|On Monday, June 22nd, 2020 at the SL17B celebrations, the first of five Meet the Lindens sessions was held, featuring the Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, aka Ebbe Linden.
The following is a summary of the session covering the core topics raised, with audio extracts where relevant. The notes provided have been taken directly from the official video of the session, which is embedded at the end of the article. Time stamps to the video are also provided for ease of reference. In addition, audio extracts are provided in places that may be of particular interest to readers.
|Table of Contents
When reading this article, please note:
- It is not a full transcript:
- Discussion points have been grouped by topic, and not necessarily in the order raised during the session.
- I have focused on those topics liable to be of the most interest to readers / generated the most informative answers, so this is not a summary of all comments, feedback, etc.
- Topics are given as bullet-point highlights for ease of reference.
- In places, information that is supplementary to Ebbe’s comments is provided, and square braces (.i.e. [ and ]) are used in the body text below to indicate where this is the case.
- Audio extracts have been cleaned-up to remove repetition or pauses, etc.
Note: the following is taken from both Ebbe’s comments and my own research into his background, carried out when he joined Linden Lab in 2014, and which also included input from Ebbe.
- Swedish by birth and still by nationality – he is still working in the US on a green card.
- Graduated from Tärnaby Skidhem in 1983. He had hoped to be a ski racer – with eyes on the Swedish national team and the world cup – but was prevented from pursuing this career due to a back injury.
- Instead went to the USA to study at Middlebury College, Vermont, USA, where he spent a lot of time in the art studio and the computer lab in an extreme left brain / right brain type of education”, before graduating with a degree in Fine Arts and a concentration in Computer Applications.
- He “slipped into Microsoft on a random banana peel”, where he spent twelve years. He was particularly involved with the Office products (Word, Mac Office, etc.), and although he wasn’t directly responsible for Clippy! – he did oversee it being ported to Mac Office 98.
- In 2000, he joined Ingenio, a company that created marketplaces for people to buy and sell information over the phone. As well as managing the engineering, program management, operations, and quality teams, he also served as both the company’s interim CEO its Chief Product Officer. He also “racked up quite a few patents there.”
- Joined Yahoo! in 2008, filling out a number of senior roles, working in both Europe and the US.As the Senior Vice President for Media Engineering based in the USA, but with global responsibly for Media Engineering, managing an organisation of more than 600 engineers, architects, program managers and quality engineering staff, and with dotted-line oversight of some 150 product managers and designers.
- Moved from Yahoo! to San Francisco based BranchOut, a small company that had, prior to his joining built a 25 million user base for its professional networking app before seeing that number shrink to just 3 million. He was specifically responsible for pivoting the company to a new workplace messaging application called Talk.co, launched in October 2013.
- Has had a long exposure with SL indirectly through his son Aleks, who initially joined the Teen Grid before moving to establish his own in-world business.
- Has also been long-term friends with LL board Chair, Jed Smith, through whom he met Philip Rosedale. Smith had asked Ebbe to consider the LL CEO position previously to 2013/14, but “things “didn’t line up” .
- Is immensely proud of the all that the company has achieved and continues to be drawn by both the rewards and challenges involved in running a platform that is so technically and socially diverse.
Working at the Lab
Rewards and Challenges Working with SL
- Loves the technical / product aspects of the platform and the diversity of potential use cases it can meet. Also loves the rich diversity of ways users make use of SL creatively, socially, etc., that mean the platform constantly offers unique opportunities and challenges.
- Enjoys the fact that SL makes it possible to meet people from around the world and from all walks of life who find value in the platform for so many different reasons.
- These aspects also, for him, present the challenges of working with SL: putting all the different technologies that make SL work together such that they can form a virtual world where people can create, socialise, earn income, etc.
- There’s also the challenge of talking to a customer base that is not of a single mind in using the platform, but rather is a range of user communities, each of which has nuanced needs and requirements that need to be met.
- Also likes the challenge of trying to extend and build a product set that no-one else has managed to develop to the same degree – such as with SL’s economic model and the development of Tilia Pay.
