A View from Tom Simonite
Second Life Founder’s New Virtual World Uses Body-Tracking Hardware
Hardware that tracks your head, eyes, and hands will make the follow up to Second Life very different from the pioneering virtual world.
The founder of the once-popular virtual world Second Life, Philip Rosedale, is working on a new 3-D digital world that looks like it will be operated using gestures and body-tracking hardware. Rosedale declined to talk about his new company, called High Fidelity, just yet. But videos and other material posted online by the company suggest it is working on an impressively immersive virtual-reality experience where you control an avatar using head and hand movements.
In the YouTube video embedded below, a crude avatar copies the head movements of someone at High Fidelity wearing spectacles with an exposed circuit board attached. A simple but workable animation even mirrors the man’s speech with the avatar’s own mouth. (The text being read is from Snow Crash, a Neal Stephenson novel that features a virtual world called the Metaverse and popularized the term”avatar.”)
Rosedale this week tweeted a photo of headphones with similar exposed electronics that he described as “head gyros,” presumably referring to gyroscopes used to detect rotation.
This ad asking for contractors states that High Fidelity even has a Google Glass app to allow head motion to “move the avatar head and/or joints,” and this video shows that they also have code that enables a smartphone to be used like a Wii controller to take control of a character in a virtual world.
Another want ad asks for help using Leap Motion’s camera-based gesture controller “for controlling the motion of the avatar.” A similar ad asks for a small circuit board that could be mounted to spectacles to bounce infrared light off a person’s eyeball and detect the reflection, a method used in eye-tracking systems. That could offer a way to use your gaze to control that of your avatar.
The High Fidelity website offers few clues as to how all this will come together, summing up what the company is doing like this:
“We’re building a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users.”
That suggests that using the world won’t involve connecting to a central server, as did Second Life. Instead software on the computers of the people that want to use the world will create and run the world. That sounds challenging to coordinate, but the High Fidelity site also suggests that you might earn “virtual world currency in exchange from helping to power the grid,” implying that there may be incentives to leave your computer working on the simulation even when you’re not actively using it.
As for what the final result will be like, the best decription on High Fidelity’s site is this:
“We think richly rendered avatars capturing head movements, eye movements, and body language offer much more compelling person-to-person interaction possibilities that the poorly-lit, awkwardly-framed facsimiles of ourselves we share through videoconferencing today.”
What little can be seen of the company’s work so far suggests that it could be some time until that vision is complete. However, Rosedale is known to have the backing of investors including Google Ventures and Mitch Kapor, and it may be hiding its real progress.