Thoughts on Philip Rosedale’s keynote speech at SVVR

UPDATE: The links to videos of the SVVR Conference on SLartist.com are dead, as the site has gone down. There are archived versions, but the videos cannot be played. I will look for alternatives.

svvr-logo-small

On Monday, I had the opportunity to go to the LEA Theatre and watch Philip Rosedale’s keynote speech at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Conference & Expo 2014. If I’m honest, I didn’t expect his speech to differ all that much from the one he gave at this year’s VWBPE. If you were unable to come to the LEA Theatre to watch Mr. Rosedale’s speech, you can watch the recording here (dead link), and Inara Pey has also written a summary.

Philip Rosedale, former CEO of Linden Lab, now CEO of High Fidelity, Inc., at the Web 2.0 Summit 2005. Image: Wikipedia; image credit: James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media, Inc.

Philip Rosedale, former CEO of Linden Lab, current CEO of High Fidelity, Inc., at the Web 2.0 Summit 2005. Image: Wikipedia; Image credit: James Duncan Davidson/O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Now, I suppose most of this blog’s readers are familiar with Philip Rosedale. If you don’t know about his career and background, here’s a very short bio. Back in 1995, he developed an innovative video conferencing application named FreeVue, which was acquired by RealNetworks; in 1996, he became Vice President and CTO at RealNetworks, to part ways with the company in 1997. In 1999, he founded Linden Lab, which, as we all know, is the company that develops and markets Second Life. He stepped down from his position as CEO on March 14th, 2008 and became Chairman of the Board of Directors. In June 2010, he became interim CEO and left that position again in October of the same year. On April 16th, 2013, he started developing a new virtual world platform named High Fidelity. For more detailed information, please check Wikipedia’s articles on him and Linden Lab.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I didn’t expect Mr. Rosedale’s keynote at SVVR to be all that different from the one he gave at VWBPE 2014. Still, there are some subjects on which my point of view differs significantly from his.

In both of his keynotes, Mr. Rosedale essentially told us that the key for mass adoption of virtual reality and virtual worlds by the general public is technical: If we buy special hardware – like the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, the Thalmic Myo, the Oculus Rift, etc. – that will replace our keyboards and monitors, and if they improve the user interface and reduce latency, then we will all join virtual worlds in droves; the number of potential users postulated is one billion.

I remain highly sceptical. Back in 2007, when Second Life and Linden Lab were the darling of the media (tech and general), Mr. Rosedale was talking about the 3D web, about how Second Life would replace the web, that it would be the place for corporations to have their internet presence… Fast forward to 2014 and none of his predictions have come true. If you mention Second Life to anyone, they’ll either ask “is it still around?” or they’ll dismiss/reject it entirely with remarks made in a rather colourful language about its user base. Mr. Rosedale’s (and Linden Lab’s) ambitions, aspirations and predictions proved to be nothing but a pipe dream.

Mr. Rosedale based both of his keynotes on some false assumptions:

  1. That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
  2. That people are eager to purchase user input devices (like the Razer Hydra or the Leap Motion) and special displays (like the Oculus Rift) which will have limited (if any) use outside of very specific applications;
  3. That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
  4. That, in the middle of the global financial crisis, people would eagerly spend the money for the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, or whatever other similar device is “necessary” for these virtual worlds to be enjoyed in all their glory;
  5. That the only things that keep people out of virtual worlds are lag and the complexity of the user interface.

Time for a reality check

Below, I’m going to explain why these assumptions that are so widespread among virtual world providers and evangelists are counter-productive.

The UI factor

All of the aforementioned assumptions are false. I’m going to tackle the user interface first: No, it is not too complex or too counter-intuitive. I can think of numerous highly popular applications with equally complex user interfaces (if not more): Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, Microsoft Access, 3D Studio Max, all sorts of digital recording software, etc. Their user interfaces are every bit as complex as that of the official Second Life viewer, and don’t even get me started on flight simulators. Are you seriously going to tell me you can master the substandard user interface of the GIMP and not that of a viewer for Second Life and OpenSim?