- The strength with SL that he loves is the sheer diversity within the technology required or SL and the people that use is – which is also the platform’s most engaging challenge.
- Is appreciative of the power that SL has in bringing people together during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and providing a safe space for continued interaction, and that it can continue to help furnish those using it to generate an income to continue to do so.
- From a business perspective, SL has seen significant increases in demand. However, this has been somewhat impacted by the “land shortage” [see The Cloud Uplift, below for more on this].
- This increase is not just from “social” users; here has been “a lot” of demand from businesses wanting to host meetings through the platform, education institutions wanting to hold lessons, etc.
- Company has been very fortunate in its operations because, while it does have offices in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Atlanta, many of the staff have always worked from home, so there has always been the assumption of remote working [even the Operations Team works remotely from LL’s co-location data centre in Arizona]. So, moving to that model of operations was less stressful than it might have been.
- The real hamper in the move has been more the “knock-on” effect caused by the isolation – having children at home whilst trying to work, seeing to their needs, etc.
- Overall is very pleased with how the company has been able to continue to manage SL and move ahead in plans and development.
- Pandemic has also caused the media to re-examine SL, and Marketing has been via busy dealing the increased interest in how the platform and how it can be of use to people / organisations during the pandemic.
- What has been particularly pleasing is the more positive view the media has of the platform, and the recognition of its maturity as a platform.
- Like to point out to reporters that Second Life isn’t “old”, it is “mature”, which is not necessary a bad thing when talking about a platform.
The Cloud Uplift
[Note: Cloud uplift is the term used for the project to transition all of the Second Life services from hosting in a single co-location data centre used by Linden Lab and using their own hardware, to provision it all via Amazon AWS cloud services.]
- Likely to be around 3-4 months before new regions are once again available, although it is understandably hard to put a definite date on things.
- The shortfall is due to LL wanting to cease any expenditure in hardware and supporting infrastructure for SL during the cloud transition, believing they had sufficient reserves to offer during the uplift period – but the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic resulted in an unexpected burn through of that reserve.
- Provisioning and testing new hardware and infrastructure is being avoided, as this would effectively be “lost” capital expenditure.
- The uplift work is the primary focus of the product, engineering and operations teams at the Lab, with many services have actually already been transitioned to AWS.
- Details of which systems these might be are not generally given out by LL due to the fact users often make false assumptions on things like issues when aware of such information.
- Region servers [aka simhosts] make up the majority of the Lab’s hardware, and the Lab now has a test region server successfully running within AWS, but there is still “quiet a bit more work to do” in terms of security and other elements before the Lab will be in a position to offer a region product running in AWS.
Could an Education Grid be Set up?
- Currently, all operations, engineering and product resources are focused on the cloud uplift, so any attempt to establish a separate grid would interfere with this work.
- A special education grid might not by the way forward. There are existing means to limit where a group of users can go in SL, what they can see, etc., which may be a preferable route of investigation, at least in the short-term, before entertaining more long-term ideas that have to wait until after the uplift has been completed.
Are schools using SL as a Learning Management Platform (LMP)?
- Mostly, it has been a case of teachers spending time in Second Life and figuring out how to use it for education.
- Establishing a traditional classroom teaching environment in SL is not that hard to achieve – although things like the on-boarding of students to the environment could be improved, together with improvements to how information is presented in-world, etc.
- However, deep integration with learning management tools and provisioning experiential learning (learn by doing) options requires a lot of third-party expertise.
- LL therefore tries to work in partnership with organisations like CNDG (Chant Newall Development Group, LLC), perhaps the largest educational provider in SL.
- [CNDG has been active in SL since 2006, operating up to 42 regions, and particularly collaborates with Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, which have both seen over 2,000 students participate in activities. In all some 25,000 students in total having participated in CNDG developed programmes between 2007 and 2019.]
