leap). In addition, HiFi has attracted a number of high-profile advisers, including VR veteran Tony Parisi and, most recently, professors Ken Perlin and Jeremy Bailenson.

As well as Philip Rosedale, Drax talks with Chris Collins (l), Ryan Kampf and Ozan Serim from high Fidelity

As well as Philip Rosedale, Drax talks with Chris Collins (l), Ryan Karpf and Ozan Serim from high Fidelity

The interviews themselves are quite wide-ranging. With Dave Rowe, (known in HiFi as CtrlAltDavid) the open-source nature of the platform is explored, from the ability to download and run your owner HiFi server (aka “Stack Manager“) and client (aka “Interface“), through to the concept of the worklist, which allows contributors to bid for work on offer and get paid based on results.In Dave’s case, this has led him to working on various aspects of the platform such as integrating Leap Motion capabilities to improving eye tracking within HiFi’s avatars, so they track the movements of other avatars, just as our own eyes track other people’s facial and other movements as they interact with us.

In terms of general looks, the avatars – which have in the past been critiqued for being “cartoony” (despite it is still very early days for HiFi) –  are still very much under development. In particular, Ozan Serim has been working to raise –  and no pun intended here – the overall fidelity of the avatars in terms of looks and capabilities. He’s well-placed to do so, being an ex-Pixar animator.

One of the problems here is that the more real in appearance and capabilities they get, the closer the avatars come to the Uncanny Valley, which has led HiFi and Ozan to look at a number of avatar styles, from those which are very human in appearance through to those that are more “cartoonish” in looks.

A 2014 video showing Ozan’s work in improving the rigging around a more “realistic” HiFi avatar to more actually reflect mouth forms and facial movement when singing. High Fidelity now use Faceshift for real-time facial expression capture, rigging and animation, using either 3D or standard webcams

In discussing the Uncanny Valley, and particularly people’s reactions to avatars that are somewhat less-than-real (and we can include SL avatars in this, given their inability to naturally reflect facial expressions), Ozan raises the interesting question of whether people who critique the look of such avatars actually want to have a “realistic” looking avatar, or whether it is more a case of people wanting an avatar look that is appealing to their aesthetics which they can they identify with.

This is and interesting train of thought, as it is certainly true that – limitations of the avatar skeleton aside – most of us in Second Life are probably more driven to develop our avatars to a point where they have a personal aesthetic appeal, rather than in wanted them to be specifically “more realistic”.

Currently, HiFi is leaning towards a somewhat stylised avatar as seen in Team Fortress 2, which is allowing them to develop a natural-looking avatar look that doesn’t come too close to the Uncanny Valley. They use Adobe Maximo as their avatar creation tool, which Ozan views as a capable workflow package, but which may have some creative limitations. However, as an open-source environment, HiFi does offer the potential for someone to script in “in-world” character modelling tools, or at least to offer upload capabilities for avatar model generated in tools such as Blender. Avatars can also, if wanted, by uploaded as a complete package with all required / defined animations, such as walks, etc, included.

Chris Collins has very much become the voice of High Fidelity on You Tube, producing a wide range of videos demonstrating features of the platform, together with short tutorial pieces. The video above is one of his, demonstrating how to code interactive 3D content, using the Planky game as an example

While Ozan and his team work on avatar animations and rigging using real-time capture, Ryan Karpf reveals that by default, an avatar’s facial expressions are driven via the audio more than by direct capture: the mouth movement, for example, comprises 3 positions based on the audio, while a rising of voice or tone can result in the avatar’s eyebrows rising and falling. Ryan also touches on the Uncanny Valley issue of people’s increasingly discomfiture the closer avatars become to looking “photo-realistic”.

In talking to Chris Collins, an ex-Linden Lab alumni who headed the former SL Enterprise division, who now wears a number of hats at HiFi, Drax discusses how HiFi deals with the ever-changing face of the emerging VR hardware market, where headsets, input, tracking, and so on, is in something of a state of flux. Chris points out that while open-source, HiFi does have a set of strict coding standards and licensing, and offer external libraries to help support third-party SDK integration.

