I never played Second Life.
I knew of it, but looked at it from afar — studying user behaviour, the economy, identity, and the whole concept of living in a world within a world. All of it fascinated me, but it wasn’t me. I wasn’t drawn to spend time in it, but I knew it was big and had a future.
Fast forward a few years, beyond the peak of Second life and enter the dawn of virtual reality. Propelled by a talk at VRLA aptly named Keeping VR Human, I was curious about what social worlds looked like beyond Altspace VR. Worlds that were driven by the subtleties of human body language and facial expression over the ability to just be in a social space virtually, so I downloaded the beta version of High Fidelity.
Today, for the first time I saw the future of social virtual reality and I’m still finding it hard to put into words what that experience was and why it was important. I’ll try to anyway — and hopefully you can see the value in what worlds like this will mean to us, as the human experience evolves into something truly special and powerful beyond our belief of what our current reality offers.
The first thing I see when I enter High Fidelity is home. It is home, my home, with all my stuff. I have things to play with, pick up and throw. I look at my fish tank, go outside to my fire pit, and write on my whiteboard.
I go into one room where I can pick who I choose to be, right now. In my avatar, I am embodied fully. I have legs — I have a body — it is my body. It jumps when I jump and moves when I move.
With one swipe of a hand, I can tidy the whole place up in a second. I can make this home anything I want it to be. I can create my own stuff that I can have here. This is my personal space, and this is the first thing that really hits home — I have been welcomed immediately to something that’s mine, and this is the first step to making any social world relevant to who I am at a personal level.
When I am ready to leave home, I turn towards a door and teleport through the frame into a vortex.
I land in a space and I know immediately that I am not alone. I hear voices that get louder as I move towards them. I teleport around, picking up large crates and throwing them into mid air. There isn’t much here. But then, I notice a camera-man, suspended in mid air hovering a few metres above me, he is standing literally in a dish with a tripod and a camera fixed to his face. I try and say hi and get no response. Is he real? Is he actually filming us?…Is high fidelity watching us and live recording this right now?
Someone in the group tells me the cameraman isn’t real and invites us to his space — dream — and we type dream into our virtual keyboards, the world disappears and fades in, and I find myself literally in a dream.
Before I can take in my surroundings, I fall through a crack and end up in inception. I am stuck in a small cave like space and I can’t get out. There is nowhere I can teleport to and I start to panic. I move around the space trying to teleport out by pointing upwards, and instead I fall through another crack and fall through the world completely.
I can see everything built from the bottom up, the entire perspective beneath the 3D world I was just inhabiting. Imagine falling through the earth and seeing the earth from below. It’s at once terrifying but calming, as I am drifting slowly towards water, the vast ocean, my legs flailing in front of me. From this position I access my keyboard and type in dream.
I am back. I try and explain where I was but all that comes out is inception.
Back in dream, it really is like being in someones else’s place. They talk me through the stuff they have built and collected. They have built animated objects that are spinning around and there is a giant Buddha emanating light.
But really, dream is the catalyst for something bigger. It is in dream that I learn to walk for the first time, move my body from side to side smoothly, and fly.
Learning to walk in VR, as in touching the trackpad to move forward and seeing your legs move, is a feeling beyond comprehension. I am walking for the first time. Wait till you fly, someone says. What do you mean? Double tap the right touchpad and hold it down. Suddenly I levitate above the ground and I am flying high about the ground. I turn my head to navigate the space. I go as high as I can and look down below at the miniature dream I have just left. It is the most spectacular feeling, I am in awe of my capabilities as a human in this moment.
While I am learning to do all this, people are voice commanding objects to move around in space and someone else is just standing there making magic particles move between his hands in real time.
We should fly to other worlds, someone says.
We type in Playa, and land in a burning man desert with gigantic sculptures and ferris wheels and other playthings and it is here we meet new people. We fly around the land together, sometimes suspending ourselves in mid air to just look at the earth below and marvel at our point of view.
It is in Playa, that I learn that you can scale. I learn this because everyone around me one at a time, transforms into a giant in an instant and is towering above me. They then come down and scale so tiny they are a miniature figurine.
It is also in Playa that someone in our group is non-stop dancing the Macarena, an algorithm that couldn’t, and wouldn’t, ever happen in real reality.
We fly to another earth, which I don’t know the name of but is still quite glitchy. It is here that I discover that the tigers that have been roaming around us are from a marketplace you can just download. More and more tigers appear, we chase them so we can give them to each other. Then suddenly we have guns that fire ping pong balls. We are playing and flying and shooting.
I have another inception moment where I’m caught in a space that is pink and there are objects that are distant and I can’t go anywhere and someone comes down and saves me and then everything is good again.
It is also here where I learn the boundaries of the human expression and see how the avatar’s face moves in conjunction with their voice. I ask someone to get angry at me and his eyebrows and facial features conform to an angry expression. It is here, that the bond gets stronger as everyone around me starts playing with the possibilities: people are horizontal, doing backflips and tricks with their bodies, and in this moment it feels like you can really do anything. I am overwhelmed with possibility. We are each forming a memory of experiences so far beyond comprehension that will forever be borne into our brains, where we will ask each other later down the line —
Remember the first time you learnt how to fly? To walk? To jump?
Remember when we flew above the desert and we were doing backflips in mid air?
We are literally reliving our childhoods, but this time with an adult brain that has the capacity to recall memories we can now access later in life. No one will inform us of our own memories ever again, because what we will experience is life from the beginning — or life before we knew it as life — something that has never been accessible to us ever before.
The experience I had, was not memorable because of all the tricks and superhuman powers that were novel, it was the context of the shared experience that they occurred in. The people who saw me walk for the first time — albeit strangers — are forever connected to my memory of my first steps because they were there and witnessed it at the time.
A shared experience of something memorable will always tie the context, the people and the emotion with it so strongly, that you can only compare it to a travel experience — whereby you meet random people who you have banter with, go on adventures with and experience things that are not entirely explainable to people back home. It’s just something special you shared together in a moment in time. It has formed states in my mind that are now real memories.
Which takes me to…
Some smartass in the group suggests we go to Australia, because of my accent and also it sounds intriguing. There’s an Australia? I wonder what’s in it…
Australia is nothing that you thought it would ever be. It is just green, with one building that says ‘Welcome to Australia’, military tanks, a bus and a high rise apartment.
W H A T.
I get so much shit for my hometown it’s ridiculous.
For some strange reason, we all try and get on the one bus in Australia, but its much more difficult than it seems. We all try and scale down our avatar, we are that desperate to get on the bus.
As we are getting on the bus, the bus suddenly grows and becomes a walk in bus. Someone with us is changing the code on the fly and it is messing with our brains big time, but it’s also the best thing ever. He ends up expanding the bus so it becomes a ramp into infinity and we all just keep skipping up the plank into eternity, because we can, and because Australia.
My first life.
If anything, High Fidelity reinforces the human experience more so than any other VR experience I’ve tried. Not just through the ability to communicate with our faces and body language like we do in the real world, but the ability to experience personal transformation in a shared context. How do we learn, if not in tribes, classrooms and travel experiences?
I love that — even in worlds made of donuts or fantastical deserts that spanned infinite space, we would all find ourselves standing around in a tight knit circle, or perhaps in another time, reflecting the human experience of sitting around the campfire, sharing each other’s presence and stories.
Welcome to first life. It’s truly remarkable.
. . .
Experience Director, ACME Virtual