- In this approach, LL provide the platform and tools, and organisations like CNDG provide the tailored solutions for their clients. This helps ensure partners have the platform tools they require to provide solutions to their clients, whilst directly ensuring such solutions correctly align with expected educational guidelines, etc., which are also outside of the Lab’s own areas of expertise.
- This approach also works with other verticals, such as healthcare, entertainment, etc.
Diversity and Linden Lab / Second Life
- Linden Lab has a diverse workforce in terms of gender, sex, race, etc., – something the company is proud of.
- The focus is on recruiting the right people for the work, regardless of background.
- The company recognises that diversity is not a case of ticking a box, but is something that has to be clearly pro-actively thought about and structured – such as through hiring policies, working environment, etc., on an on-going basis.
- SL is also a strong platform for diversity in terms of the user base.
- Sees freedom of expression as a great positive in this regard, but also mindful of the need for limits to be set to help prevent the growth of the kind of discrimination, bias and ugliness that can break discourse and understanding in the physical world.
- Setting such limits can be difficult, as SL is culturally and socially diverse, so the people using it can all have different views on where the limits should be. So this is also an on-going process.
- Is always willing to hear from the community on how LL can improve things even further and make SL even more of a safe, diverse space.
The SL Economy
[Note: Tilia Pay (Tilia Inc.) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Linden Lab, first set-up in 2014 and officially launched in 2019. It is focused on payments and financial compliance requirements associated with operating virtual economies, including Second Life. For further details, please refer to: Tilia has officially launched operations with Second Life*, Tilia Inc and Second Life: town hall summary and video; Tilia – a further look and a little more speculation; Linden Lab and Tilia Inc. – speculations on the Lab’s new subsidiary.]
- SL allows people to carry out virtual transactions among themselves using purchased tokens [Linden Dollars], and also convert and cash-out [process credit] those tokens as fiat money.
- The Second Life GDP is in the hundreds of million of US dollars, and on average recently, users have cashed-out some US $65 million from the platform annually.
- This means that SL must operate within financial regulatory requirements [e.g. at a US federal level, as defined by the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN]. Had LL not sought to do so, the company would have had to restructure how economic activity is carried out and managed in Second Life, potentially restricting the level of financial “freedom” users have always enjoyed.
- The work specifically involved the company in becoming a registered money transmitter [within the money service business or MSB framework], to ensure that all financial operations associated with Second Life is in compliance with US regulations [state and federal].
- It also meant that significant time and effort had to be invested in ensuring all the required processes and tools were in place to mitigate risks of things like money laundering, fraud, etc.
- Given the amount of effort involved, it made sense to ring fence this work off into a separate company – particularly as it meant LL would then be able to offer Tilia as a service to other companies wishing to operate virtual currencies.
- Today, Tilia is used by SL, Sansar and, most recently, Upland [see: A further look at Tilia and their new client, Upland] and LL is in discussions with “a number” of other third-party companies interested in using Tilia’s services as a part of their games / services / platforms to both generate revenue and allow their users to generate revenue.
- Tilia is currently uniquely placed to offer this type of service.
- Currently, work is focused on streamlining some of Tilia’s APIs to make it more attractive to third-parties.
- Was initially a defensive move to protect how Second Life operates, but now potentially proving to be more of a means that could help LL generate revenue as a market leading service.
- Really, for SL users, Tilia is simply an update to the trusted path for handling money within the platform that ensures compliance with all US regulatory requirements.
Pricing and Fees
- No plans to make any adjustments to land fees this year, but hopefully in the coming year. Right now, as noted, efforts are focused on the cloud uplift.
- Still feels land is too expensive, but it is the major revenue earner for LL. Ergo, as it comes down, loss of income has to be compensated for in one of two ways:
- Via increases in other fees.
- By selling a product in volume.
- Thus far, LL has compensated for reduced land revenues through increases to fees elsewhere (e.g. Premium fees, process credit fees, MP fees, etc.).
- For further land fee reductions, much the same will have to happen unless alternatives for revenue generation can be found – LL has some ideas for this, but nothing definitive.