Yes, mastering Second Life’s more “arcane” settings requires that you learn some concepts and notions that you didn’t learn in high school. So does mastering any graphics or audio processing software. But here lies the only thing that differentiates learning to use Second Life from learning to use Microsoft Word or LibreOffice or any other productive software: You don’t have to use Second Life to make a living, to do your homework, to communicate with others and/or produce anything. This means, of course, that your motivation to learn how to do advanced things in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice is usually far greater than your motivation to master any Second Life or OpenSim viewer.

Why would I want or need to use a virtual world in the first place as a mere individual?

For this, I’m going to point you to the “Creating the VR Metaverse” panel that was hosted on the second day (Tuesday, May 21st), with Ebbe Altberg (current CEO of Linden Lab), Philip Rosedale, Stefano Corazza and Tony Parisi. You can watch it here (dead link). Near the end of the panel, moderator Bernhard Drax (SL username: Draxtor Despres) played a segment from one of the episodes of The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast (titled “the BIG picture“), where a girl named Pamela literally wiped the floor with Drax, as she negated and rejected all of his arguments for the use of a virtual world: She saw no use for a virtual world; no benefit for her hobbies, interests and activities. Simply put: virtual reality fails to capture Pamela’s attention and present her with something interesting enough.

What was Mr. Rosedale’s reaction? Awkward laughter and a dismissive attitude, which can be summed up as “well, it’s not us that have failed to make virtual reality attractive to the public, it’s the public that doesn’t understand how cool virtual reality is”. Well, that is precisely what’s wrong, and not only with Mr. Rosedale, but with nearly every virtual reality evangelist I’ve seen so far: Instead of accepting the burden of showing potential users that virtual worlds are worthwhile, they expect potential users to do the hard work and figure out what virtual worlds can do for them. Of course, from a marketing point of view, this attitude is counter-productive, to say the least.

Why would I need a virtual world as a professional?

Back in 2007, Second Life was hyped as the place for educational institutes, for corporations etc. to host their online presence. For a number of reasons, both Second Life and its OpenSim clones did not deliver the goods. Their graphical capabilities were very limited compared to what can be done now, the reliability and stability of the platform(s) were iffy – at best – and importing content (besides textures, texts, scripts and sounds) was, until the advent of sculpted prims (first) and mesh (later), impossible.

The technical deficiencies didn’t go unnoticed by the corporate world, and, one by one, the vast majority of the corporate presences vanished. The fact that the “traditional” web (which, if we were to believe Mr. Rosedale’s predictions, would be replaced by Second Life)  offered – and still does – an infinitely larger audience didn’t help, either. And, although the cost of hosting a region in Second Life, which is still the most popular grid-based virtual world by far, has never been exactly excessive (as I explained in my previous post), the limited exposure afforded by it made this cost unjustifiable.

Permanent (?) limitations

The engineering world has never been exactly fascinated with virtual worlds. You see, they had incorporated virtual reality goggles, gloves etc. long before Second Life came to be; they used them – and still do – to get inside very complex 3D models to capture design flaws before committing something to production, even prototyping in some cases. SL and its OpenSim clones can’t handle the high-poly models used in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) / CAE (Computer-Aided Engineering) and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) well.

Also, the scripting languages are downright gelded. First of all, they can’t provide any straightforward means for simulating anything with 3D models. You can’t do finite element analysis in Second Life or OpenSim. Let’s say you want to show how a fatigue crack propagates. You can’t do that, unless you employ some pretty convoluted scripting. And here lies the question: Why bother? Why bother, when you can do it in a far more straightforward manner with a dedicated application?

If LSL, OSSL etc. offered interfacing or interoperability with (preferably open source) simulation languages and CAE applications (like the SALOME platform, GNU Octave, Scilab etc), or, even better, if they incorporated functions from these systems, things would be far more favourable for virtual worlds – especially if they could handle high-poly models. I’m not talking about interfacing/interoperability with Dassault’s CATIA or PTC’s Creo – these would be completely exotic. The same goes for statistics: Compatibility and interoperability with the R Project wouldn’t hurt at all.

