Philosophical frenemies: Altberg and Rosedale

High Fidelity - a composite promotional shot. Credit: High Fidelity (via Wired)

High Fidelity – part of a composite promotional shot. Credit: High Fidelity (via Wired)

Yesterday, a Tweet from Jo Yardley pointed me to an interesting article in Wired by Rowland Manthorpe, entitled Second Life was just the beginning. Philip Rosedale is back and he’s delving into VR. It’s a lengthy, fascinating piece, arising out of a week Manthorpe spent with High Fidelity, while also taking time to poke his head around the door of Linden Lab, offering considerable food for thought – and it kept me cogitating things for a day, on-and-off.

There’s some nice little tidbits of information on both platforms scattered through the piece. For those that have tended to dismiss High Fidelity as a place of “cartoony” avatars, the images provided with the article demonstrate that High Fidelity are walking along the edge of the Uncanny valley; compare the Rosedale-like figure seen the a High Fidelity promo shot within it with a photo of the man himself (below). There’s also further indication that in terms of broader creativity and virtual space, High Fidelity is “closer” to the Second Life model of a virtual world than Sansar will be.

On the Lab’s side of things, we also get confirmation that multiple instances of the same space in Sansar will not be in any way connected (“One school group visiting the Egyptian tomb won’t bump into another – they will be in separate, identical spaces.”). There’s also a hint that Linden Lab may still be looking at Sansar as a “white label” environment.

High Fidelity can still be critiqued by some in SL for it's "cartony" avatar. The reality is however, that for those who wish, avtars in High Fidelity can be extremely life-like, as this picture of what Philip Rosedale might look like in High Fidelity (r) shows when compared to an actual photograph of him. Credits: High Fidelity / Jason Madara

High Fidelity can still be critiqued by some in SL for its “cartoony” avatar. The reality is however, that for those who wish, avatars in High Fidelity can be extremely life-like, as this picture of what Philip Rosedale might look like in High Fidelity (r) shows when compared to an actual photograph of him. Credits: High Fidelity / Jason Madara

But what really makes the piece interesting is the philosophical differences apparent in developing these platforms; each is very much rooted in the nature of the man at the helm of each company.

Rosedale is a dreamer – and that’s not a negative statement. He’s been driven by “dreams” and “visions” throughout most of his post Real Networks career. He also leans heavily into the collaborative, open borders model of development. Both have influenced the working spaces he builds around him. Reading Manthorpe’s piece, the High Fidelity office appears to be run along a similar laissez-faire approach as marked the early years at Linden Lab:  people dabble in what interests them, focused on the technology; there’s a belief that if the company cannot solve a problem (such as practical in-world building using hand controllers), someone “out there” will, and all will be well.

By contrast, Altberg is more consumer / direction oriented with Sansar. Initial market sectors have been identified, work has been broken down into phases. A structured development curve has been set; as we’ve seen from Lab Chat and other sessions, there’s a reasonably clear understanding of what should be tackled first, and what can be pushed further down the development path. The platform itself is closed, controlled, managed.

Sansar Screen Shot, Linden Lab, August 2016, on Flickr Sansar (TM) Screen Shot, Linden Lab, October 2016, on Flickr

In adopting these approaches, and given their somewhat complicated business relationship (Rosedale still have “sizeable” financial holding in Linden Lab; linden Lab was one of the small investors in High Fidelity’s $2.4 million round of seed funding), Rosedale and Altberg describe their relationship as “frenemies”. They are both working towards similar goals, and dealing with the same consumer-facing technology, and are equally sniffy of the other’s product. Rosedale sees Sansar is being potentially too closed, too pigeon-holed in terms of how it will be perceived by consumers; Altberg sees High Fidelity as being to focused on the technology, and perhaps demanding more effort than most on-line consumers in the Facebook pre-packaged content age might be willing to invest.

When looked at from outside, the Rosedale / High Fidelity approach is perhaps more in keeping with the state of VR once all the hyperbole surrounding it is brushed aside:  VR may well be part of our future, but no-one can honestly say at this point just how big a part of our future it will be. The Altberg / Linden Lab approach is rooted business pragmatism: identify your markets and seek to deliver to those markets; build your product to reflect the market as it grows.

Neither approach is necessarily “right” or “wrong”, and there is certainly no reason why both cannot attract their own market share. But I have to admit I find myself leaning more in Altberg’s direction.

This is admittedly partly because a lot of Rosedale’s broader comments about High Fidelity, the Internet, etc., come across as re-treads of things said ten years ago about Second Life and a transformative future never realised. But it’s more particularly because  – as noted above – no-one really knows how pervasive VR will be on a broad level. Other technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) currently lie within the shadow cast by the hyperbole surrounding VR, but have the potential for far greater impact in how we conduct our lives and business. So identifying a market share and aiming for it seems to be the more solid approach insofar as establishing a user base and revenue flow might be concerned*.

