Second Life Founder, Philip Rosedale, Is Quietly Creating a Next-Generation Virtual World

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In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, humanity escapes a gritty dystopia by donning VR goggles and entering a virtual world called OASIS. Back here in a comparatively rosy 2013, we don’t have a fully immersive virtual experience—yet.

But virtual reality is undergoing a renaissance. And while Oculus develops a consumer-ready virtual reality headset, Second Life creator, Philip Rosedale, and his latest startup, High Fidelity, are hard at work constructing a next-generation global virtual world.

High Fidelity was quietly launched earlier this year with funding from Second Life’s Linden Lab, Google Ventures, Kapor Capital, and True Ventures. To date, the firm has largely kept itself out of the spotlight. Search “high fidelity” and prepare yourself for a barrage of John Cusack. Add virtual, however, and you’re there.

High Fidelity’s mantra goes, “If it doesn’t hurt to think about it, we’re not going to try it.” However, although some of the technical work “under the hood” hurts the brain, Rosedale told us anyone can appreciate the bigger picture.

“I think the general ideas are pretty straightforward and powerful—create a virtual place with the kind of richness and communication and interaction that we find in the real world, and then get us all in there!”

Philip Rosedale.

Philip Rosedale.

This isn’t Rosedale’s first dance. Second Life, his first virtual world, hosts a million users and a $6 billion economy. But Second Life never caught on in the massive way some thought it would.

Rosedale has clearly put some thought into what might be improved. He recently told a group of students at Singularity University that interfaces need to be more intuitive. Second Life uses a mouse and multiple keys on the keyboard, both 2D inputs, to navigate a 3D space—it’s like learning to play the piano. (Join our member program to watch this talk and more like it.)

Further, he wants to make avatar interaction a richer experience. Our virtual selves should precisely mimic our movements in the real world in as close to real time as possible. Body language is a key element of satisfying real world interactions. Until we have realistic body language in the virtual world, folks won’t be drawn there.

Whereas the enabling technology for Second Life was broadband, it was the latest body tracking technology that convinced Rosedale now is the time to take the next step.

In early 2013, he hooked the gyro from a Rift headset onto a pair of glasses to track head motion and, watching himself in the mirror next to a simple avatar tracking his movements, was blown away. The result was spooky good, the precision uncanny, the latency lower than anything the human eye would pick up.

Rosedale says, “We’re experimenting with our own very simple bits of hardware to capture head motion, and also looking at many other cool devices like the [Razer] Hydra, zSpace, and Leap Motion.”

While body tracking may make for more realistic and intuitive avatars, High Fidelity’s other big idea will power the world they live in. In exchange for virtual money, virtual citizens will assign their computer’s unused processing power—when they’re sleeping, for example—to construct High Fidelity’s world in exquisite detail.

The closest existing analogous systems (called distributed computing networks) rival the most powerful supercomputers on the planet. However, because of a virtual world’s special requirements, Rosedale told us their system will be a “wholly new kind of thing.” When complete, High Fidelity’s network will scale with the virtual world’s popularity and ever faster constituent devices (mobile, laptop, or desktop).

Second Life runs on 40,000 servers. Imagine a world that runs on a million, ten million, or even a billion machines.

According to Rosedale, what we see in CGI movies today (think Avatar or Star Trek) will be possible in a virtual world six years from now. But High Fidelity won’t build all the visuals themselves. Rather, they’ll set up the construct, open the door, hit play, and see what emerges.

“I’d love to see us build something quite similar to what [Ready Player One] describes, but probably with less central agency.  A global virtual world seems very likely to be (un)governed in a manner similar to the internet itself.”

Let’s say all goes to plan, and a few years from now (Rosedale isn’t talking timeframe yet), we’re visiting this new virtual world on a second or third generation Oculus Rift, complete with a suite of body sensing tech. What happens next?

Rosedale says in Second Life, people “make things, sell them to each other…fall in love, get married, have sex, everything that we do in the real world.” Done right, a virtual world could augment or replace today’s social networks, or if High Fidelity perfects avatar interaction with minimal latency—why bother with a telepresence robot?

