In April 2019 during a High Fidelity General Assembly meeting, Philip Rosedale announced the company would no longer be sitting within the content creation / public space provisioning area, and would instead switch to focus on software / platform development. He followed-up on that announcement a few days later with a blog post outlining the company’s move to try to develop a virtual workstation / environment that would allow people to work collaboratively whilst geographically separate.
Since that time, the company has been working on the virtual workspace idea, apparently developing it to a point where a desktop versions has been undergoing widespread testing involving teams from some 75 organisations.
However, in a December 11th blog post, Updates and a New Beginning, Rosedale announced that while the company plans to continue use the technology they’ve developed, and hopefully carry it forward into the future, they do not plan to commercialise it at present, and are again pivoting to a new project.
Simply put, having taken a close look, while we can see that remote work is going to continue on its growth trajectory and we do have customers using it—the opportunity is not big enough today to warrant additional development.
The work we’ve done over the past six months has been valuable in helping us understand how to make a 3D VR environment usable, stable, and accessible to first-time, non-gaming audiences, and that is intellectual property we will take forward into future work.
The pivot means that the company is shedding a further 50% of its staff (approx 40 people, given 20 people, or 25% of staff were let go in May 2019). Further, and as from January 15th, 2020, High Fidelity will be shuttering public access to its code repositories on Github (although users are welcome to fork them, if they wish), and will also be withdrawing all their apps from the Steam and Oculus stores and from the Apple App Store and Google Play.
For now, Rosedale is not revealing what the new project is, but given the shuttering of the current platform code repositories and a comment in the December 11th blog post, it might be related to a more virtual world style of platform / application.
Giving up on the current generation of HMDs doesn’t mean we’re giving up on Virtual Worlds. A team is already working on a new internal project, and although we aren’t going to talk about it now, we will have more to share about what we are doing when we are ready.
A FAQ has been produced to accompany the blog post, answering core questions existing user might have about platform accessibility, account registrations, blockchain use, buying / selling HFCs, etc. And those who have a High Fidelity account should refer to that document.
The announcement comes on the heels of a blog post from Rosedale published on December 9th, 2019, in which he continues to ruminate on the hard realities surrounding the state of VR at this point in time.
In Requiem for the HMD, he admits something that many of us have always felt: the the current generation of HMDs can at best only enjoy a modest success, and the technology as a whole still has a long way to go before it is liable to reach a “mainstream” place in the consumer market. In particular, he notes four things he believes the technology requires in order to reach this point: comfort of wearing, the inclusion of see-through displays and at desktop screen resolutions, and the ability of people to be able to type tat normal speeds in VR. To these I’d actually add more fundamental requirements such as cost per unit, overall ergonomics and compelling use cases – but these are topics for another blog post.
In the meantime, Updates and a New Beginning makes for interesting reading, as it offers a further honest evaluation of VR as it is today from someone who has been one of its strongest evangelists. For those who are having to depart High Fidelity as a result of the company’s further shift in direction, the hope is that they are able to transition smoothly into other work opportunities.
For those users who would like to keep the spirit of High Fidelity’s VR platform alive, as noted, they have until January 15th, 2020 to fork the code into their own repositories. There also the likes of Tivoli Cloud in development by former High Fidelity alumni Caitlyn Meeks and Maki Deprez that may blossom into new homes for HiFi users.
In April 2019, as I reported in High Fidelity changes direction: the reality of VR worlds today (& tomorrow?, Philip Rosedale announced that High Fidelity would no longer be sitting within the content creation / public space provisioning area, and would instead switch to focus on software / platform development. This announcement has now been followed with a blog post by Rosedale that expands on the company’s immediate plans for the future.
In the May 7th, 2019 post Rosedale indicated that the company is shifting its emphasis even further and will be downsizing its workforce by 25% (some 20 people) in the process. The blog post is brutally honest – kudos to him for being so open – and its commentary gave me pause to mull a few things over before offering any lay thoughts of my own.
