High Fidelity, a next-generation platform for virtual worlds currently in open beta, is the brainchild of Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life. Readers who don’t know what Second Life is are excused because it’s not on the media’s radar these days. But 10 years ago Second Life was often hailed as the Next Big Thing in social media.
In Second Life, players can create an avatar and explore a huge 3D virtual world created by the users themselves. The expectation was that the “Metaverse” imagined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his cult novel Snow Crash (1992) would soon materialize and billions of users would flock to Second Life.
Therefore, a strong presence on Second Life would be a strategic need for all sorts of businesses and organizations, from online retailers and advertisers to universities and government agencies. This perception created a thriving Second Life development and consulting sector, and some companies (this writer owned one) made good money for a couple of years.
Then, Second Life faded into oblivion, sort of. In hindsight, the problem was that Second Life isn’t immersive enough (users don’t really have the impression of “being there”) and it is too difficult to master.
High Fidelity wants to change that by supporting highly immersive Virtual Reality (VR) interfaces, including VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, sensors for hand and body motion, and 3D audio. Rosedale hopes that a fully immersive 3D world, like the OASIS world described in a more recent cult novel (Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, 2011), will be both more appealing and easier to use than Second Life. For example, if you want to shake another avatar’s hand, you just do it, instead of having to remember a Ctrl-Alt-Something command.
Another important difference is that High Fidelity is much less centralized than Second Life, and it allows creators to host independent virtual worlds using their own equipment and infrastructure.
As for Second Life, it’s still there and business hasn’t entirely disappeared. While the big corporations and organizations are mostly gone or inactive, there’s a thriving virtual retail market for things like design avatars, virtual clothes, gadgets and prefabs. It’s small business, but some developers earn a living on the Second Life Marketplace. Of course, counterfeited and pirated virtual goods represent a problem.
Second Life virtual goods are priced in Linden dollars, a virtual currency fully integrated with the Second Life platform. Introduced long before 2009, the Linden dollar is not a blockchain-based cryptocurrency.
Now, Rosedale has a cryptocurrency in the works dubbed HFC for the High Fidelity Marketplace and a whole ecosystem including externally-operated servers. Contrary to the Linden dollar, which is only a payment means, the HFC will leverage blockchain technology’s ability to track transactions and ownership.
“We are getting ready to deploy blockchain software to create a new currency for virtual worlds, called HFC,” says Rosedale. “In addition to providing the basis for in-world transactions, the HFC blockchain will also be used to store information about the ownership of digital assets in virtual worlds. We plan to use this aspect of the blockchain to provide an open way to protect intellectual property by embedding certification, affirming item ownership into the blockchain.”
In another post, Rosedale provides more details on the intellectual property protection mechanisms envisioned for High Fidelity. “This system will work across an open network of many different servers, does not need to use ineffective DRM systems, and is not dependent on or controlled by any central agency (other than the initial first registration of unique assets),” he explains.
According to High Fidelity, the open, permissionless nature of the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains cause limited throughput (transactions per second) and high transaction fees, which makes them unsuitable for HFC. Therefore, Rosedale’s team is developing a public but “permissioned” blockchain, where only a subset of trusted participants can verify transactions. It could be argued, however, that High Fidelity is being too quick in dismissing new scaling solutions that could lead to higher throughput and lower fees in the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains.
Rosedale notes that the Linden dollar, not based on a blockchain, shows remarkable stability in price, with much less volatility than blockchain-based cryptocurrencies. High Fidelity plans to achieve a similar stability “through active management […] voting, smart contracts and other mechanisms to regulate the monetary policy.”
The High Fidelity community is encouraged to provide feedback on HFC. “We’ve been discussing and getting feedback on these designs in our ongoing community meetings in High Fidelity,” says Rosedale.
More information is available on related discussion threads in the High Fidelity Forums.