What Is the Metaverse? Philip Rosedale’s Big Dream for Immersive Virtual Worlds

What is the metaverse? It’s Philip Rosedale’s second crack at playing god—at least in the virtual sense. Rosedale created his first virtual world, Second Life, in 2002. Now, he and his new company, High Fidelity, are building another world in silica—and this time, they’re thinking on planetary scales.

Speaking at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) conference this week, Rosedale said that by harnessing the shared power of home PCs, “We could collectively create a space whose literal scale is comparable to the landmass of the planet Earth.” Sound ambitious? It is, and it isn’t.

There's no predicting what new sights will emerge in future user-created virtual worlds.
There’s no predicting what new sights will emerge in future user-created virtual worlds.

Rosedale and High Fidelity aim to build a scaffold, set the ground rules, and hit play. That is, they’ll provide laws of physics and a Big Bang. The High Fidelity world itself, however, will be built by residents. There’s no predicting what will emerge, and that’s the beauty of it.

But first—what about that scaffold and ground rules?

High Fidelity’s virtual world, launched in alpha this April (more refinement to come), is cool for a few reasons.

While you can access the world on your laptop or desktop PC, you can also visit using a headmounted display, like the Oculus Rift. On a Rift, your head movements are tracked. Alternatively, your computer webcam can track your head and face.

Whereas avatars in virtual worlds today are doll-like and hard to control, High Fidelity wants to automatically import your motion and expressions in real time. They think this will make avatars naturally more emotive and engaging. You can also stream audio, talk to people, and move between locations—though not many have been created yet. The world is editable, and it’s open source.

(It’s still under development, but to see what High Fidelity’s world looks like, watch the team announce $11 million in new funding from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, the new alpha stage, and pitch for talent.)

In his talk, Rosedale also hit on some other perhaps more intriguing visions for High Fidelity beyond simply social VR. As virtual reality comes online: The big question is what will we use it for most?

Looking back to the early days of computing in two dimensions, games and word processing were fun and useful. But they were dwarfed and ultimately embedded in something bigger. Something we call the Internet. Done right, Rosedale thinks virtual worlds can build on the Internet, even encompass it, and grow just as fast (only in three dimensions). How? By making sure they are free, open, and interconnected.

Back in the mid-90s, AOL and CompuServe were our first online portals, but they were eclipsed by a wilder, more chaotic model. Why? The hyperlink. An isolated web page isn’t as useful as one linking to other pages for more information. Their usefulness as a whole rapidly climbs with interconnectivity.

Can interconnected virtual worlds grow like the web?
Can interconnected virtual worlds grow like the web?

“If we can build a metaverse in which the spaces we create are linked together—or whoever successfully does that,”Rosedale says, “Those combined spaces with those hyperlinks will rapidly dominate everything, in terms of our total usage.”

How will we create the 3D equivalent of webpages? How will we connect them to each other? And how will we organically search them to find whatever we like?

These are questions High Fidelity and its community of cocreators will explore. If it’s early days for virtual reality—it’s even earlier for Internet-like VR.

That said, there’s plenty of room to grow.

High Fidelity will be hosted (starting later this year) on people’s home computers—akin to distributed computing networks like SETI@Home. Users can add their computer as a server, and each new computer can host some 10 or 12 more people at a time. Said another way, the world scales massively with adoption.

Rosedale says there are some half billion desktop PCs with a broadband connection today. That’s enough firepower to, in theory, stream a few megabits of low-latency access to everyone on the planet.

“Today, if we were using an Internet-scale architecture to simulate a virtual world—to simulate the metaverse—the scale of that will be sufficient to stream…an experience like what I’m showing you right here to everybody now alive, at the same time. And that, in conclusion, is where I think we’re going.”

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Jason Dorrier
Jason Dorrier
Jason is editorial director of Singularity Hub. He researched and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science and technology. He's curious about pretty much everything, but especially loves learning about and sharing big ideas and advances in artificial intelligence, computing, robotics, biotech, neuroscience, and space.
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