In stating the reason for the change, Rosedale points to the lack of take-up of VR headsets:
If you had asked me when we started the company in 2014, I’d have said that by now there would be several million people using HMDs daily, and we’d be competing with both big and small companies to provide the best platform—but I was wrong. Daily headset use is only in the tens of thousands, almost all for entertainment and media consumption, with very little in the way of general communication, work, or education.
On the one hand, for those of us who never brought into the whole “VR will be a US $70 billion a year business by 2020” simply on the basis of the “gee whiz” factor ascribed to it, nod knowledgeably and mutter, “told you so”. But this would rather miss a good portion of the point. As I’ve also pointed out in these pages, VR could in time come to have an impact on our lives in a variety of ways, and there are markets available today that could be – dare I say – revolutionised by its presence.
The problem is, no-one has yet found a way to substantially break into those markets for a variety of reasons. Take education, for example (a big focus for High Fidelity in the past): yes, VR could revolutionise teaching in many areas, but until the cost of headsets has come down substantially to the point where schools can afford to equip a class of 25-30, until questions of controlled access and the provisioning of virtual environments for schools and colleges to access (or build for themselves), the widespread integration of VR teaching remains a horizon vision.
However, when it comes to the broader metaverse in particular – the starting point of Rosedale’s blog post – VR is really just one component. As he notes, since its inception, High Fidelity has worked hard on many of the foundational requirements for a broader framework in which to set “the metaverse”.
We’ve been working as a company for six years now writing open-source software and creating test events and experiences to enable this imagined place to come into existence. We’ve created a 3D audio engine that can handle large crowds, an open-source graphics engine with live editing, scalable servers, a blockchain-powered currency and marketplace, and more.
Could it be that, moving the focus of VR headsets off to the side until they do gain real, broad-based market traction, some of this additional technology, combined with what had already been achieved through non-VR centric 3D spaces, demonstrate real world uses cases business (and others) might want to adopt? And in doing so, might this further lay practical foundations for wider acceptance of the concepts inherent in a “metaverse” type of setting, one that could in time also more naturally offer VR HMD support if / when the latter does start to become more a part of working environments?
That’s what High Fidelity is now setting out to explore, by delving into the idea of a virtual workspace solution.
For two weeks, we sent everyone home, with their computers, and created a private tropical island where we could work together all day, mostly wearing headphones but not HMDs—we didn’t prescribe the medium of use.
Within the first couple of days it was obvious we were onto something. The 3D audio was always on, perfectly realistic and comfortable. We found ourselves walking around and interacting with each other the same way you would in a physical office. We put up whiteboards and spaces for teams … What if the general trend toward remote and distributed work … could be accelerated even faster by virtual worlds?
Again, for those of us who have been around long enough, this approach might ring a bell. Back in 2008-2010, another company Rosedale founded (but had since departed in an active capacity) tried a similar idea through a product called Second Life Enterprise (SLE), designed to provide companies with a “behind their firewall” implementation of a Second Life based virtual environment for collaborative working.
That idea ultimately failed – although it’s fair to say the reasons for that product’s failure were potentially more rooted in how it was implemented and the walls Linden Lab placed around it to (presumably) protect their IP than in any disinterest in the concept of virtual work spaces or sleazy associations appended to SL itself. And times have moved on a good deal since then; if nothing else eight years on, people are now more au fait with things like virtual spaces, avatars and the like to potentially be more open to virtual working environments.
So time will tell if this new approach works for High Fidelity – again, Rosedale admits there is no certainty in the move. But after six years – most recently with a lot of effort poured into high-profile events – High Fidelity is still struggling to grow an audience, and it really wasn’t clear if anything would substantively change in the next six years if they kept on that road. As such, this a brave move for a start-up to take, and a dose of realism when it comes to the state of play with the VR market. And in the meantime, as the blog post also makes clear, High Fidelity will continue to support its open source VR platform.
Which leads to a final question. Is this a sign that more VR-centric virtual spaces could face some hard decisions? Quite possibly. High Fidelity actually isn’t the first to hit the wall of slow VR take-up. In 2017, Altspace VR announced its imminent closure, but was ultimately saved when Microsoft stepped in.
