High Fidelity: 3D audio space as an antidote for Zoom-fatigue and a medium for organic interactions
What is High Fidelity?
High Fidelity is an online cloud-based audio space for virtual meet-ups. It mimics real-life gatherings through a 3D spatialised audio feature on a 2D ‘map’, where users can freely roam around and talk to each other. Co-founded by Philip Rosendale, the founder of Second Life, it is becoming a venue for virtual cocktail parties, networking events and conferences, due to its ease of access, without any need in VR headsets (any headphones suffice).
While it is still in its beta version High Fidelity is available for free, to test out the space anyone can try the live demo or get a link to their unique private space by completing a form. In addition, each user is able to customise their ‘map’, stream music, videos, or perform live sets. What is distinct about this space, among other media using 3D sound, is that there is no abrupt audio fallout; when situated far from a cluster of other users, one will hear indistinct chatter just like in a real-life gathering, and if a user wants to come really close to another, she could practically whisper in their ear. As put in a recent Wired article, it allows for a ‘stereoscopic distribution of sound that simulates how voices are carried in real life, both in small groups and massive crowds’.
Considering its features, the timing of its release (May 2020) and the fact that we are in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak, I would like to argue that High Fidelity offers valuable insight into the debate around high-level (social) affordances and what role media play in social connectivity.
Why is this object emergent?
It is the first time when 3D audio was used for conference calls. And not only that, High Fidelity offers much-needed relief from video-conferencing and the notorious Zoom-fatigue, something that has not been dealt with before. In his talk with a contributing writer for The New Yorker Anna Russell Philip Rosedale said “[w]hat we’ve really lost with covid is the public commons…We’ve lost the ability to be among a crowd – among a lot of people, maybe some of them friends but some of them strangers.” High Fidelity aims to compensate that. One could call it a new extension of our senses, designed to overcome our recent shortcomings (McLuhan 7) – social distancing.
Some might say that 3D audio per se is nothing new but the approach to this technology and the usage of it is. What is emergent is not always something brand new, as shown by Manovich in his example of how cinema became ‘a slave to the computer’ (Manovich 6), emergent media is often something influenced by-, built on older media elements and mashed up with properties of newer media. To add another layer to this notion of remixing of ‘old’ and ‘new’ I think Kelli Fuery’s opinion on what constitutes ‘new’ is particularly thought-provoking. In her understanding ‘new’ as a concept ‘is immediately qualified, not simply as something of recent invention or appearance, but something that needs to be considered in a different manner’ (Fuery 5).
How does this object contribute or intervene in debates regarding high-level affordances?
In 2019 the CEO of Dirac, a company that specialises in 3D audio technologies, Mathias Johansson wrote: ‘[u]nless what you are hearing (in VR) convincingly matches the visuals, the virtual experience breaks apart’, emphasising that 3D audio is ‘key to the immersive experience’. I agree and think that due to its 3D audio feature High Fidelity is a significant contribution to the debate around high-level affordances as coined by Bucher and Helmond (Bucher et al. 12), especially if we consider their potential impact on peoples’ lives during COVID-19.
Why? When I first read of High Fidelity, I was reminded of a scene from A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz mentioned in John Durham Peters’s book. It portrayed how Oz’s family approached seldom but highly anticipated long-distance calls with their relatives back in the 1930s. Peters wrote: “Oz’s kin were sharing tokens of presence by means of a communications infrastructure. The import of the call was existential, not informational. The two parties had nothing to say, but everything to mean.” (Peters 14) Could High Fidelity’s affordance of 3D audio interactions be an enhanced version of that ‘token of presence’, considering our current telepresence? Is High Fidelity’s biggest affordance to its end-users – a chance for a more tangible tele-connectivity? I think so. High Fidelity affords for a more organic, agentic and in certain ways serendipitous interactions contrary to the limited affordances of programmed sociality in social media platforms such as Facebook, commonly used to stay in touch.
Although not marketed as a social media platform High Fidelity manages to bring us back to the basics of interaction – further from tokens of phatic communication i.e. ‘likes’ and closer to natural conversations. Through private interactions resembling house-parties with an option of talking in larger groups and ‘in private’, meeting new people all in the same space, High Fidelity adds to the debate of what media really are in the times of corona? Are they still extensions of our senses or replacements for them? This option to roam around and mingle, however bizarre it might sound, I think, is revolutionary, especially if we compare it with the mechanisms of social media platforms. Taina Bucher’s work where she juxtaposed Facebook’s idea of algorithmic friendship with Aristotelian ideas of it (Bucher 487), pushes towards a question of whether we finally found a medium that could bring us closer to something resembling the pre-COVID, real-life level of interaction.
At least it could be inferred that that was the developers’ aim. If we translate Light et al’s proposed walkthrough method of analysing mobile apps we can infer that that has, indeed, been an ‘embedded cultural value’ (Light, Burgess, and Duguay 7) sewed into space by High Fidelity’s developers. It values serendipitous ‘water-cooler-esque’ conversations, and most importantly, affords an option to be mobile – a high-level social affordance to speak to people in a more organic way without having to ‘leave’ the main chat or message someone ‘privately’. This was also highlighted by Kent Bye in his podcast Voices of VR. In Bye’s opinion, the spatialised audio allows for ‘serendipitous collisions’. Although in media studies serendipity is commonly used in regards to search engines, one could argue that the type of social connectivity afforded by High Fidelity allows for that as well. As put by McBirnie the recognition that social connectivity and its parameters may vary greatly in the digital age is crucial in the debate concerning serendipity. McBirnie emphasised that such recognition is ‘critical to better understanding serendipity in future digital information environments‘ (Race and Makri 83). As a new way of connecting at a distance, although a mere imitation of the most fundamental ways of communication, I think High Fidelity contributes to the debate of whether digital environments can at all be designed to afford agency and/or serendipity. Maybe this is a temporary affordance, a window to catch a wave of serendipitous organic connections in digital space, or is it too much to ask?
Bucher, T., et al. The Affordances of Social Media Platforms. Sage Publications, 2018.
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