One of the powerful elements of High Fidelity is the ability you to have full agency over your environment, if you so wish; using the Stack Manager, you can create your own server / world / space, and control who might access it.  The scripting tools similarly allow users to download and tweak elements – such as walking animations, a basic avatar appearance, etc., quickly and easily.

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High Fidelity launches US$15,000 STEM VR Challenge

HF-logoFew people involved in VR and augmented reality are unconvinced that these emerging technologies will have a profound effect on education and teaching. As has been seen in both Second Life and Open Simulator, even without immersive VR, virtual environments offer a huge opportunity to education.

Now High Fidelity is joining in, and is doing so in a novel but enticing way: by offering up to three US$5,000 grants to teams or individuals who want to build educational content within High Fidelity.

The new of the opportunity, which the HiFi team is calling the “STEM VR Challenge” (STEM being the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in education), was made via a blog post on the High Fidelity website from Ryan Karpf. In it, Ryan says:

High Fidelity recently had the pleasure of showing off our open source virtual reality platform to educators and technical integrators at the ISTE conference in Philadelphia.

To demonstrate one way educators can use our platform, High Fidelity worked with DynamoidApps to develop an interactive model of an animal cell that can be explored on one’s own or with an entire class. The vast alien looking environment goes beyond just showing the parts of the cell, also showing some of the processes taking place. Travelling around with your classmates and teacher allows for real time question and answers and sharing of ideas.

If you want to visit this animal cell, login and go to cellscience/start, and fly towards any cell you see to begin your journey. Hitch a ride on a motor protein and jump off at one of the huge mitochondria along the way!

The interactive model of an animal cell created by High Fidelity, working with DynamoidApps (image courtesy of High Fidelity)

The model itself, in keeping with High Fidelity’s open-source approach to their platform, is being offered free to any who wishes to modify it, with the companying hoping it will become the first of a catalogue of educational units created within High Fidelity.

To further kick-start things, High Fidelity are inviting educators, be they individuals or groups, to take up the STEM VR Challenge, to submit proposals for educational content in High Fidelity which meets the criteria set-out in the Challenge website, namely that the content is:

  • HMD (e.g. Oculus Rift) featured
  • High school age appropriate
  • STEM focused
  • Social (can be experienced by >3 people together)

Proposals meeting these criteria and abiding by the rules and are eligible to enter the Challenge, should be submitted via e-mail to eduvrgrant-at-highfidelity.com. On offer are up to three grants of US$5,000 apiece to help further develop the selected ideas. In addition, awardees will have direct access to High Fidelity’s technical support, and have their content hosted by High Fidelity. To find out more, follow the links to the High Fidelity blog and the STEM VR website.

Related Links

With thanks to Indigo Mertel for the pointer.

High Fidelity update users with a quarterly report

HF-logoHigh Fidelity have issues a progress report for the second quarter of 2015, which has been circulated to users via e-mail and made available as a blog post.

In the report, they highlight recently achievements / work, including:

  • The fact that they’ve been hiring-in new talent (and are still looking for more). It should be noted that the talent is restricted to employees, either. At the end of May, Professor  Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University  and Professor Ken Perlin both joined High Fidelity’s growing list of high-powered advisors
  • The instructions and video on setting-up the stack manager to run your own High Fidelity server has been updated, with the promise that next up will be an ability to optionally allow you share your server resources with other nearby users who need extra capacity
  • The ability to track and capture head movements and facial expressions with a regular webcam, as an alternative to needing a 3D camera
  • The arrival of the High Fidelity Marketplace, where you can drag and drop content into your server, and also to upload content you want to share with others. This is currently a sharing environment rather than a commerce environment, but the promise is that the commerce aspect will be coming soon
  • Commencing work on implementing distributed physics, building on top of the open source Bullet physics engine, with the aim of having low latency for interactions while maintaining the same state among participants – such as when people in different locations are playing Jenga or billiards together
  • The ability to import web content into High Fidelity – static web pages, videos, interactive web pages, etc., complete with a demonstration video and the promise of figuring out the best ways to allow the different types of shared browsing that people are going to need
  • My personal favourite: zone entities, skyboxes and dynamic lighting with spherical harmonic lighting and optional sync to real-world day/night cycles

Also in the Next Steps aspects of High Fidelity’s development is the intriguing promise of avatars with soft bodies, which are capable of interacting physically, or as Philip Rosedale puts it in the blog post, “imagine sword-fighting, for example”, while being driven by hand controllers such as those coming with the HTC / Valve Vive or for the Oculus Rift. This also links back to the work going on with the physics engine as well, which has, as Mr. Rosedale explains in the blog post, an added level of complexity within High Fidelity due to the distributed nature of the platform, and the need to maintain consistency between players as to what is happening, where things are, who is controlling what, and so on.