But again, caution should be exercised if tempted to see this as a sign of the future for something like Sansar. If nothing else, the latter doesn’t have the weight of US $73 million investment sitting on its shoulders, quietly demanding the way be shown towards some kind of future return. Plus, Linden Lab have a viable source of income through Second Life, a platform they are committed to continue to develop and (hopefully) grow. If nothing else, this allows them the potential to throttle / steer the development and growth of Sansar to meet the realities of their potential marketplace without the worry of external pressures.
In the meantime, to High Fidelity, one can only say “good luck” with the new endeavour, and it will hopefully be interesting to see where it leads.
On Friday, April 5th, Philip Rosedale stunned attendees at High Fildelity’s weekly General Assembly meeting (see the video here and embedded at the end of the article), when he announced that the company would no longer be sitting within the content creation / public space provisioning area with its platform, and that forthwith all public spaces hosted by the company, together with the large-scale events they have been hosting would cease as the company switches tracks to focus sole on software / platform development.
The news was greeted with a sense of shock by High Fidelity users, and the company certainly moved very quickly to follow through on the announcement, shutting down all of the public spaces it has hosted, included social spaces and their flagship Avatar Island, which opened just over a year ago as a means of showcase virtual commerce, shopping and the power of the platform’s micro payments capabilities (see Commerce in High Fidelity, this blog, February 2018).
One of the driving forces behind the decision is that High Fidelity is currently unable to gain major traction – and this despite major pushes to do so with some large-scale events pushed out to the media for promotion, and the former monthly stress tests of the system, trying to push concurrency rates up to determine just how well High Fidelity domains can handle multiple hundreds of avatars. Which is not to say all events are coming to an end: the platform’s popular bingo sessions are set to continue and – taking a leaf from Sansar’s book – High Fidelity is promoting coverage of the first operational launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with an in-world event on Thursday, April 11th.
However, moving away from large-scale event hosting and hosting domains and environments to try to encourage user growth and instead turning to users and (I assume) suitable partners for audience-generating content, means the company will no longer be pulling against itself trying to both develop the software and platform and provide engaging content and events intended to acquire an audience and encourage their retention.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty much what Linden Lab have, for the most part, been trying to do with Sansar. While the company have provided various social spaces, for the most part they have left content development to users, or have facilitated content creation on behalf of partner organisations (Intel, HTC, the Smithsonian, OpTic Gaming, Roddenberry Entertainment to name a handful) through Sansar Studios – and it has recently been indicated that we’ll be seeing more of this in the future.
One potential benefit of the move for High Fidelity domain creators is the move will hopefully spur more interest in their environments, as Rosedale noted:
By shutting down our public servers, I actually make the prediction that there will be… more people concurrent across the servers that you guys run than us. So I’m not saying that we’re giving up on the servers, I’m saying that I want you to run them.
– Philip Rosedale, April 5th, 2019
Another aspect of the decision is the slow growth of VR in the broader public marketplace. In this, High Fidelity is possibly more vulnerable than other platforms, in that while it has a Desktop option, it has largely marketed itself as “the” VR virtual spaces company. All of their major event activities; for example, the monthly One Billion in VR events, the FutVRe Lands festival, etc. (bold emphasis my own), have all been VR-centric in their titles, potentially spurring a feeling among a broader audience that High Fidelity isn’t for them due to the lack of any personal HMD.
Which is not so say others platform built to try to ride the wave of VR don’t also face issues building an audience. For example, much is made of the “success” of VRChat (which can be played both in VR and via desktop), yet the fact is, its average and peak hourly concurrency is only roughly one tenth that of Second Life. But, having said that, the take up is likely to come in time. In fact, as I’ve noted in other articles on VR, right now there are clear niche markets / environments where VR can have a significant impact – if someone can leverage them correctly: education; training / simulation; architecture / design / prototyping; healthcare; visualisation and computer modelling, etc. And in the future, as VR / AR (or more particularly MR / XR) do start to gain a broader consumer audience traction, then opportunities for broader virtual environments will arise.
