The creator of the iconic Second Life social network has now set out to capitalise on the growing popularity of low-cost total immersion headsets and other peripheral hardware in order to enable more lifelike interactions between online avatars.
In 2003, San Francisco-based Linden Lab launched the Second Life platform, which was supposed to be the first step towards a new generation of social networks. One of the basic principles was to give users as much control as possible over how this virtual world would work. Drawing inspiration from the open source movement, the rules were designed to enable users to decide ways of doing things that had not been thought of by the creators. The initial interest in Second Life had started to wane by 2010, but the Linden Lab team continued to work on developing virtual worlds. Now High Fidelity, a new company set up by Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale, is drawing on major advances in both computing power and hardware accessories in order to pursue a broader objective: total immersion in a virtual universe.
High Fidelity remains true to the basic principle of Second Life. Users connect to the platform in the form of a personal avatar whose form and appearance they can choose for themselves. This new ‘metaverse’ is a free area in which all kinds of creations and experiences are possible. As with Second Life, you can use a digital currency – which is convertible into real money – to buy such items as virtual outfits. You can earn currency by offering up your spare computer processing power to other occupants of the High Fidelity metaverse, or by providing services such as programming an original avatar for a participant. The High Fidelity metaverse is designed to be an open network overlaid on to the Internet, where all types of interaction, from basic social networking to games playing, exploration, creation and even payments can take place.
The major novelty introduced by High Fidelity is however to be found in the man-machine interface: the metaverse will enable the use of a range of hardware tools – from Microsoft’s Kinect and the Leap Motion sensor system to relay body movement to 3D cameras to capture facial expression – in order to connect people with their avatars. Smooth management of server access is a key aspect of the enhanced metaverse since this issue was a criticism often levelled at Second Life. High Fidelity will store content in users’ computers in peer-to-peer mode and the number of connected people will relate directly to the amount of available computing power.
Philip Rosedale’s claim is that the new platform will enable users to interact with other avatars in a more realistic way than other networks, whether we are talking about ‘chat’ networks or fully-fledged virtual universes. The primary challenge here relates to the amount of data that must be gathered in order to deliver a sufficiently rich experience. No-one is seriously expecting to be able to transmit smells just yet, but perfect sound-movement synchronisation, eliminating lag and jerkiness, is absolutely key to making interactions really lifelike. Given that computing power is increasing exponentially, Rosedale is optimistic about the level of sophistication that can be achieved for virtual worlds in the near future.
So far High Fidelity has not revealed any plans for monetising the platform. The source code is open, so enthusiasts and developers are free to use it to create their own virtual world. However Rosedale envisages that, further down the road, the company may charge for listing a private universe on the platform. At the present time, High Fidelity is in ‘alpha testing’, i.e. the code is available free of charge on the Github platform. Developers can download the code and undertake necessary debugging. Meanwhile Facebook has demonstrated a serious interest in the field of augmented reality and the headsets that serve as an interface, acquiring Oculus Rift for $2 billion in March. The video games sector is also expecting a flood of total immersion headsets to come on to the market in 2015, with Sony and Samsung leading the pack.