- As it is, land price reductions, etc., are unlikely to come for “a few quarters” as LL complete the uplift work and settle into running SL via the cloud.
- Ideally would like to see lower land prices with the difference made up through an increased volume of land sales, but this is a harder goal to achieve (what happens if prices are reduced but don’t stimulate a large take-up of land products?).
- Another means of lowering land prices could be a broader range of land products, but these – if possible – will not be made until well after the uplift has finished.
- Also aware that adjusting fees can have adverse effects on users which could also negatively impact the economy in other ways.
Subscription Plans and Premium Plus
- Quite “far along” the thinking of how to adjust the subscription levels and what they would be.
- Technically, LL has also done a lot of the work [e.g. adding the require capabilities for managing subscription levels in both the simulator and viewer, although they are not currently active].
- In terms of Premium Plus, the decision was taken to delay it due to the final elements of work distracting from the uplift project, and to also avoid putting pressure on users during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic [see also: Second Life Premium Plus roll-out postponed].
- Premium Plus will be picked up again towards the end of 2020, but probably won’t be deployed until 2021.
Roadmap – Achievements and Future Plans
Achievements since SL16B
- Achieved a lot – Bakes on Mesh, Environment Enhancement Project, and Name Changes.
- Have completed a lot of work on the uplift – but still a long way to go, with work continuing through 2020 to hopefully be completed by year end.
- As noted, many SL services are already provisioned via AWS, and users haven’t noticed the switch, which LL take as a win.
- Sees the introduction and on-going deployment of Linden Homes as a major achievement, and is pleased at the way they have been received.
- Marketing has done a lot of work to improve new user acquisition, allowing campaigns and advertising to be more focused and more cost-effective.
- This work is not just on the technical side, but in also presenting content – Lab Gab, etc., – that is far more accessible to “non-SL” audiences, plus partnerships with the likes of Hello Kitty, Adult Swim, NFL Alumni Association, etc.
- A lot of work on support for businesses, educators, etc.
- Acknowledges still a lot of work to be done in supporting businesses and organisations wishing to use SL, even as LL is engaged in discussions with “a lot of third-parties” interested in using the platform.
The seven new turnkey business/ meeting environments provided by Linden Lab.
- Mobile Companion app – iOS and Android. Currently focused on communications – world view, etc., will come much later. [For further details on this please refer to Second Life Mobile mini update, May 2020 with audio.]
- Incremental improvements to the viewer UI, including aforementioned improvements to streaming into SL (Chrome Embedded Framework updates).
- Completing the cloud uplift.
- Further work on the business-to-business aspects of using the platform.
- Not just features, but business models and resources to support better business, education, etc., use of the SL.
- Considering ways to make group interactions within SL more successful.
- Tilia – continue to improve and expand its usability.
- Deploy Premium Plus.
- And – at some point – simplifying the entire avatar customisation process, particularly for incoming new users and without compromising what is already available to experienced users. This involves asking questions like should the platform have more than one avatar system?
- Plus constant / iterative work on performance, graphics, etc.
The Sale of Sansar
- Was a tough decision. LL spent a lot of time and effort building a lot of core technology for Sansar. However, in doing so, it became increasingly apparent that actually growing Sansar would take more resources and input than LL would be able to pour into it without potentially harming SL.
- Is very proud of what has been achieved with Sansar, and happy to see most of the Sansar team is now working at Wookey, and remains in close contact with them, particularly as Wookey is a Tilia customer.
- Very much hopes Wookey / Sansar succeeds, but feels the sale was for the benefit of both platforms.
- Sansar paved the way for better understanding how SL could be moved to the cloud by virtue of having been built on AWS services, and some of the expertise gained through that was retained by the Lab.
- Also offered a lot of information on VR headsets and what it means to present a virtual environment that can run smoothly on that hardware. Also offered better insight into things like avatar customisation ease-of-use for incoming new users.
- Believes many of the lessons learned through Sansar will benefit thinking around SL going forward.
