Philip Rosedale: musing on Second Life and the metaverse

Philip Rosedale (2006) via Esther Dyson on Flickr

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Whilst coming a week late to the party, but Protocol, the on-line tech publication, presented a brief but punchy interview with Philip Rosedale on his return to Linden Lab, a piece that makes for worthwhile reading.

I admit that a small part of my attraction to Second Life’s founder doesn’t believe in VR, by Janko Roettgers and Nick Statt, lay in the fact a couple of Rosedale’s comments on the state of VR as it is today, pretty much echo what I was saying a good few years ago (that the current generation of VR headsets are inherently anti-social in the way that cut the user off from those immediately around them). However, that’s not the reason for me to point to the article; there is far more of relevance within it.

What makes this article a particularly pleasant read is the direct approach taken by this authors, with key points neatly broken down into sub-sets of bullet points. These start with a refreshing  – and, I would state – fair summation of the state of consumer-facing VR before moving to to some of the challenges faced by “the metaverse” is trying to reach a significant global audience, and what’s on the horizon for Second Life in the future.

Janko Roettgers

This third sub-set of items has already been covered to some degree and includes the topics we’ve already heard about / surmised:

  • The use of tracking technology for avatar expressiveness.
  • A renewed move towards mobile support for Second Life (again, related to the “decentralised environment patents” transferred to LL?).
  • Improved communications capabilities.

No specifics are offered, admittedly – but what is recognised and – allowing for the fact that Rosedale is only (currently?) a part-time advisor to the Lab – a recognition that Second Life is long in the tooth with a heavy reliance on legacy technology  / approaches – and that at some point it is entirely possible that at some point building a new platform alongside of, and eventually replacing, Second Life as we know it, may well become a necessity.

And before anyone says, “but they did that with Sansar, and look at what happened!”, it is worth pointing out that a) Sansar was never developed as some kind of “SL 2.0”; it was made clear from the outset that the Lab was looking to address two different environments: Second Life and what was believed to be the coming wave for VR users, with agendas / needs that were very different to the majority of Second Life users. As such, there is no reason why, if LL did embark on an actual “SL 2.0”, it would likely be far more in respect of retaining the current user base and growing it, rather than seeking other horizons, as was the case with Sansar, whilst also allowing the platform to pivot more readily to newer technologies.

I actually find this point-of-view – which again, is a personal perspective from Rosedale, and not at this point anything we know to be part of the Lab’s plans for the foreseeable future – to be refreshing. Linden Lab has perhaps been too afraid of the spectre of “content breakage” and Second Life users a little too attached to inventory that they (probably) haven’t used in years, that it’s about time someone voice the reality that in order to move forward, there may well come a time when a break from at least some of the past is required.

For me, a particular point of interest within the article is what Rosedale states about the challenges facing “the metaverse”, and specifically the need to get to a point where avatar-centric communications can be “as effective as a simple Zoom call” together the  need for Second Life to provide “a better communication experience to take on Zoom calls.”

Nick Statt

I find this of a point of interest because it both underlines the coming of “avatar expressiveness in SL, and what the Lab hope to achieve with it, and also a continuing disconnect that is still evident in thinking around what “the metaverse” “must” do.

Within SL (and for the metaverse as a whole), there is no doubting that there are a range of use cases that can only benefit from avatar expressiveness. Picture, for example, a teacher within a virtual classroom being able to recognise a student who is experiencing difficulty or confusion during a lesson just by witnessing their facial expressions, and thus provide assistance.

However, the idea that “the metaverse” can gain traction among users just by emulating tools already at our disposal – Zoom, Skype, Duo, Viber, etc., – is potentially misguided. Such tools are already too ingrained into our psyche of ease-of-access and use to by easily replaced by carrying out the same task in virtual spaces. If “the metaverse” is to gain a mass appeal that isn’t centred on one particular environment / limited demographic – again, note Rosedale’s comments about Fortnite, Roblox and VR Chat – then it has to have a broad-based and compelling set of attractions rather than risking being seen as “just an alternative” to what can already be done using this, that or the other app or programme, etc. that is already at our disposal.

But in this I’ve said more than enough –  or al least the article from which it is drawn, so I’ll close here and leave Roettgers, and  Statt’s piece for you to read directly. And in doing so, I’d also recommend taking a look at what amounts to a follow-up piece by the same authors. With In the metaverse, everyone can sound like Morgan Freeman, Roettgers and Statt talk to Philip Rosedale about spatial audio and the company he currently runs: High Fidelity; it’s another informative read.

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