Virtual Worlds

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.

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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.

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Back in June, I wrote a piece on Philip Rosedale’s (and others’) illusion that Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life would become the next worldwide web, according to statements he made to the Guardian in May 2007. Of course, 6 years on from then, i.e. from the era when SL was the darling of the media, we all know that Second Life and the other virtual worlds are certainly not considered mainstream. It’s true that SL is the most prolific and popular virtual world platform, but it simply doesn’t have the number of users (or the image, but that’s another issue entirely) to make it “mainstream” in any generally accepted sense of the term. Mind you, none of the other virtual world platforms that were spawned from it have fared any better – in fact, some have even gone under.

If you try to look for explanations and theories for this failure of virtual worlds in general to become “mainstream” and fulfill the promise and the hype of yesteryear, the internet is full of them, but most of them concern Second Life only, which I personally find expectable, as it’s the most prominent target for criticism and scrutiny – even on this blog, there’s an older post that tried to approach the matter, albeit I now think my then-limited understanding of the technical and conceptual aspects of virtual worlds affected its ability to get to the core of the issue. Skim through any of these explanations: you’ll see people constantly complaining about lag, griefing, complex viewer software, content portability and tier cost. While it’s true that these issues are important to many, some are largely specific to Second Life and, in reality, they are not problems, but symptoms: they are manifestations of underlying problems, as I have explained before, and I think it would be beneficial to reiterate this particular point if we are to have a meaningful discussion of the subject at hand.

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