For those wishing to keep abreast with the key points of what is going on with High Fidelity, but who do not necessarily have the time to jump into every blog post that comes out, these updates are a useful means of tracking core events within the platform.

High Fidelity moves to “Open Alpha”

HF-logoIn what is not an April Fools joke, the rumours of an announcement having been doing the rounds for the last few days, High Fidelity  announced on April 1st, 2015 that they are throwing wide the gates on an “Open Alpha” phase for their nascent virtual worlds platform.

The announcement came in the form of a blog post from Philip Rosedale, which reads in part:

This is a very early release, and High Fidelity is still very much a work in progress.  The look and visual quality is far from complete, and big things like avatar movement animation and physics are still not in place.  There are lots of bugs to fix, and content formats will continue to change.  But enough systems are now functional to make us feel that High Fidelity is useful for some types of work, experimentation, and exploration. Having run a small and controlled early alpha to iron out the really show-stopping bugs, we’re now eager to engage a larger group and recruit open source contributions from other developers working on building the metaverse.

The post is full of a lot of useful information for those who have been waiting to slip into Hi Fi and find out what it might be about – such as how to obtain the Interface (client) to access worlds within Hi Fi, and how to download the Stack Manager, should you wish to create your own world.  Both the Stack Manager and Interface currently require one of Windows (7 with SP 1 or later), Mac OS X or Linux, although the blog post notes High Fidelity is working on a GearVR / Android version as well.

In mentioning both the Interface and the Stack Manager, it’s worth noting that there are also a number of tutorial videos available which may also be of use, including one covering downloading and installing the Stack Manager and another on running the Interface for the first time (although this doesn’t include downloading and installing it). I’ve added the URLs for the all of the tutorials at the end of this article.

Another aspect of the platform that’s mentioned is that of the Marketplace, which was also recently featured in a High Fidelity video. However, before you get excited about buying / selling goods on Hi Fi, keep in mind the platform doesn’t as yet have any for of currency / token / micro-transaction support. Thus, the marketplace is purely for freely sharing creations with other Hi Fi users – although the company again notes that getting a payment system sorted out is also on their list of priorities.

The most important thing to remember, should you opt to try High Fidelity out for yourself, and haven’t kept up with the news, is that it is very alpha. This means that it is not going to look like Second life in any way shape size or form, and the Alpha is about getting a feel for things, participating in High Fidelity’s development. As such, change is to be expected, as Philip Rosedale warnings in the blog post:

You can expect continuous and substantial changes as we complete new features; we will likely break content as we continue to design and experiment.   The transition from ‘alpha’ to ‘beta’, which we expect will happen over a year or so, will signal greater stability in the content formats.  But as an open source project with contributions from many developers and with a broad set of features working, we think the time is right to open things up completely for early use.

Obviously Hi Fi also doesn’t run the same way as SL or OpenSim, so there will be a lot of nuances you’ll need to get used to. It’s also currently very small – although the High Fidelity home page may help you get started with finding places to visit (see Up and Running on the home page).

There is also a lot of good stuff in the platform as well which may be fun for some people to play with – the physics system works, 3D audio is operational, there is support for some bleeding-edge VR technology (for those who have the necessary toys!), and so on. The blog post includes some animated GIFs of some of the physics capabilities in action. models can also be imported (.FBX format), and JavaScript is the scripting medium.

If you are interested in giving High Fidelity a try, please do make sure you read the blog post in full, as it will help to give you a better feel for what you can expect. You can also catch a series of videos from the High Fidelity team on their You Tube channel.

Related and Useful Links