By Bixyl Shuftan
I am the founder of the virtual civilization Second Life, populated by one million active users, and am now CEO and co-founder of High Fidelity — which has just released a real-time spatial audio API for apps, games, and websites. If you want to check it out, I’d love to hear what you think: highfidelity.com/api
High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio was initially built for our VR platform — we have been obsessive about audio quality from day one, spending our resources lowering latency and nailing spatialization.
Ask me about immersive spatial audio, VR, virtual worlds and spaces, avatars, and … anything.
Some of the questions were irrelevant ones, "What are your thoughts on flying penises?" But there were plenty of relevant ones, many of which he answered. Here are the majority of them.
Philip, I have tried your High Fidelity 3D sound many times, and it's stunning. I wonder, however, if you still have dreams/plans for another metaverse? Thanks. DrFran
I love virtual worlds and plan to keep working on them in one form or another until I die!
Whats going to be the next big step in vr?
Typing at normal speed (probably by using see-through camera to show you a real keyboard) is the biggest change that would make VR devices usable for general computing.
Next would be reduced weight and greater comfort for longer sessions.
The 'big step' is simply to get to something that everyone is comfortable using.
Hey Philip. Cool to see you doing an AMA. If you were rebuilding a virtual world today, would you be including cryptocurrencies in there? What's your take on the timeline to making virtual worlds so realistic that people start being unable to distinguish them from reality?
Yes I would use cryptocurrencies, but NOT using proof-of-work as the consensus mechanism, since this puts the environment at risk. The consensus mechanism cannot trade units of the currency for electrical power - that is a recipe for global disaster. Fortunately there are many other ways of maintaining a distributed record-keeping system.
Do you think a shift in consciousness (social or spiritual) could be triggered through VR? Did you see any signs of something like that yet?
The internet (and VR specifically) has the potential to deeply connect people. But it can also disconnect and separate people. The difference is in the choices we all make about the products we build. But sometimes maximizing profit does not maximize public good. We are going to have to make the decision to use it for good, at a cost.
Why do you think Facebook is keeping Horizon so closed in testing?
Could they be worried about anti-trust action if/when social VR starts dominating the VR software market?
(I've been bullish on social VR engines "swallowing" games since at least 2012)
I don't know.
Social VR needs to be larger than one app or company or we are all at great risk.
I love virtual worlds, and I've been an SL resident since the early years. My work study in college was in SL.
This probably sounds like a dumb question, but... one thing I don't get is why HMD adoption is such a big deal.
I've used HMDs, I think they are cool, but I can't think of any content I really want to use an HMD for. Maybe a flight simulator, where my head can be another axis of control for guns as my hands control the space ship, but other than that... I just don't think it's necessary.
Why should I make the jump from developing content in SecondLife to develop for HMD platforms?
You should wait until there is a large diverse set of people using HMDs. There isn't yet. HMDs need to be accessible and comfortable for everyone: across age, gender, and race. They aren't yet.
Years ago I saw you do an interview where you created an avatar in AOL and jumped into the Sims I think. But your goal at the time was to make it so people could have avatars to jump from site to site. In second life, people jumped from unique created world like the sims to sim. And in high fidelity it was more jumping specifically to a URL. Are your creations getting you closer to that end goal?
Also, in High fidelity with spatial audio, how do you make a grid with entities horizontal and vertical where depending on where an avatar stands, they would sound different in reference to another avatar. Or the sound of a fountain as you get closer to it gets louder. These are all perceptions to make things seem more real as we know it. What will be the new reality we will experience in a virtual world. i.e. what is next?
The hard question, I think, is why we will want to jump between these worlds or share a larger world. Most games are intentionally holistic - it doesn't really make sense to jump between them. You don't want to drive a car from GTA into Among Us. So the big question about "what is the metaverse" is what sort of space(s) we want to share, and why? I don't think anyone has very good answers to this, myself included!
What are your thoughts on the dapp economy right now? From your experience in Second Life, do you see a world in Earth's future where people sustain themselves by making income as worker-consumers in a virtual world fulltime?
