Second Life 2021/22: the Lab’s review & preview (with my own notes!)

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On Thursday, December 23rd, Linden Lab published their review of 2021, which also included a quick look ahead to 2022. As it is also my custom to offer a personal look back over a year as it drawing to a close, I thought that this year I’d focus a little on the Lab’s review and offer thoughts of my own as well.

Linden Lab: Departures and Arrivals

As the official blog post notes, 2021 has been a year of transition for the Lab in terms of management and senior positions.

New Owners: 2021 saw Linden Research Incorporated (aka Linden Lab) and its subsidiary, Tilia Inc (Tilia Pay) under new ownership in the form of Brad Oberwager, J. Randall (Randy) Waterfield and Raj Date. Of the three, Mr. Oberwager (Oberwolf Linden) has been perhaps the most visibly hands-on of the three, taking up the Executive Chair on the Lab’s management team. He also brought in his long-time colleague, Cammy Bergren to take up a new (to the company) position of Chief of Staff. I offered something of a summary of the three new owners largely using their official bios from LL) in January 2021, which included some speculation on my part that Raj Date might be focused somewhat on Tilia (and he did take up a board position with that company – as did Brad Oberwager).

Ebbe Altberg: 1964-2021

Ebbe Altberg: Mr. Oberwager’s more direct involvement with running the company may have been due in part to Ebbe Altberg’s health situation as much as Mr. Oberwager’s approach to the businesses he takes on. As CEO, Ebbe’s presence at the Lab had always been large in the public eye, and late 2020 / early 2021, was conspicuously marked by his apparent absence. Of course, as we now all know, illness was taking its toll, and Ebbe sadly passed away in June 2021, and as the Lab’s end-of-year post notes, his absence is still keenly felt.

Ebbe’s passing did give rise to speculation as to who the next CEO might be / when a new CEO would be announced. However, given Brad Oberwager and Cammy Bergren’s presence within the management team, I’ve never been convinced the Lab actually needed to look elsewhere for a CEO (or promote from within); both are accomplished CEOs of small businesses in their own right. Also, given the fact that overall ownership of the company was still relatively new, it’s reasonable to assume bringing in a new face / ideas / point of view to run things could have complicated matters unduly.

That said, part of me had been wondering as the year wore on as to whether r not we would see Cammy Bergren slip into the CEO’s role – and, allowing for her commitments elsewhere, I still wonder if that might not yet be the case.

Linden Lab’s Chief of Staff, Cammy Bergren (centre left) and Board member / Executive Chairman, Brad Oberwager (centre right) are Participating in Team 2 for Bid A linden Bald through their respective avatars, Cammy Linden and Oberwolf Linden, seen flanking them

Oz and Mojo: February 2021 saw the departure of Oz Linden from the Lab, as retirement beckoned him. As the official blog post notes, Oz had been instrumental in driving key decisions and implementations of Second Life’s development for over a decade, culminating with overseeing the physical transition of the platform to run within an environment operated by Amazon Web Services (AWS). Oz’s influence on the technical development of SL – particularly as Sansar came into being in 2014-2019 cannot be under-estimated, as I noted in my own farewell to him.

Replacing him as Vice President of Engineering, and arriving in July 2021, is Andrew Kertesz, aka Mojo Linden, whom I offered something of a “hello!” to in August. After getting his feet reasonably under the desk, Mojo started to attend in-world user group meetings, demonstrating he is quickly getting up to speed with the many challenges – technical and non-technical – facing the platform in its continued development and growth, and has some ideas of his own – some of which I’ve noted in these pages.

The changing face of the Lab’s VP of engineering: (l) -Scott Lawrence (Oz Linden), who retired in February 2021, and Andrew Ketesz (Mojo Linden), who joined in July 2021

One notable name missing from the list of those departing Labbies in the official blog post is that of April Linden, who departed the Lab at the start of November. Originally a member of the Engineering Team, the group of engineers responsible for keeping the servers that run all of SL’s various services purring (or grinding) along, April rose to lead the team, reporting to Oz and becoming the public face of explaining What Went Wrong and Why with highly informative blog-posts – including the bumpy bits of 2021!

Technical Front

While there were no significant new features released in 2021, the development and engineering teams have been busy. With the initial transition to AWS completed at the end of 2020, the past year has been focused on bedding-in / optimising SL within its new environment and trying to leverage the improved capabilities of the AWS environment to improve performance, server management, etc. So a lot has been going on under-the-hood, and it will continue into / through 2022, starting with a server operating system upgrade.

The performance work has also involved the viewer as well, although it has yet to reach de-facto release status. This work includes improvements to threading within the viewer’s code and a re-working of avatar rendering. Other performance improvements in development include some by TPV developers that the Lab is interested in potentially adopting / adapting that could further help with overall viewer performance, and I’ll be taking these through my User Group meeting summaries in 2022.

