Philip Rosedale and virtual worlds: “we still don’t get it yet”

As noted by Ciaran Laval, Philip Rosedale appeared at the Gigaom Roadmap event held in San Francisco on November 18th and 19th. He was taking part in a (roughly) 30-minute discussion with Gigaom’s staff writer, Signe Brewster, entitled Designing Virtual Worlds, in which he explores the potential of virtual worlds  when coupled with virtual reality, both in terms of High Fidelity and in general. In doing so, he touches on a number of topics and areas – including Second Life – providing some interesting insights into the technologies we see emerging today, aspects of on-line life that have been mentioned previously in reference to High Fidelity, such as the matter of identity, and what might influence or shape where VR is going.

This is very much a crystal ball type conversation such as the Engadget Expand NY panel discussion Linden Lab’s CEO Ebbe Altberg participated in at the start of November, inasmuch as it is something of an exploration of potential. However, given this is a more focused one-to-one conversation than the Engadget discussion, there is much more meat to be found in the roughly 31-minute long video.

Philip Rosedale in conversation with Gigaom's Signe Brewster
Philip Rosedale in conversation with Gigaom’s Signe Brewster

Unsurprisingly, the initial part of the conversation focuses very much on the Oculus Rift, with Rosedale (also unsurprisingly, as they’re all potentially right) agreeing with the likes of the Engadget panel, Tony Parisi, Brendan Iribe, Mark Zurkerberg et al, that the Oculus Rift / games relationship is just the tip of the iceberg, and there there is so much more to be had that lies well beyond games. Indeed, he goes so far to define the Oculus / games experience as “ephemeral” compared to what might be coming in the future. Given the very nature of games, this is not an unreasonable summation, although his prediction that there will only be “one or two” big game titles for the Rift might upset a few people.

A more interesting part of the discussion revolves around the issue of identity, when encompasses more than one might expect, dealing with both the matter of how we use our own identity as a means of social interaction – through introducing ourselves, defining ourselves, and so on, and also how others actually relate to us, particularly in non-verbal ways (thus overlapping the conversation with non-verbal communications.

Identity is something Rosedale has given opinion on ion the past, notably through his essay on Identity in the Metaverse from March 2014 –  recommended reading to anyone with an interest in the subject. The points raised are much more tightly encapsulated here in terms of how we use our name as a means of greeting, although the idea of of trust as an emerging currency in virtual environments is touched upon: just as in the physical world, we need to have the means to apply checks and balances to how much we reveal about ourselves to others on meeting them.

Can the facial expressions we use, exaggerated or otherwise, when talking with others be as much a part of out identity as our looks?
Can the facial expressions we use, exaggerated or otherwise, when talking with others be as much a part of out identity as our looks?

The overlap between identity and communication is graphically demonstrated in Rosedale’s relating of an experiment carried out at High Fidelity. This saw several members of the HiFi team talking on a subject, a 3D camera being used to capture their facial expressions and gestures, recording them against the same “default” HiFi avatar.  When a recording of the avatar was selected at random and played by to HiFi staff sans any audio, they were still very quickly able to identify who the avatar represented, purely by a subconscious recognition of the way facial expression and any visible gestures were used.

This is actually a very important aspect when it comes to the idea of trust as virtual “currency”, as well as demonstrating how much more we may rely on non-verbal communication cues than we might otherwise realise. If we are able to identify people we know – as friends, as work colleagues, business associates, etc. – through such non-verbal behavioural prompts and cues, then establishing trust with others within a virtual medium which allows such non-verbal prompts to be accurately transmitted, can only more rapidly establish that exchange of trust, allowing for much more rapid progression into other areas of interaction  and exchange.

Interaction and exchange also feature more broadly in the conversation. There is, for example the difference in the forms of interaction which take place within a video game and those we’re likely to encounter in a virtual space. Those used in games tend to be limited to what is required in the game itself – such as shooting a gun or running.

If 3D spaces can be made to operate as naturally as we function in the real world - such as when handing some something, as Mr. Rosedale is miming, might they become a more natural extension of our lives?
If 3D spaces can be made to operate as naturally as we function in the real world – such as when handing some something, as Mr. Rosedale is miming, might they become a more natural extension of our lives?

Obviously, interactions and exchanges in the physical world go well beyond this, and finding a means by which natural actions, such as the simple act of shaking hands or passing a document or file to another person can be either replaced by a recognisable virtual response, or replicated through a more natural approach than opening windows, selecting files, etc., is, Rosedale believes, potentially going to be key to a wider acceptance of VR and simulated environments in everyday life.

There’s a certain amount of truth in this, hence the high degree of R&D going on with input devices from gesture-based tools such as Leap Motion or haptic gloves or some other device. But at the same time, the mouse / trackpad / mouse aren’t going to go away overnight. There are still and essential part of our interactions with the laptops in front of us for carrying out a ranges of tasks that also aren’t going to vanish with the arrival and growth of VR. So any new tool may well have to be as easy and convenient to use as opening up a laptop and then starting to type.

Drawing an interesting, on a number of levels, comparison between the rise of the CD ROM and the impact of the Internet’s arrival, Rosedale suggests that really, we have no idea where virtual worlds might lead us simply because, as he points out, even now “we don’t get it yet”. The reality is that the potential for virtual spaces is so vast, it is easy to focus on X and Y and predict what’s going to happen, only to have Z arrive around the same time and completely alter perceptions and opportunities.

There are some things within the conversation that go unchallenged. For example, talking about wandering into a coffee shop, opening your laptop and then conducting business in a virtual space is expressed as a natural given. But really, even with the projected convenience of use, is this something people will readily accept? Will they want to be sitting at a table, waving hands around, staring intently into camera and sharing their business with the rest of the coffee shop in a manner that potentially goes beyond wibbling loudly and obnoxiously  over a mobile phone? Will people want to do business against the clatter and noise and distractions of an entire coffee shop coming over their speakers / headphones from “the other end”? Will we want to be seated next to someone on the train who is given to waving arms and hands, presenting  corner-eye distraction that goes beyond that encountered were they to simply open a laptop and type quietly? Or will we all simply shrug and do our best to ignore it, as we do with the mobile ‘phone wibblers of today?

That said, there is much that is covered with the discussion from what’s been learnt from the development of Second Life through to the influence of science-fiction on the entire VR/VW medium, with further focus on identity through the way people invest themselves in their avatar in between, until we arrive at the uncanny valley, and a potential means of crossing it: facial hair! As such, the video is a more than worthwhile listen, and I challenge anyone not to give Mr. Rosedale a sly smile of admiration as he slips-in a final mention of HiFi is such a way as to get the inquisitive twitching their whiskers and pulling-up the HiFi site in their browser to find out more.