The specifications of the FIPA-ACL agent communication language. Of course, no agent communication can be natively scripted in the "mainstream" virtual worlds.

The specifications of the FIPA for agent communication. Of course, no agent communication can be natively scripted in the “mainstream” virtual worlds. Source: JADE – A FIPA-Compliant Java Agent Development Framework – presentation by Andrei Dancus, Spring 2002 (slide 3/29)

Even for gaming, the aforementioned scripting languages are sub-par. How can you make properly intelligent NPCs (Non-Player Characters) for gaming when no real provisions have been made for scripting autonomous, intelligent agents? All we have in SL is the Havok physics engine, but nothing when it comes to agent-user and agent-agent interaction. With LSL, the best you can hope for is the kind of “intelligence” you’d encounter in ’80s text-based adventure game NPCs. No real support for agent-user or agent-agent communications at all. You’d need to script your agents in a different language, run them on an external server, and exchange data with that server from in-world. Why not do it natively? Even the now obsolete, now superseded by FIPA-ACL (FIPA: Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents; ACL: Agent Communications Language), KQML (Knowledge Query and Manipulation Language) language would be a welcome step in the right direction. Or even interfacing with JADE (Java Agent Development Engine). That said, why would a professional want to use a virtual world?

Educators and virtual worlds

So far, the only educational uses I can see for the “mainstream” virtual worlds are virtual classrooms, virtual On-the-Job training (OJT) and some visualisation. But, without the capabilities I mentioned above, the usefulness of the current virtual worlds to educators remains limited. When LL turned its back on the academic market by ditching the discounts, universities and colleges certainly didn’t take too kindly to this. But here’s another problem: Neither LL nor OpenSim have really reached out to research and academic institutions to enhance their capabilities and usefulness. No conscious, concerted effort has been made to incorporate the capabilities I mentioned above, as there has been no real effort to collaborate with universities and research organisations to enhance the usefulness of virtual worlds. Yet, what we see from the evangelists of both Second Life and OpenSim is a constant whining about how outsiders don’t “get” their beloved virtual worlds.

People don’t want to spend money on hardware they’ll rarely use

Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m talking about the hardware Messiahs that Mr. Rosedale touted in his keynote(s): the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, etc. Even if the much-maligned middle class, which is SL’s and OpenSim’s foremost market, hadn’t been hit so hard by the (fabricated) global financial crisis, people would think twice before parting with their money to purchase extra hardware. In the comments section of Ms Inara Pey’s coverage of Mr. Rosedale’s VWBPE 2014 keynote, Shug Maitland said:

I feel quite strongly that more hardware is not a viable path forward. In my experience a significant percentage of participants in SL do so on a shoestring RL budget. Their computers / graphics cards hobble along at the lowest of settings (Atmospheric shaders, longer draw distances, etc. are use selectively and cautiously if at all), their internet connections are slow, even intermittent, they have free accounts and what money they have in SL comes from some kind of job there. In short expecting these people and the many others who stretched their RL budgets for somewhat better hardware for a better SL to spend money on fancy sensors and trackers is naive at best. You can bet they will not leave their computers on 24/7 to support a [SETI] style virtual network .

And she’s hit the nail right on the head. People will be very reluctant to justify such an expense, and here we see a terrible disconnect between Mr. Rosedale’s perception and the intended user base. I’m terribly sorry, but I just fail to see how “a billion” people will rush to buy VR headsets and other peripherals to explore and use virtual worlds. Like it or not, their cost will remain non-trivial for the foreseeable future, and no one will purchase them at the drop of a hat.

Asking the wrong questions

Sadly, Mr. Rosedale and every virtual world evangelist out there seems to ask the wrong question, and address it to the wrong people. As we saw in The Drax Files Radio Hour episode with Pamela from the sheet music store, and as I understood from Mr. Rosedale’s keynote speeches, the question asked is:

Why do you, the “outsider”, think you don’t need to use a virtual world, when it is a FACT that virtual worlds are super-cool, tremendous fun, very beneficial to whomever uses them and, to cut a long story short, the best thing since sliced bread?

