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 (for a summary, please read Inara Pey’s coverage). If you were unable to come to the LEA Theatre to watch Mr. Rosedale’s speech, you can watch the recording here.
Now, I suppose most of this blog’s readers are familiar with who Philip Rosedale is. 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:
- That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
- 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;
- That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
- 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;
- That the only things that keep people out of virtual worlds are the user interface’s complexity and the lag.
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. 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.
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