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The Bird Is the Word!

Believe it or not, there’s some great engineering and sportsmanship behind this:

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We’re trying to create low-latency, high-fidelity, large-scale multi-user experiences with high-frequency sensors and displays. It’s at the edge of what’s possible. The high-end Head Mounted Displays that are coming out are pretty good, but even they have been dicey so far. The hand controllers have truly sucked, and we’ve been basing everything on the faith that they will get better. But even our optimism had waned on the optical recognition of the LeapMotion hand sensor. We made it work as well as we could, and then left it to bit-rot.

But yesterday LeapMotion came out with a new version of their API library, compatible with the existing hardware. Brad is the engineer shown above, and no one knows more than him how hard it is to make this stuff work. He was so sure that the new software would not “just work”, that he offered a bottle of Macallen 18 year old scotch to anyone who could do so. Like the hardworking bee that doesn’t know it can’t possibly fly, our community leader, Chris, is not an engineer and and just hooked it up.


In just minutes he made this video to show Brad, who works from a different office.

True to his word, Brad immediately went online and ordered the scotch, to be sent to Chris. Brad then dug out his old Leap hardware from the drawer next to his CueCat and made the more articulate version above.

We sent it to few folks, including Stanford’s VR lab, which promptly tweeted it, with the caption, “One small step for Mankind? Today we saw 1st networked avatar with fingers”.

So now we have avatars with full body IK driven by 18-degree of freedom sensors, plus optical tracking of each finger, facial features and eye gaze, all networked in real time to scores of simultaneous users, with physics.  In truth, we still have a lot of work to do before anyone can just plug this stuff in and have it work, but it’s pretty clear now that this is going to happen!

One more dig: Apple has long said that they can only make things work at the leading edge by making the hardware and software together, non-interoperable to anyone else. Oculus has said that networked physics is too hard, and open platforms are too hard. Apple and Oculus make really great stuff that we love. We make only open source software, and we work with all the hardware, on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

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Where do we fit?


There are many ways by which to categorize work in Virtual Reality: by feature set, market, etc. Here are some of the dimensions by which I view the fun in VR, and where High Fidelity fits in.  To a first-order approximation, these axes are independent of each other. It gets more interesting to see how they are related, but, first the basics.

Scope of Worlds: How do you count VRs?

As I look at existing and developing products for virtual worlds, I see different kinds of cyberspaces. They can be designed around one conceptual place with consistent behavior, as exemplified by social environments like Second Life or large-scale MMORGs like World of Warcraft. Or they can replicate a single small identical meeting space or game environment, or some finite set of company-defined spaces. Like my previous work with Croquet, High Fidelity is a “metaverse” — a network in which anyone can put up a server and define their own space with their own behavior, much like a Web site. People can go from one space to another (like links on the Web), taking their identity with them. Each domain can handle miles of virtual territory and be servered from one or more computers depending on load. Domains could be “side by side” to form larger contiguous spaces, although no one has done so yet.

Scope of Market: How do you sell VRs?

Many see early consumer VR as a sustaining technology for games, with the usual game categories of FPS, platformers, builders, etc. The general idea is that gaming is a large market that companies know how to reach. Successfull games create a feeling of immersion for their devotees, and VR will deepen that experience.

An emerging area is in providing experiences, such as a concert, trip, or you-are-there story.

Others see immersion and direct-manipulation UI as providing unique opportunities for teaching, learning, and training, or for meetings and events. (The latter might for playing or for working.)

Some make tools and platforms with which developers can create such products.

High Fidelity makes an open source platform, and will host services for goods, discovery, and identity.

Scope of Technology: How do you make and populate VRs?


By now it looks like most development environments provide game-like 3D graphics, some form of scripting (writing behavior as programs), and built-in physics (objects fall and bounce and block other objects). Some (including High Fidelity and even some self-contained packaged games) let users add and edit objects and behaviors while within the world itself. Often these can then be saved and shared with other users.

A major technical differentiator is whether or not the environments are for one person or many, and how they can interact. For example, some allow small numbers of people on the Internet to see each other in the same “space” and talk by voice, but without physical interaction between their avatars. Others allow one user to, e.g., throw an object to a single other user, but only on a local network in the same physical building. High Fidelity already allows scores of users to interact over the Internet, with voice and physics.