Time will obviously tell on this; but one fact is clear: however you regard the philosophies held by Rosedale and Altberg, Manthorpe’s article is a must read. A considered, well presented, in-depth piece, it is sits as a catalyst for considerable thought and potential discussion.

*Edited 25 October 2015, to include this sentence, which was accidentally removed from the initial publication of this piece.

14 thoughts on “Philosophical frenemies: Altberg and Rosedale

    1. Inara Pey Post author

      For those of us used to Second Life, that’s probably true. In many respects, HiFi is far more a “spiritual heir” (if I might use that term) to Second Life than is Sansar.

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  1. caledoniaskytower

    Good post, Inara. I think it is a mistake to believe that there is one path to the future of Virtual Worlds. Because SL has had such a big user base over its thirteen years (CLUE: 13 years, old code, hard to make substantive-innovative structural changes to an open and active community) it has been continually easy for people to assume that the future looks like another iteration of that. Not necessarily. Ask a cassette tape how much it has in common with a CD, or an mp3 file for that matter. Only the music.

    Virtual worlds are not a public entitlement. I think it is a really GOOD for the future of VWs that these two very different men are working in different paths. That means diversity, and nothing could be better for the future of virtuality than diversity. Not just opening a new grid somewhere else that looks and fundamentally function like another. REAL diversity. Apples, oranges, peaches, pears, and kumquat diversity.

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  2. Willow

    Very interesting articles Inara! Thank you and Jo for bringing the Wired article to my attention (“Second Life was just the beginning. Philip Rosedale is back and he’s delving into VR”)

    In my opinion both initially are going to suffer from the same problem. The current high cost of goggle type VR systems. Not just the goggle cost, the computer necessary, but also the cost of installing the external sensors.

    Initially it would seem Sansar is a better fit for me since it doesn’t require VR hardware while apparently High Fidelity will. But frankly from the little that has leaked about Sansar it sounds dull, the graphics are nothing special, and it will be very incomplete when its open beta is released at the start of 2017.

    I think my plan of not even trying Sansar until quarter three or four quarter of 2017 if then is a good one. But by that time the cost of goggle VR may have fallen so High Fidelity may be a more viable option for me.

    By the way in one of your recent posts you implied that since there were lots of question about Sansar from Second Life there may be a large move from SL to Sansar. My opinion is that most of those questioners are like me. While I’m curious about Sansar may even ask questions but that doesn’t translate to creating an account and actually paying money for it.

    It appears that of Sansar users will be limited to canned experiences, clothes, and it will not be a “world” where you cannot have an online home unless you are willing to accept a canned one. While Ebbe may be right when he says, “The vast majority [of Sansar players] won’t give a shit if it’s open”. I’m not one of that group! Ironically it seems the difference comes down to be the same debate that has raged ever since I’ve been in Second Life. Is it a game or not?

    I agree that Rosedale’s approach sounds much like the early hype of Second Life and that is worrying. But maybe by late 2017 the hype will actually be possible and the cost of VR hardware will be reasonable. So for me I’ll wait and see.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      “By the way in one of your recent posts you implied that since there were lots of question about Sansar from Second Life there may be a large move from SL to Sansar.”

      If that was the impression given, it was not the intent🙂. My feeling is that while there is a lot of curiosity about Sansar, and some may well take a look and keep a toe-hold in Sansar, there will be no large-scale “move” from one to the other for a good few years to come (if at all) – if for no other reason that it has been made very clear that there is an awful lot we take for granted in SL that will not be apparent in Sansar for some time to come (again, if at all).

      I also believe, and have stated, that Second Life users really aren’t the audience the Lab is considering for Sansar. Again, that might be the case in time, but right now, we’re really not the focus.

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      1. Willow

        Sorry if I misunderstood you Inara. My impression is that from what has gotten out about Sansar that not that many SL users will be interested enough in the current Sansar to even try it.Contrary to what you believe I won’t even make a toe-hold in Sansar and I don’t think I will be the only SL user who does that.

        As dahlia points out for the Lab to compete with the existing multi player online game corporations is a very big hurdle. True the market is there but this isn’t 2003 anymore and the Lab just doesn’t have the resources to compete. Yes the Lab may come up with a killer experience but I don’t see that happening. Especially since the lab is almost draconian in limiting Sansar to a select group of creators.

        Could it be Facebook users? The audience is also large enough. But the idea of using goggles to check your messages, look at you friend’s lunch, and then play a few minutes of an online game seems like over kill. That can easily be done from an iPad or even a smart phone. Why even fire up a desk top computer and the peripherals needed for VR. I might be wrong since I didn’t see the coming of Facebook but I don’t think so.

        Who is the audience for Sansar? Maybe you or someone else has some insight into Sansar’s audience I sure don’t. It is getting a little late in the development cycle not to have a something as basic as a target audience chosen.

        There is plenty of room out there for two possible virtual “worlds” but I don’t think Sansar will be one of them.

