On June 15th 2015, Ebbe Altberg participated in a Bloomberg Advantage podcast with hosts Cory Johnson and Carol Massar, discussing what is going on with Linden Lab in the run-up to the Second Life 12th anniversary celebrations.
The interview, which is some eight minutes long, unsurprisingly focused more on VR and its pcoming consumer focused headsets, together withe the Lab’s Next Generation Platform (codenamed Sansar) more than it did on Second Life, but what is said makes for interesting listening.
I’ve embedded an MP3 of the interview below, together with a transcript of the core discussion for those who prefer to read than listen. The transcript picks -up from the 28 second point into the interview, following general introductions. Breaks in the transcript, indicated by “…” are where the conversation includes asides or comments outside of immediate interest.
Cory Johnson (CJ): I want to talk about what’s going on with one of the kings of virtual reality, Second Life.
Ebbe Altberg (EA): Yeah. Second Life is still doing very well. It’s this month having its 12th birthday…
Carol Massar (CM): OK for those who might not know what Second Life is, those from the East Coast (laughter) I’m raising my hand for everyone on radio. Just for other folks out there who might not know.
EA: So, Second Life is a virtual world that we created, but all the content and all the experiences in it are created by the users. so it’s a little like the real world … So you have a huge range of experiences in their ranging from role-playing to education, to health to art, and music. Just like in real life, people like to have all sorts of things in their world, and users have created all these things inside of Second Life.
And there’s a virtual economy where users can buy and sell digital goods and services to each other, and last year alone, creators of content and experiences in Second Life cashed out $60 million dollars. So a lot of people make a living creating and playing in Second Life.
CM: Where do you want to take it?
EA: We’re like the pioneers in this area, and the world around us is starting to catch-up a little bit …
CM: Competition out there?
EA: Yeah, a little bit of competition, but also with all these virtual reality headsets, these HMDs from Oculus, etc., is going to allow us and many others to take it to the next level. So we’re really excited about what’s happening right now, and we’re been hard at work for well over a year, investing heavily in a new platform from the ground up that will take advantage of virtual reality hardware as it comes out later this year and early next year. So we want to make sure we remain in a leading position when it comes to virtual reality experiences.
CJ: Well let’s talk about this a little bit. So Oculus sort-of has mind share, at least. When people talk about virtual reality now, then tend to think of these goggle-like experiences from Oculus. [But] there’s been academic work, particularly out of Stanford, suggesting that game-play might not be the thing; that it’s so immersive that it’s exhausting. That people can sit in front of their Xbox or PlayStation for 4, 6, or eight hours, but that you can’t do that with Oculus. What do you think?
EA: I think you will be able to. Part of why people say that is because the quality quality of the experience hasn’t quite got there yet.
CJ: So you’re looking at an image where your mind and your eye have to do so much more work, that it’s physically exhausting.
EA: No … when you see the latest generation of these things coming out now, it is not that exhausting any more; it’s actually quite relaxing. You put these things on, an you’re wherever you want to be; you can be anybody you want to be and anywhere you want to be. And it’s it’s going to be comfortable …
CJ: The thing about when you put an Oculus goggles set on … first of all, the software right now is kind-of boring. The stuff that I’ve seen isn’t really gripping. It’s like, “Oh, this is cool. Imagine what you could do with it…”
EA: Did you try the Crescent Bay and the demos that came with it?
CJ: I haven’t done that.
EA: OK, so [with] the latest generation … you’ll forget about the hardware, you’ll forget about these pixels in front of you. You’re just there.
CJ: What is the experience you’re experiencing with that?
EA: They’re still passive; they’re still basically playing things for you, that you watched. And you will have video-like experiences, but in 360; so you’re inside the video, rather than looking at the video, all the way to like what we do, which is social interaction and doing things like we’re doing right now in the studio, just hanging-out, meeting with people.
CM: Well, let me ask you Ebbe, I’ve been at Caterpillar and I’ve done their 3D world, or virtual reality world, where you pretend you’re in one of their big pieces of equipment to see how it worked and if the tools were in the right place. That’s my experience with it. what about in a practical world? Are there applications that you guys are looking at?
EA: Absolutely, and they’re happening already today. Texas A&M is teaching chemistry in Second Life, and there are a lot of educational opportunities to teach …
CJ: How so? Is it, “pour this file into this beaker, but if it blows up, you’ll blow somebody up”? Or is it, you’re seeing the DNA or molecules?
EA: It’s a combination of actually doing lab experiments and pouring liquids and seeing what happens, as well as being able to interact with molecules, and you can sit on them, and you can do anything you want. So the ability to visualise information is way more powerful than reading it from a text book or watching it from a video.
CM: Is that potentially a big market there for you guys? Or Healthcare? We’ve just briefly toured around Seagull, and they’ve got a whole idea about what you’ve just called about; virtual reality and doing surgery, and having virtual reality to help a surgeon in that process.
EA: Yeah, it can can be for training, or it can help people with both mental and physical disabilities of all kinds. In Second Life already we have this older woman who has Parkinson’s; and because of Second Life she can run around, swim, fly, and exercise her brain. And because of that, she’s found that she has an easier way of moving in real life. So it can have a lot of really powerful impact on treatment or all kinds of phobias. I mean, right now here in our Lab, you can be on top of the golden Gate bridge and just get a sense of height …
CJ: So, specifically, how do you manage the game play of Second Life? If you were to describe something that is the “common” Second Life experience now, and then what it would be like in this more augmented, 3D world of Oculus or whatever?
EA: Well, it’s taking immersion to a whole other level, where the brain starts not being able to tell the difference between what’s virtual and what’s real. And we take people through experiences in this next generation platform we’re working on – we’re calling it “Project Sansar” right now, it doesn’t have a final name. But you have people that are afraid of heights, for example, just getting really freaked out by being in the virtual space.
For example, Jeremy Bailenson of [the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at] Stanford … When he removes the floor underneath you in his Lab and tells you to walk this plank over this abyss, 30% of the people doing that in his lab cannot cannot walk the plank, it feels that real.
CM: I was thinking about the rides in Disney World or whatever; they can use this stuff.
EA: Oh yeah, they will!
CM: Cool stuff!
At his point the interview quickly wound down with the end of the podcast.
Again, not much is given away about the Lab’s Next generation Platform, and little is said in detail about Second Life. However, both Nassar and Johnson exhibit genuine interest in the subject of virtual environments and virtual reality, and to their credit don’t fall into the clichéd trap we’re all (or most of us at least) are so tired of hearing.
What is interesting to me is the the framing of the commentary around Sansar and the Golden Gate demonstration. This suggests that the Lab is creating something where the content potentially has a far higher level of fidelity than can perhaps be achieved with Second Life when placed within the immersive context of something like the Oculus Rift.
The message that Linden Lab is attempting to position itself as a major player in the emerging VR market does seem to be getting out. A recent report in Investor’s Business Daily, which estimates the potential market for VR / AR devices, etc., could hit US $62 billion by 2025, lists Linden Lab alongside of Valve, Magic Leap, Next VR, Jaunt VR and others as one of the private companies looking to carve itself a share of that market.