Even Low-end Head Mounted Displays can tell which way your head is turned, and the apps rotate your point of view to match. Often these use your existing phone, and the incremental cost beyond that is below $100. However, they don’t update fast enough to keep the image aligned with your head as it moves, resulting in nausea for most folks. The screen is divided in two for separate viewpoints on each eye, giving a 3-dimensional result, but at only half the resolution of your phone. High-end HMDs have more resolution, a refresh rate of at least 75Hz, and optical tracking of your head position (in addition to rotation), as you move around a small physical space. Currently, high-end HMDs connect to a computer with clunky wires (because wireless isn’t fast enough), and are expected to cost several hundred dollars. High fidelity works with conventional 2D computer displays, 3D computer displays, and head-mounted displays, but we’re really focusing the experience on high end HMDs. We’re open source, and work with the major HMD protocols.

A mouse provides just 2 degrees of free motion: x and y, plus the buttons on the mouse and computer. Game controllers usually have two x-y controllers and several buttons. The state of the art for VR is high frequency sensors that track either hand controllers in 3-position + 3-rotation Degrees Of Freedom (for each hand), or each individual finger. Currently, the finger sensors are not very precise. High Fidelity works with all of these, but see the next section.


One way to populate a VR scene is to construct 3D models and animated characters using the modeling tools that have been developed for Computer Aided Design and Computer Generated movies. This provides a lot of control, but requires specialized skills and talent.

There is now pretty good camera/software apps for capturing real scenes in 3D and bringing them into VR as set-dressing. Some use multiple cameras to capture all directions at once in a moving scene, to produce what is called “cinematic VR” experiences. Others sweep a single camera around a still scene and stitch together the result as a 3D model. There are related tools being developed for capturing people.

Scope of Object Scale: What do you do in VRs?

The controllers used by most games work best for coarse motion control of an avatar — you can move through a building, between platforms, or guide a vehicle. It is very difficult to manipulate small objects. Outside of games, this building-scale scope is well-suited to see-but-don’t-touch virtual museums.

In the early virtual world Second Life, users can and do construct elaborate buildings, vehicles, furniture, tools, and other artifacts, but it is very difficult to do so with a mouse and keyboard. At High Fidelity, we find that by using two 6-DoF high-resolution/high-frequency hand controllers, manipulating more human-scaled objects becomes a delight. Oculus‘ “toy box” demonstration and HTC’s upcoming Modbox show the kinds of things that can be done.

Interdimensional conflicts:

These different axes play against each other in some subtle ways. For example:

  • Low-end HMD would seem to be an obvious extension of the game market, but the resolution and stereo make some game graphics techniques worse in VR than on desktop or consoles. The typical game emphasis on avatar movement may accentuate nausea.
  • High-end hand controllers make the physics of small objects a delightful first-person experience, but it’s profoundly better still when you can play Jenga with someone else on the Internet, which depends on software design limitations. (See October ’15 video at 47 seconds.)
  • Game controllers provide only enough input to show avatar motion using artist-produced animations. But 18-DoF (in two-hand-controllers plus high-end HMD) provide enough info to compute realistic skeletal motions of the whole body, even producing enough info to infer the motion of the hips and knees that do not have sensors on them. (See October ’15 video at 35 seconds.) This is called whole-body-Inverse-Kinematics. High Fidelity can smoothly combine artist-animation (for walking with a hand-controller joystick), with whole-body-IK (for waving with your hand controller while you are walking).
  • These new capabilities allow for things that people just couldn’t do at all before, as well as simplifying things that they could not do easily. This opens up unchartered territory and untested markets.

Notice that all the mentioned interactions depend on The Scope of Object Scale (above), which isn’t often discussed in the media. It will be interesting to see how the different dimensions of VR play against each other to produce a consistent experience that really works for people.