There is perhaps a broader take-way from the High Fidelity announcement: and that is, companies like High Fidelity, Linden Lab, Altspace VR, etc, are likely to face something of an uphill battle to gain an audience for their emerging platforms, even when VR does gain a firmer consumer foothold.
This is not Second Life in 2004. Second Life actually took off like a rocket, once it got working. Even though it had tons and tons of problems… but it took off like an absolute rocket. And the reason that it did, I think, was that this experience of bringing a lot of people together and letting them build things together live, well, in the time frame when we built Second Life, it had never, ever been seen by anyone …
The problem we have today is that that’s just not true. The internet affords us many, many, many, many different ways to be together as people, for example, or just to chat. And so one of the things we are up against here is that there is not as much of a genesis moment … Coming on-line you just don’t have the kind of meme in the sense of a grand or cultural meme kind of written out there like Second Life did. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to make it. It simply means that we have to be more clever and the strategy that we use to get people in here has to be somewhat different.
– Philip Rosedale, April 5th, 2019
In other words, Second Life has been successful because, at the time of its birth and in the years of its initial growth, it was largely unique on all fronts in the way it captured people’s imaginations*, and its broadness of scope and its ability to embrace people’s imaginations and desires meant it could gather an audience to its shores long before anything came along to seriously challenge it.
This is no longer the case. Today, the digital realms we have at our fingertips are limitless, be they for gaming, socialising, sharing, entire virtual environments, and so on. Whatever we might be seeking, the chances are there is already something there to sate appetites. Even creators can build and mod for a range of games and environments and – through the likes of Unity and Unreal and so on – build environments, all without necessarily getting too hung up on arcane tools built-in to platforms.
Thus, and even if / when VR does become far more consumer mainstream, any attempt to build a world-girdling, audience-rich metaverse is going to face something of a challenge without a significant fiscal weight behind it. Not just in terms of developing the technology, but also into the marketing and PR and – most importantly – the licensing of content. To put this last point another way: were OASIS real, would all the models, characters, and so on from major franchises / brands seen within it really be user-built, or would they more likely be the result of hefty licensing deals that brings the content to the platform whilst protecting the rights (and royalties) of the licensors?
But this is looking further down the road. Right now, High Fidelity’s decision is worth marking; how much of a wider impact it has is a matter yet to be seen.
* Revised, from the original after Will Burns correctly reminded me Active Worlds predated SL.
On Tuesday, January 8th, 2019, High Fidelity announced the start of a pilot programme that will allow High Fidelity users to trade between High Fidelity Coin s(HFC) and Ehterium Either (ETH).
Etherium is an open-source, public, blockchain based distributed computing platform / operating system featuring smart contract (scripting) functionality. It incorporates a cryptocurrency – the Ether.
The latter functions in a similar manner to the Bitcoin, and its use has been boosted over the last two years by the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), an non-profit organisation of over 150 members, including national and global banks, technology companies such as Cisco and Microsoft, investment houses and research organisations, with the aim of driving the use of Ethereum blockchain technology as an open-standard across multiple market sectors.
Initially, High Fidelity will be allowing users to purchase HFC using ETH. However, over time, all High Fidelity users will be able to buy and sell their HFC for ETH, although an ETH wallet will be required.
Trades of HFC will be handled in fixed amounts of $25 or $50 (HFC 2,500 or 5,000), and will be handled via an in-world banker, through a process similar to that currently used to convert HFCs to USD. As the programme with ETH develops, High Fidelity plan to start offering an automated means of selling HFCs for ETH, and may eventually see the ability to sell HFCs directly for USD values discontinued.
An important point to note with trades is that HFC is a stablecoin pegged to the US dollar (100 HFC = US $1.00), while Ethereum varies against the Dollar. Thus, the exchange rate between HFC and ETH will fluctuate.
This is a further interesting move by High Fidelity, which High Fidelity see as being key to the future of buying / selling HFC:
Over time, we see this being our primary method for purchasing and selling HFC. It’s convenient, global, well-governed and broadly adopted. In future, we may enable trades to other cryptocurrencies or tokens, either directly or through third-party exchanges. We also hope that HFC will be used by other VR platforms or applications, making the transfer to Ethereum even more useful.