We may never travel light-speed in the real world, but we can come close by broadband. New York to Tokyo to Tatooine in as long as it takes to plug yourself in and hit go.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • warbo November 12, 2013 on 8:30 am

    SecondLife certainly has the popularity and mindshare, but systems like OpenCobalt were much more sophisticated and decentralised ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Cobalt ). The technology’s changed names a bit in the past few years, the latest incarnation I’ve seen is OpenQwaq http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenQwaq and a Javascript re-implementation Virtual World Framework http://www.virtualworldframework.com/web/about.html

  • Pooky Amsterdam November 12, 2013 on 1:28 pm

    Great article, very exciting and Rosedale is a true visionary and genius. The world will move increasingly to virtual planes, as it has been. It’s said that we can not ever fully understand the Universe because we haven’t created it…but “we” have created the Virtual one and come to understand so much about ourself, society, our hopes and needs within them. And yes, our unlimited potentials.
    Having a game engine studio that utilizes the 360 degree studio set of the Second Life platorm has been a very rich visual experience indeed. Making webseries, Public Service Announcements, commercials, music videos and educational films there, I can’t tell you enough how much excitement and potential this holds.
    Here is the last episode of Time Travelers which Dr. James Canton, head of the Institute for Global Futures and myself have written. Quantum Entangled > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsaGdX8O26c&list=PL59E0795D729857E3

  • Kristof November 12, 2013 on 2:54 pm

    Very cool, I can see a day in which logging on would actually be enter the virtual world. Want to do some shopping, fly over to the Amazon’s store front and walk around the endless rows of anything and everything would ever possible want to buy, pick it up, feel it, try it on, experience it and then have it sent to you in the real world.

    The greatest impact this tech would have would be on education and entertainment. Want to learn about Ancient Rome, why not experience it for yourself. Gettysburg reenactments would never be the same. Learn how fix your toilet by a master plumber in a place in which you can make all mistakes you want without the smell. The big screen will most certainly be replaced which will provide different experiences on stories pending on your perspective. And my favorite, what superpower would you choose when you load the Metropolis or Gotham World?

  • Kenny Pride November 12, 2013 on 4:55 pm

    that’s awesome.

  • lokiEliot November 13, 2013 on 9:22 am

    I still believe the potential effects of connecting humans from all over the world into a shared space to exchange ideas, culture and opinions has yet to be fully explored. Second Life is such an experiment. While social networks has shown how feedback loops of information and education can lead to world wide movements in ideas, shared virtual environments possess the ability to expand feedback loops to experiences. The idea being no matter where you are on the planet you could experience and learn from that experience in a virtual world. Military and scientific studies use Virtual worlds to gain great insight into human behaviour, what people like Rosendale seem to want to do is give this amazing tool to the whole world. Second Life is a vibrant and sometimes chaotic experiment in user generated society. Everything is built by the users, everything you do there is either created by yourself or by someone else there. The economy was at one point self sustained but the users. Users don’t just type messages to each other they experience shared moments which they remember just like real world memories. This is what sets Shared Virtual Worlds apart from current social networking which just collect snapshots of your real world. In places like Second Life you can go to a virtual fireworks display and see your friends beside you and then next day read a post on Facebook saying “hung out with my friends in SL watching fireworks” and in your head you have a memory of being there with them seeing the pixilated fireworks pop. With high fidelity Philip is simply pulling out a clean slate in order to continue this experiment which is still going strong in SL. I look forward to seeing how High Fidelity develops.

    • mikemcfarlane lokiEliot November 13, 2013 on 8:39 pm

      @lokiEliot, good points.

      I wonder what metrics are being built into this new virtual world to track and understand our interactions in the space.

  • Joe Nickence November 13, 2013 on 3:53 pm

    I don’t know. It sure sounds like he’s proposing P2P networking to me. Has anyone reading this ever heard of MOOVE Online, with their Roomancer software? They’ve been doing P2P for years, even allowing for 56k modem connections. I guess it depends on just how realistic and immersive you want to be.