A word about Augmented Reality: I think augmented reality — in which some form of VR is layered over our real physical experience — will be much bigger than VR itself. However, I feel that there’s so much still to be worked out for VR along the above dimensions and more, that it becomes difficult to make testable statements about AR. Stay tuned…

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The Big Show

We do a lot of live demos. Our VR software is in alpha and we sometimes run into bugs, but we pride ourselves on showing the true state of things instead of slides and videos. It’s often a build with radical changes created just a few moments before. And yet the most common trouble is the unpredictable network connectivity one finds at demo venues. Our folks have done quite a few tethered to a cell phone.

But this demo from Sony is in a whole other class. Ouch. I’m sure we’ll all have great hand controllers within a year or so, but right now, hand controller hardware really sucks.

By the way, I think their IK looks great, and I especially like the jump. But notice that the avatars are stuck on a pedestal instead of moving around. I haven’t seen anyone combine IK with artist-designed animations the way we have.

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Big milestone in our VR today: bow and arrow are cool, and the reasons why are cooler

coming at youWe had our weekly company meeting in HighFidelity today, just like we always do. For a while now, we’ve all been using Oculus VR headsets and trackers for our hands, and we now have avatars that look like like us. We have good multi-user physics and whole-body tracking-animation for our avatars.

Today one of the guys showed off his recurve bow. As long as you hold it, it re-arms with arrows. Pull the string back with your physical hands, aim and let go, and the arrow flies. It’s basic fun with weaponry. People took turns playing with it.

But quickly people started saying, “Oh, shoot me between the eyes!” (including our CEO). It’s pretty cool to see the arrow coming right for you. Can’t do that IRL! (In Real Life.)

But I never said this. Instead, I stood among the circle of avatars in front of the shooter, and kind of stared him down. Without thinking, I conveyed, “Come at me, bro”, but with nothing so obvious as arms wide or a Neo-like “come on” finger-wave. My avatar could do that with just a stretch of my physical arm or squeeze of my hand, but I didn’t gesture or say a word. Our team is pretty competitive, but we’re not the kind of folks who would shoot the person in front of us without being invited. We need to be invited. But multiple shooters did shoot me. Non-verbal communication works!

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Avatar Results

Some terrific initial results of our Avatar IK. This is not from post-processing of someone wearing a motion-capture suit with a bunch of ping-pong balls stuck to it.  All the movement is instead driven by a (developer’s edition of a soon-to-be-retailed) gaming VR headset (capturing head position and orientation in 3D), and two (somewhat dodgy) gaming hand-controllers (capturing each hand’s position and orientation, plus a trigger). As described here, we interpret these 3 measurements to trigger an appropriate underlying base animation, which then provides more measurements to drive a realtime inverse-kinematics skeleton.

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Hackers and Painters

I went to http://www.paintingvirtualreality.com last weekend.

Billed as the World’s First Virtual Reality Painting Exhibition, it featured:

  • artwork one could view individually, using a Head Mounted Display (HMD) with single-camera tracking;
  • artists at work wearing HMD with dual lighthouse tracking (and the results displayed live on a big monoscopic screen).

The work was done with http://www.tiltbrush.com, which appears to be a couple of guys who got bought by Google. The project – I’m not sure that its actually available for sale – appears to be evolving along several dimensions:

  1. 3d Model Definition: covering stroke capture (including, symmetric stroke duplication), “dry” and “wet” (oil paint-mixing/brushwork effects), texture patterns, volumetric patterns, emmision, particles.
  2. Interactive Model Creation: tool pallette in one hand, and brush in the other.
    1.   Videos at tiltbrush.com suggest an additional moveable flat virtual canvas (a “tilt canvas”?) that one can hold and move and paint against. The art on display was clearly made this way, as they all felt like they were a sort of a rotational 2.5D — the brush strokes were thin layers of (sometimes curved) surfaces.
    2. The artists last night appeared to be working directly in 3D, without the tilt canvas.
    3. The site mentions an android app for creation. I don’t know if it is one of these techniques or a third.
  3. Viewing: HMD, static snapshots, animated .gifs that oscillate between several rotated viewpoints (like the range of an old-fashioned lenticular display).

  I haven’t seen any “drive around within a 3D scene on your desktop” displays (like standard-desktop/non-HMD versions of High Fidelity).

  The displays were all designed so that you observed from a pretty limited spot. Really more “sitting”/”video game” HMD rather than “standing”/”cave” exploration.