I understand that some marketing schools preach that this is the right way to approach potential customers. I beg to differ. This question tends to make the person asked get into a defensive mood and simply close their ears to whatever you might have to say, however valid it may be. It’s the kind of approach used for so many years by insurance salesmen worldwide and, honestly, at least insurance salesmen promise something people feel they need: peace of mind in case something happens to them, their loved ones and/or their property (home, car, shop, professional equipment, etc).

Using this approach to preach the virtual world gospel to the… heathens is idiotic, at best. And the reason for this is, or should be, painfully obvious: Virtual worlds are a non-essential expenditure. People don’t need virtual worlds. They’re not food, water, electricity, internet, transportation, telephony or healthcare. Virtual worlds, for the vast majority of people out there, are just a pastime that requires a reasonably powerful computer (which comes with an above-average price tag), a degree of dedication to learn how to use the (inevitably) complex user interface and seamlessly do things in there, and you usually end up spending money to do things in them (to buy virtual products, to upload content, to rent virtual land etc) on top of the money you’ve spent for the equipment that will be powerful enough to enable you to use the virtual world with relative ease, graphical quality, speed, stability and reliability.

The question that should be asked is:

What do we have to do in order to make virtual worlds attractive to this market segment and to that industry?

And it should be addressed to both the developers and providers of virtual world and the intended customers.

Here’s another question that should be asked, and addressed to the intended customers:

What do you think you could do or would like to do with this tool, and what capabilities would you like it to have in order to enable you to do what you want to do?

I must say, sadly, that I was disappointed to see Mr. Rosedale never bothered to ask these questions. I hoped that people from the audience would ask him such questions, but I didn’t see such a thing. Not that I’d expect him to properly address such concerns, because he seems to be a staunch believer in the dogma that you can solve every problem with technical approaches, even in the cases where the solutions (if they exist at all) are of a social nature. And, even more disappointingly, the technical approaches he promotes are not usually improvements on what you can do with and in the virtual world.

See also:

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-vF

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Philip Rosedale’s keynote speech at SVVR

  1. Thanks for the quote Mona.
    In addition, even if I did go out and by all that extra “stuff”, it would largely defeat my reason for being in SL. I spend an hour or two every day in-world (more if I am working on something). I relax, socialize with friends, maybe go shopping or build something. I do NOT want to spend that time exercising! Watching Philip wave his arms around made me tired, not impressed. Since I switch between several alts (male and female) I communicate via my keyboard. Voice is, at least to me, an anonymity breaker in many situations.
    Maybe Philip is creating something that will be appreciated by a generation much younger than me, but I would not bet on it, especially not as the general population is demanding more anonymity not less these days.

    Like

  2. Hi Mona,

    If you are willing, I’d be glad talk with you in a Google Hangout Live, on the uptake of virtuality. ‘Could be ten minutes, could turn into an hour, ‘don’t know.

    I very much respect your sober attitude to Rosedale’s High Fidelity, but I think virtuality is about to grow very fast from about now on, and would be interested to confer. I gave a presentation recently about virtuality to a public forum on virtuality at the local library. I’ve used SecondLife and IMVU a bit, and watched many YouTube vids about virtuality from various angles.

    If interested, let me know a time (I’m in New Zealand, there’s an excellent, easy-to-use global time finder website at http://www.worldtimebuddy.com Here’s a possible time…

    NEW YORK, United States, New York 6:00p Sun, May 25 2014 7:00p Sun, May 25 2014

    LOS ANGELES, United States, California 3:00p Sun, May 25 2014 4:00p Sun, May 25 2014

    LONDON, United Kingdom, England 11:00p Sun, May 25 2014 12:00a Mon, May 26 2014

    AUCKLAND, New Zealand 10:00a Mon, May 26 2014 11:00a Mon, May 26 2014

    Regards,

    Like

Comments are closed.