On Thursday, October 25th, 2018, High Fidelity announced FutVRe Lands, a one-day VR celebration featuring a host of activities and events to take place on VR Day, Saturday, November 17th, 2018.
Virtual Reality Day is a series of VR/AR events organized worldwide to help virtual and augmented reality become more mainstream. Any individual, company or organization can host a free public VR/AR event and become part of the Virtual Reality Day phenomenon. This is a completely voluntary and grassroots effort. It’s about bringing the energy and interests of the greater community together, and focusing that energy for the benefit of everyone on one special day.
– From the VR Day website
Billed as “a celebration of the communities developing in social VR. It’s an all-day binge of ground-breaking experiences”, the High Fidelity FutVRE Lands event will run from 12:00 noon through to 17:00 PST, and will include live music, performances. art, speakers, games and contests, ways to earn High Fidelity Coins (HFCs) and opportunities to win VR headsets.
Attendance is open to anyone with a home computer (via High Fidelity’s Desktop mode), VR headset or who uses Google Daydream. Attendance is free, but space is limited, so people are advised to reserve tickets sooner rather than later. Those in the San Francisco area can additionally register to attend the event in person.
Best Avatar Contest: show-off your best avatar creation and win US $1,000 (100,000 HFC), with two runners-up each receiving US $500 (50,000 HFC). Enter Here.
Favourite Domain Contest: do you know an amazing domain? Nominate it for the Favourite Domain Contest! The festival attendees will have an opportunity to visit it and vote for their favourite. The domain with the most votes will win US $700 (70,000HFC) Nominate Here.
High Fidelity’s next concurrency load test is due to take place on Saturday, October 6th, 2018. These monthly events are designed to drive avatar load testing within in a single continuous space within High Fidelity, providing the platform with a rigorous test as avatars meet, mingle, play games and generally have fun. The load tests are also a small part of High Fidelity’s The Road to One Billion in VR programme – seeing 1 billion people in VR environments (not just HiFi).
As I’ve previously reported, the events offer participants rewards in the form of High Fidelity Coins (HFCs) or a gift card or an Amazon credit – or, as with the September test, even have their rewards donated to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a fiat money contribution.
Rewards are offered on a sliding scale, based on the number of participants, with the minimum value being equivalent to US $10. However, with the Saturday October 6th, 2018 load test, High Fidelity are offering some 15 volunteers to earn up to 30,000 HFCs (equivalent to Us $30) if they are willing to offer a maximum of 2 hours of their time in helping manage the event, by ensuring people participating are properly checked-in, and the company explains:
High Fidelity needs help checking-in all the people who signed up for the Road to a Billion event on Oct 6th.
Your job will be to roam the crowd and ask people if they signed up for the event and if so, check to see that they have automatically been checked in.
If they have not been checked in, your job will be to give them instructions on how to retrieve their Eventbrite ticket number so that you can manually check them in. We will provide you with the app to do all of this. Also, you will be given an avatar or shirt that will designate you as an official helper so that you are easy to spot and easy for us to tell people to find you.
This job pays 1500HFC an hour, and we need you to work for two hours. We advise you use Desktop mode to make this job easier.
Applicants need a good network connection, confidence using the High Fidelity client and a great attitude as you will be meeting lots of people!
If you’re an experience High Fidelity user, you can volunteer to help with checking-in participants by completing this volunteer form.
In the load tests thus far, High Fidelity have gone from 197 to 356 avatars all active within a single space, and the company is hoping to have more than 500 on-board on the October 6th, 2018. To encourage this, the event will include new games, plus a Best Avatar contest with a 30,000 HFC first prize.
Those wishing to join the fun can register via Eventbrite (separate registering to the check-in volunteers noted above), with the event officially kicking-off at 11:00 PDT (although people generally turn up earlier than that).
To find out more about these tests, read High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale’s blog post on them.