  • Maxwell Graf November 30, 2013 on 11:11 pm

    While I look forward to the coming convergence of bandwidth, hardware and software capabilities that will (finally) enable a universal virtual experience – more what we all do for some part of our time online – I cannot stop the feeling that Phil is smoking the dream pipe on this one. Mind you, I say so having spent roughly 18,000 hours in SL since 2007 and still loving it and other virtual worlds such as Cloud Party very much.

    The problems with High Fidelity are not really technological. I imagine with his golden ability to sell to investors that none of what he proposes will be unreachable. The problems are human, social and security issues, which no amount of next gen magic will overcome. His ideas are brilliant. His long term handling of the population within his virtual worlds, the residents/customers, is a long history of face-palming and dismal failure. What he, and almost every other virtual world management company consistently fail at is understanding the very community they depend on. From Blue Mars to Cloud Party to SL to There.com to Active Worlds there is a very noticeable lack of knowing just what it means to exist in the environments they create as a user. They do not spend time in those worlds, generally, and if they do it is as an admin or mod, not as a player/resident. Perhaps the farthest understanding gap exists between the company and those who try to run a business of any kind inside those worlds. There is no shortage of horror stories that illustrate my point on this matter. Ask anyone who spends or makes money in SL about the nature of the corporate beast there, just be sure to bring a lunch with you.

    There are several areas which concern me re. the success of Phil’s latest venture, not the least of which is the idea that my PC will “power the grid.” Having seen what kind of security he considers acceptable in a virtual world, I think I will pass on the idea of letting anyone who wants to come into my virtual land do so on my personal machine. This is a shining example of what Phil is really fantastic at: getting other people to carry the burden. In this case, the users will carry the burden instead of masses of servers or cloud storage. Its not going to be SETI, Phil. Even if it was, Id have to see some serious changes in what you consider secure before I will let anybody log into my drives for a visit. Of note to consider is also the comments about un-agency and self governance, which has been the dream of SL since the beginning. Unfortunately, that worked for about 5 minutes before people realized that there NEEDS to be governance. There needs to be someone who controls the ban hammer and can use it as necessary. People suck sometimes, and when they do, finding out the company that you pay to watch your back does not enforce the very policy they make you agree to is not motivation to keep paying. It cannot be a hands off approach, au natural, just let things happen. It doesn’t – cannot – work that way. I have seen the disaster that can happen over and over when the company you count on for security turns a blind eye to it through negligence or squandered resources.

    I don’t really want to even begin to describe the thousand-and-one ways in which I don’t want to use head tracking/glass/oculus/kinect/phone+tablet gyros to move virtual me around the screen. This harkens back to having no understanding of your customers, either current or future. It is a novel idea, and SO future-cool! However, if you have to spend hours inside a virtual environment you come to realize that you do not want your avatar to reflect everything you do, nor do you want to have to do everything to have your avatar function as you need it to. Keys and mice are great for a reason. They allow me to not only have advanced functionality but do so at will and with varying degrees of focus. I can watch my TV, surf my email, scratch my ass and sit in a chair while skype chatting a friend while I use my keyboard and mouse, and none of those things are directly influenced by the others. When the dog starts freaking out behind me I can turn and see what its doing and even -gasp- get up from the PC and easily deal with it. If, however, you replace that existing input methodology with an always-on fancy virtual tracking headset, not only could you not do anything but be in your virtual world, locked into the experience, but people would be wondering what the hell your problem is as you try to get your remote back from the dog.

    No matter how good it sounds, the practical application of this future tech-crack Phil is cooking up will be a very different experience for anyone who spends a couple hours a week using it, especially if they are depending on it.

    There are so many ways in which the “next big step” in virtual worlds could take that have little to do with the kind of augmented reality/mobile device interface that many of these companies insist is the future of gaming and television and everything else. Complex virtual realities, unlike games and movies, are not something most people want to spend extended amounts of time on using a 4 inch screen with no keyboard. They wont want to lock into one with a headset either for 8 hours. It is just not practical until you can sedate me and put a feeding and liquor tube in me ala matrix. The emergence of advanced 2nd gen. voxel engines, the expanding boundaries of openGL/webGL, cloud solutions – these things are where the future lies for virtual environments, whether gaming, casual or world-building. 2006 called and it wants it’s vision of the future back, Phil.