Other Questions and Answers
Could latency / lag be reduced after the cloud move? Could it allow SL to Become a Gaming / E-Sports Platform?
- SL is not like computer games: the content is not optimised for running on a high-end commercial engine like Unity, Improbable, etc. Nor are those engines really geared to handle a dynamic environment like SL.
- Games are specifically engineered to be as performant as possible – texture use, mesh complexity, where players can go, what they can do, and how many can be in a single instance of a location.
- SL is much more open: content is not regulated to be performant (many creators are unaware of how to make better, more performant content), there is no limit places on where / how avatars can see content or what users can do in-world.
- It’s simply not possible to build Second Life as we know it on a game engine like Unity, etc., as the engine itself would require constraints places on what creators and users can / cannot do.
- As it is, there is a strong hope that simulator-related and other back-end performance will improve once SL is fully transitioned to the cloud, simply because everything will be running on faster, newer hardware and infrastructure.
- Significant effort has been put into making SL more performant [e.g. from making the viewer more robust, through to moving all the asset delivery away from the simulator to using CDNs over HTTP, etc.].
- Sees LL’s role in providing the tools and abilities / information that will encourage creators and users to consider content and its impact, by both encouraging creators to make more performant content and enabling users to make more informed choices about the content they are purchasing / placing within their regions.
- Also looking to:
- A range of improvements to caching, texture compression, , LOD modelling, etc., to try to improve things.
- Better contextualising ARC and LI [Project ARCTan – see my Content Creation updates].
- Having the viewer more intelligently respond to the capabilities of a user’s computer for settings, etc.
- Even so, it is acknowledged that performance is in the hands of the user – people will often want high settings that reduce viewer performance and see the world richly rendered, than opt for better performance with a lower rendering quality.
Does Linden Lab have plans to integrate tools like Office 365 into SL for business users?
- More work is needed to a make SL a more turn-key solution for businesses / organisations – e.g. a simpler route for an organisation to bring (say) 30 people in-world to a meeting or conference, etc. How do they establish the space and bring the necessary people into it with them get stuck on the basics of things like navigation, avatar looks, etc?
- Also further work is needed on understanding use cases – how long does an organisation actually require space? If for a single meeting or 4-day conference, they are unlikely to want to lease an entire region for a month.
- Has noted that when an organisation dedicates itself to running an event within SL, it can work really well – but the up-front aspects like on-boarding are still too intensive in terms of time and effort.
- So rather than provisioning tools, focus is more on making the experience of using SL as a utility / solution that can be relatively seamlessly used by a business.
- In solving for this the way will be opened to more effective use of SL and it may also help solve issues faced by resident users (e.g. when setting-up and running events).
- As it is, a large part of the conversation with business, etc., is in understanding their needs and setting their expectations. This means LL has to pick customers, rather than just saying “yes” to anyone.
Can there be a returns of an updated Linden Endowment for the Arts?
- More a question for the Marketing team.
- Would like to see the arts in all forms better supported by SL / LL.
- Issue is really “how to do it in the right way”. Politics can often intrude (different groups wanting / hoping for different things – so who to listen to, what to recognise, do, etc?).
- Would like to see a means for artistic expression within SL that might otherwise not be seen due to cost, etc. But again, the question is how to do it and at a reasonable scale.
What is being done to stop Copybotting?
- Technically, there is no solution – if it is in the viewer, it can be ripped. Period.
- This is also true of other platforms.
- So it is more a case of dealing with the issue as it occurs – e.g. reporting such as DMCA, abuse report, etc.
Can there be a tier discount for regions that have been in operation for 10+ years?
- Interesting thought – could a discount be applied based on longevity? However, potentially hard to model in terms of long-term revenue impact.
- For regions of historic interest in SL, there is the Second Life Region Preservation Society (SLRPS), which Patch and his team manage / attempt to find someone to take over the region. However, the former has to be limited due to the cost and effort involved in maintaining such regions.
- Generally feels the preferred route is to improve the platform, lower costs and enable users to better afford land.