Yes: A few thousand people make their living today in Second Life, and that is a place that typically has around 50,000 people online. So absolutely people will sustain themselves increasingly as time goes by from work in virtual worlds.
Greetings Philip! There is a ton of 'buzz' lately about NFTs and Virtual Worlds. As someone who has created virtual economies from scratch and understands the desire of creators to control and derive value from their work, do you see a future where there is a standard, secure, privacy-focused #Metaverse currency? If yes, how can we avoid the negative ecological effects of current Crypto offerings?
Love the idea of NTFs as a durable way for art to move around and create more income for artists. Have seen similar things already in Second Life, which had transferrable/resellable secure digital assets from day one and a really big GDP in part because of that.
But... we can't use cryptocurrencies with Proof-of-work move them around because of the ecological impact. But of course there are alternatives to POW so that's great. Strictly speaking, a provable NFT doesn't strictly require a blockchain. Web of trust + signed proofs would suffice. But I love the overall progress so far and idea.
My question is:
Apple is developing AR technologies. Do you think VR will eventually replace AR or do you think they can coexist in harmony.
Do you think VR is essential to virtual worlds? And how far away are we in terms of technologies to develop a fully rendered real-life-like cities that players can join.
I think AR and VR are very different things. AR requires approaches that blend information with the real world and balance attention. VR is the opposite - total immersion. Both the hardware, software, and economic/social/moderation implications are very different for the two.
I don't think VR (if by that you mean HMDs) are essential to virtual worlds. We interact with virtual worlds with whatever interfaces we care to. We will probably never be 'natives' to those worlds through our interfaces, however good, btw.
There's one thing I wondered for a while: how on earth did you manage to make High Fidelity (the original, 3D one) happen? I mean, it was a platform that was fully open both on the client and server side, heavily distributed, with a cryptocurrency and made in such a way that made central control difficult. I have a very hard time imagining how one makes a business pitch for that. How do you convince people to invest in something you're allowing people to just take and do whatever they please with?
But however it happened though I'm very happy it did -- there's some excellent work in there, and we hope to keep it going.
Thanks! For a while there (2013-2019) it seemed like we would have hundreds of millions of people with immersive VR devices by 2020. That was a sound thesis for investing in a project like High Fidelity - especially given the success of Second Life in delivering many of those things to the desktop.
The failure of the VR HMD to reach mass-market (I think it is going to take about another 5 years) made it too long a project to keep pushing forward. And this kind of open / social experience would require mass adoption of the headsets.
What's a good entry point for VR gear that will work with High Fidelity?
The current version of High Fidelity is audio-only, so you only need a browser and (hopefully) some good wired headphones. We work on mobile and desktop, too.
Hey Philip. I had the chance to try out an HF demo last summer and think it is a very interesting concept for developers to build immersive, interactive spaces. I have two questions, you can decide if they are related.
- You oversaw the creation of one of the most immersive interactive spaces to date. Why do you think someone else will come up with something better than you as opposed to just building it yourself using your technology?
- We are seeing a rapid rise of virtual humans along with easier methods for people to create their own avatars and an increased interest in spending time in virtual spaces. When should we expect a new space where humans via avatars and virtual humans congregate and interact on a regular basis and when do you expect that space to reach some significant scale?
I think these are different questions:
There are 100+ apps/sites right now that are trying to create social spaces of one kind or another with a ton of highly specific features for different verticals, like customized buildable objects or shared whiteboards, or avatar pickers. That's a ton of people working on new worlds - hard to compete with them all. But none of them have audio that is even close to doing what we do with spatial audio. So enabling all of them to move forward faster (with our API) seems like the right move overall if we want to see more spaces out there.As to virtual humans (powered by AI) - I think that AI is emerging as the most important and potentially dangerous area of human progress. We've done work on virtual humans and there are a ton of big problems still - we are very early. Visual representations can still be very uncanny. Another huge problem is bias, racism, and polarization coming through in their behavior and communication. As much as with AI as with ourselves, this is something we must address before moving forward. So I don't think we want to congregate with our digital children,
You have been working on sound, curious what other senses might be added in future to make a fuller experience? Many times I wish I could smell a candle, or a campfire or rain on pavement. Do you think some day we will be able to smell things, because as someone create a candle they could add the smell of watermelon to it in creation?