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        1. Inara Pey Post author

          The initial audience markets for Sansar has been mapped on numerous occasions – I’ve even referenced them in this article🙂 . These are markets where the opened-ended sandbox environment is perhaps less important than having spaces where targeted activities can take place. What’s more, they are markets where VR is already being used / being experimented with or which have expressed considerable interest in adding VR to their methodologies / practices.

          Are these enough to grow Sansar into the “hundreds of millions” the Lab has talked about? No. But they are potentially broad enough around the globe to offer Sansar a good foundation of users and clients upon which to build. If VR is as widely adopted after the initial waves of hyperbole passes, they could encompass corporations, SMEs, institutions, non-profits, etc. Some may well opt to invest their time and money into developing their own internal infrastructure to their staff / students / clients / customers – but the point about Sansar is, if it is presented correctly, the majority won’t have to – the can simply plug-in to Sansar or an environment like it as their medium for delivery (hence why the while label aspect is of considerable interest to me, that is (still?) a part of the Lab’s strategy with Sansar).

          Beyond that, there is the potential for so-called “social VR”. This again isn’t necessarily a open-ended sandbox environment like SL or OpenSim, but the provisioning of more focused spaces intended to fulfil specifics wants / needs at a particular time. e.g. a meeting space for staff on opposite sides of the country or a living room where Mum and Dad can chat with their son or daughter who is at university overseas, or a theatre where a group of 360-degree video enthusiasts scattered around get together with a real sense of presence to share their videos, and so on an so forth. And if this all sounds a bit airy-fairy, don’t forget these spaces are already being explored by companies like AltSpace VR, which has attracted some $15.7 million in investment (around the same as High Fidelity). Nor are they and the Lab alone in looking at such spaces. Sinewave Entertainment is launching Space.com, which has something of a similar approach to Sansar (complete with a white label capability) and even Facebook and Google are giving this more “structured” approach to providing VR spaces a very hard look.

          Obviously, there is something of a dependency of just how VR takes off (with the caveat that environments like Sansar and Space.com aren’t necessarily 100% dependent on VR headset & associated hardware). But I also think that when looking at things like Sansar from the perspective of our experience in Second Life, there is a risk of our view being too filtered. The open sandbox appeal of Second Life, OpenSim and (eventually) High Fidelity is actually only one approach to virtual spaces. It certainly isn’t the only approach, nor is it the “right” or “wrong” approach – although it does perhaps colour our perspective when looking at other environments which may not be offering quite the same open-ended capabilities.

          The reality is that there are many, many, different potentials of virtual space. Hence why Second Life can continue to exist alongside Sansar for a good while to come, and why there is no reason Sansar, High Fidelity, AltSpace VR, Space.com etc., and whatever Facebook and Google may serve up cannot potentially co-exist, each with its own user base sufficient enough in size to make it viable in a revenue-generating sense. Some may just be in a position to reach that revenue generating point a lot quicker than others.

          How big might their respective audiences be? Well, that’s a question that only time can reveal. But look at how financially viable Second life has been for Linden Lab over thirteen years with just a million users (give or take 100,000). Now consider how viable Sansar might be in a few years’ time, even if it never progresses much beyond double that number of users – which is perhaps not an unreasonable target to consider.

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  3. dahlia

    I tend to agree with Philip; I think the world needs to be editable by users, otherwise it’s just another game platform among many. Large corporations already have the technology and means to produce stunning 3D content and while the Sansar business model may initially seem viable, it’s going to be competing with just about every other MMO game or experience out there and that’s a huge hurdle to overcome. Large corporations also don’t like to be dependent on other companies owning the means of their ability to do business. If High Fidelity can get in-world building by the masses working then they can leverage their users’ creativity and offer them a sense of ownership in their platform and content.

    I also think that there really isn’t any evidence yet that VR is anything more than just a techie fad driven by a lot of hyperbole. I hope both platforms will offer a reasonable experience for those like myself who still prefer flat screens.

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  4. John

    I can say that from people I know who are building in HiFidelity, it is a nightmare for them. Text chat that shows what you are saying to everyone who is logged in, hard to view things, and commands run amok. HIghFidelity is built for VR headsets, without it, it is hard to function. As for Sansar I think that this will be easier to navigate than HighFidelity, but bottom line is that neither one of these virtual worlds are a replacement for Second Life, they are meant to latch onto the VR fad, with Sansar seeming to focus on locales.

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  5. Jake

    No doubt we will get our Holodeck or the Matrix sooner or later. Elon Musk even recently said, that the chance that we live in “Base Reality” is one in a billion. So we may live in a simulation already.
    The question is, do we want this simulation to be owned and controlled by one corporation or wouldn’t it be much wiser to follow the decentralized open source approach of HiFi? We are the early adopters. Whatever we pick, the consumer-crowd later will use. Linden Lab may have good intent, but just imagine how irresistable it will be for an organisation like the NSA or any government on this plantet to conduct total surveillance on us once we live large parts of our lives in virtual spaces. They will literally be able to read our thoughts through new interface devices, which we use to control our avatars.

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