My reactions to the art:

  • Emmission and particle effects are fun in the hands of an artist.
  • “Fire… Light… It’s so Promethean!”
  • With the limited movement during display, mostly the art was “around you” like a sky box, rather than something you wandered around in. In this context, the effect of layering (e.g., a star field) – as if a Russian doll-set of sky boxes (though presumably not implemented that way) – was very appealling.

Tip for using caves: Put down a sculpted rug and go barefoot!

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Two Great Summaries, and “Where do ideas live?”


Philip gave a terrific quick demo and future roadmap at MIT Technology Review’s conference last week. See the video at their EmTech Digital site.

Today we put up a progress report (with even more short videos!) about the accomplishments of the past half year. Check it out.


I wonder if we’ll find it useful to have such material in-world. Of course, the material referenced above is intended for people who are not yet participating in our open Alpha, so requiring a download to view is a non-starter.  But what about discussion and milestone-artifacts as we proceed? At High Fidelity we all run a feed that shows us some of what is discussed on thar interwebs, and there are various old-school IRC and other discussions. It’s great to jump on, but it kind of sucks to have an engaging media-rich discussion with someone in realtime via Twitter. Or Facebook. OR ANYTHING ELSE in popular use today.

William Gibson said that Cyberspace is the place where a phone call takes place. I have always viewed virtual worlds as a meta-medium in which people could come together, introduce any other media they want, arrange it, alter it, and discuss it. Like any good museum on a subject, each virtual forum would be a dynamic place not only for individuals to view what others had collected there, but to discuss and share in the viewing. The WWW allows for all of this, but it doesn’t combine it in a way that lets you do it all at once. Years ago I made this video about how we were then using Qwaq/Croquet forums in this way. It worked well for the big enterprises we were selling to, but they weren’t distractible consumers. High Fidelity could be developed to do this, but should we? When virtual worlds are ubiquitous, I’m certain that they’ll be used for this purpose as well as other uses. But I’m not sure whether this capability is powerful enough to be the thing that makes them ubiquitous. Thoughts?

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What is the Metaverse?

Our Philip Rosedale gave a talk this week at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference. The talk was on what the Metaverse will be, comprising roughly of the following points. Each point was illustrated with what we have so far in the Alpha version of High Fidelity today. There are couple of bugs, but it’s pretty cool to be able to illustrate the future with your laptop and an ad-hoc network on your cell phone. It’ll blow you away.

The Metaverse subsumes the Web — includes it, but with personal presence and a shared experience.

The Metaverse has user generated content, like the web. Moroever, it’s editable while you’re in it, and persistent. This is a consequence of being a shared experience, unlike the Web.

A successful metaverse is likely to be all open source, and use open content standards.

Different spaces link to each other, like hyperlinks on the Web.

Everyone runs their own servers, with typable names.

The internet now supports low latency, and the Metaverse has low latency audio and matching capture of lip sync, facial expressions, and body movement.

The Metaverse will be huge: huge spaces, with lots of simultaneous, rich, interactive content. The apps are written and shared by the participants in standard, approachable languages like Javascript.

The Metaverse will change education. Online videos have great content, but the Metaverse has the content AND the student AND the teacher, and the students and teachers can actually look at each other. The teacher/student gaze is a crucial aspect of learning.

The Metaverse scales by using participating machines. There are 1000 times more desktops on the Web than there are in all the servers in the cloud.

The talk starts at about 2:42 into the stream:

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Inventing the Future: Act II

Eleven and a half years ago, I started to blog.

I had just joined an open-source computer science project that aimed to use virtual worlds to allow people to work, learn and play together, and I thought it would be fun to narrate our progress.

Let’s try that again.


Today I started work at High Fidelity, a nice summary (and video) of which is in this Technology Review piece.

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Rest In Peace, Andreas Raab


What you’ve tried to teach me:

  • Do the simplest thing that can possibly work.
  • Be fearless in programming — except in matters of security.
  • You should be able to write one single sentence of documentation for each method.
  • Tell people when a colleague does good work.
  • Do what you want or must, but maintain control over yourself.


speaking at Boston Computer Museum's Computer Revolutionaries eventon the zeppelin over Silicon Valley

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