I love the idea, but I think the physics of simulating smell may never be possible.
But an even bigger problem is touch: We can't use our body's largest sense in virtual worlds. We can't 'feel' our bodies there. Our body is basically a part of our brain - pretty inseparable - when it comes to feeling things and moving around. I think there are some ideas yet to try (we built one called 'the rig' that was actually the first project at Linden Lab, before Second Life), but this is what we really need to make work - touch.
What good things do you do with your wealth, power and influence in the real world? Or are you just another member of the self preservation society?
I give to local charities to help people near San Francisco get by during and beyond the pandemic.
I am also devoted to using both money (funding) and my time and skills to make virtual spaces that are of a benefit to people, particularly in addressing racism and polarization.
I think that it is vital that those who have any degree of influence or power use them now and use them carefully to help steer the world toward greater compassion and connection.
What surprised you about how people acted in second life?
Lots! But I was deeply moved by how people came to know each other through their avatars, despite being unable to hear or see each other. I built Second Life with a focus on the 'lego kit' / Minecraft dream of building a simulated world and seeing what people would make, but I came to regard the connections between people it enabled as the most important thing.
Hey Philip! I'm an entrepreneur since 18 (33 now), and most of my successful business ventures reside within Second Life (Fennux, Fawns, Kreatures.)
Do you ever have a vision for something that no one else seems to really grasp? Maybe you find it hard locating others that share that same vision?
If so, how do you deal with that? (Clearly you still make things happen.)
If that's not an issue, what's your secret to attracting those that share your vision? Thanks!
Don't let it get you down. Sometimes you can see something (or an opportunity) that others can't see. When I was younger I would blame myself for being unable to communicate it, or get mad at people for not hearing me, or funding me, or whatever.
Now I relax and realize that we all have gifts to offer, we're all different, my gift is (sometimes) to have these strange ideas, and it's OK if those gifts are not always accepted.
Thanks for taking questions, Philip. I’m curious what you think about the potential for using VR spaces in education, particularly in support of students with exceptional needs (e.g. non verbal, students with autism)? If a teacher and student(s) can have avatars interacting in a virtual world, I presume we could eliminate a number of limitations we have in the real world. Do you have any insight into who might be already doing this well or where the technology is going in terms of serving students with special needs?
There were remarkable studies done in SL with adults with autism that you might want to look up. A guy named John Lester, aka Pathfinder Linden did some of the early work, but you will find numerous academic papers on the subject.
What are three core features / capabilities that you would like to see built out in Second Life over the next few years, and why?
I'm not running Second Life, so I don't have specific answers there. Some good recent changes have made it faster at the simulation layer (things like faster region crossing) - I know that is something people value and that I'd like to see get faster and faster.
What do you think of Decentraland?
It's an amazing experiment to watch! For simulation, I definitely think that long-term there will be a distributed compute model that makes the physics of the virtual world some sort of inviolable consensus. I'd like to see Decentraland add our spatial audio API!
Have you ever watched Sword Art Online?
Yep. The idea of being 'trapped in the simulation' is resonant for me. I think the 'boundary value problem' of how to make a consistent virtual world that nevertheless is acted upon by outside agents may turn out to be very problematic.
Look for example at things like Stephenson's 'Fall' - where a lot of how the world works is contingent on there being no way to influence the world. Important to think about.
Do you think a new virtual world will ever come along with a large focus on creating in the same way SL does? Why hasn't anything come along yet that overtakes SL in that way?
Creating programmable objects that you can edit live in a big world where things can both move and teleport around at will is a really hard problem. We wrote a lot more code to do it than people think - and as SL people will tell you there are still lots of bugs and edge cases. I think this is why we haven't seen more things like it - we were really ahead of our time. I bet we'll see some amazing new projects soon (but I guess I've said that before and been wrong).
When is Third Life going to be released?
Not in my life. :)
Why not do some of this AMA in High Fidelity? It would be a great way to demo the tool for others.
Great idea - We will do that toward the end so it's not distraction to typing fast!
For the rest of the AMA, which includes after-event chatter, Click Here.