2021 saw the arrival of some long-term projects, including the initial deployment of multi-factor authentication – a welcome move, despite some of the criticism levelled at it. Where the viewer is concerned, the most notable long-term project to finally surface is the  360º capture capability, and look forward to it becoming more widely available in TPVs. Those who may not have read them can catch my overviews of the project viewer version and the release version of this viewer (both are the same in terms of use), and WordPress users might be interested in my piece on embedding 360 images into WordPress.

Picking at the Rest

The Lab’s blog post also touches on the likes of Linden Homes deployments, which this year saw the release of the Chalet and Fantasy themes, and the promise of the Newbrooke theme to come in 2022 – quite possibly in a revised form, given the reactions to the preview region seen (briefly) at the RFL of SL Xmas Expo. While I was initially unimpressed by the Fantasy theme, I have to admit to finding the community centre for the the theme perhaps the most visually engaging of such centres yet offered.

Linden Fantasy Homes – Community Centre

In terms of Linden Homes, one thing I would like to see from the Lab during 2022 is the “finishing off” of coastal areas around the north / north-west side of the Log Homes regions.

Looking Ahead

In looking ahead to 2022, LL point to a number of projects, including the implementation of Premium Plus, the “upper tier” of Second Life subscriptions that was put on hold for a number of reasons in 2020. The post also mentions further performance improvements, better avatar optimisation and continued work on the New User Experience – some of the work on the latter being surfaced in 2021, such as the viewer Guidebook and the new Welcome Islands that are part of the ongoing A/B testing. Plus there’s the much-promised work to overhaul and improve Search

However, three things on the Lab’s bullet point list for 2022 particularly caught my eye:

  • Avatar “expressiveness” that brings camera-based gestures and movement to your avatar for a whole new level of interaction and connectedness.
  • A new mobile viewer to enhance and improve your Second Life experience.
  • Improved materials and terrain.

The Avatar “expressiveness” project is something not (so far as I can recall) previously mentioned. I’ll reserve comment on this until I know more about it; not that I’ll be able to use it unless I go get a camera for my home desktop, I guess. All I’ll say here is that this might in in response to others jumping onto “the metaverse” bandwagon, and a desire to make SL’s avatars more appealing to a wider range of possible use cases.

The reference to a new Mobile viewer (my emphasis) rather than “client” or “app” has me wondering if, given the suspension of work on the iOS app a couple of months back, LL are now looking towards a streaming option for the viewer, rather than a “companion app” (as their mobile work has thus far been called. As such, I’ll be attempting to keep an eye and ear out for more on this.

Improved materials and terrain is interesting, as the question of terrain was raised at the last CCUG meeting of 2021, but not as a project under active consideration; rather it was raised as a discussion point to get feedback on what people might like to see if LL were to work on SL terrain. So things seem to have moved on this.  Thing like materials (and things like PBR) have been indicated as potential areas of work by the Graphics team, so it will be interesting see what materialises through 2022.

SL and “the Metaverse”

Ever since the announcement about Facebook / Meta pivoting to focus on “building the metaverse”, there have concerns / predictions that Meta will at some point acquire LL. Frankly, while the Lab is right to watch “the metaverse” hype, I don’t put any stock in the likes of Meta wishing to acquire the company, simply because LL for the most part doesn’t have IP that’s worth acquiring. Nor, given the likes of Meta have established user bases in the hundreds of millions, is LL’s user base really worth anything. What, potentially, is of value comes down to two things: skillset among staff, and Tilia Pay. And in the case of staff / skillset, there’s no need to acquire the entire company to gain them – head-hunting / poaching is far more effective. Tilia is an interesting question – but it is one best left to another post. In terms of “the metaverse” as a whole, it is fair to say it is still early days – but frankly, and pushing the hype to one side, I tend to share John Carmack’s view on things:

I have pretty good reasons to believe that setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse.

– John Carmack, October 2021

Capitalism being what it is, if the likes of Meta, Epic, Nvidia et al do build their versions of “the metaverse”, I doubt they’ll offer any form of open frontier beloved of the metavangelists. Rather they’ll be another series of walled gardens, large and small; an environment in which there is no reason why something like SL cannot continue to survive and even enjoy modest growth. Of course, the day may come when a single entity – our equivalent of Innovative Online Industries – attempts to gobble up all the opposition and establish themselves as “the metaverse” – but I doubt that is anywhere near being on the horizon (and I equally doubt they’d start with acquiring the likes of LL).

My Predictions for SL and 2022

Well, actually, I don’t have any, other than the obvious: Second Life will continue to chug along; LL will role out updates and improvements that will please some, aggravate others and possibly pass right over the heads of a few. Attempts will be made to try to grow the user-base, in part through yet more “partnerships” of the Film Threat / Titmouse / Zenescope variety with, I’m tempted to say, less-than-stellar results. For the majority of us as users, the year will likely be “business as usual”, unless the utterly unexpected pops up. And I’ll continue to eclectically blog on SL, technical (as best I can!) and non-technical.

One thought on “Second Life 2021/22: the Lab’s review & preview (with my own notes!)

  1. We need PBR. Omg, would reinvigorate me and my creative efforts, as as easy as the current dif/spc/gloss workflow might be, simply not supported by the majority ot texture tools and programs out there.

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