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2/3/2014
01:25 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Second Life Founder Pursues Second Chance

Philip Rosedale's new startup, High Fidelity, hopes to make virtual worlds mainstream by clearing technical hurdles that Second Life stumbled over.

Second Life founder Philip Rosedale says he knows why the virtual world failed to achieve mainstream acceptance. He's got a plan to do it again, and do it right this time. 

You remember Second Life. It's a so-called "virtual world," a three-dimensional digital environment where people drive cartoon-like "avatars" to talk, role play, dance, play music, make art, create virtual landscapes, buildings, and vehicles, do business, make fortunes, and even have cybersex. Evangelists predicted in 2006 to 2007 that it would be as big as the web itself, and soon we'd all be living our lives in virtual worlds. 

Second Life proved bewitching for many people. I was one of them. But most people sneered. It's still around, and it got a lot right, but it's mostly forgotten.

But not by Philip Rosedale. The boyish, 45-year-old Second Life founder stepped back from his active role as CEO in 2008, and after launching a couple of startups and a brief return as interim CEO in 2010, Rosedale settled at a new company, High Fidelity, where he's working on a new virtual world, based on 2014 technology, that learns from the lessons of Second Life. 

"The reason virtual worlds have been in niche is the double assault of the interface being difficult, and the emotional bandwidth not being there. You can't see my face, you can't see my eyes when I'm talking to you in Second Life," Rosedale said. 

"Putting people in an avatar world, finding a way to channel emotional bandwidth into that world -- which I believe is possible -- is going to win. That will give us an alternative way to be present with each other."

[Facebook just crossed the billion-user mark. See how it got there: Facebook History: 10 Defining Moments.]

Basically, Rosedale is starting from bare ground and rebuilding Second Life from the ground up. 

Located in a funky section of San Francisco, next to a tattoo parlor and near a combination laundromat/coffee shop, High Fidelity's office is on the second floor of a commercial building. It's an open, blond-wood decorated space big enough for the company's 10 employees. When I visited in November, the lobby was gutted as though for renovations. I also talked with Rosedale by phone in August and again in January. 

Why'd it take me five months to get this article done? I'll get to that later. For now, let's let Rosedale speak his piece. 

Rosedale believes the main reason Second Life failed to achieve mainstream acceptance is that it's hard to use. And he's got a point. It takes most people a half hour to learn to do anything in Second Life, and weeks to become competent. Getting around involves a bewildering array of onscreen buttons and keyboard shortcuts.

A building in Second Life. (Source: Torley)
A building in Second Life.
(Source: Torley)

High Fidelity's plan is to replace all that with motion-capture cameras and software, along with optional motion controllers. He gave me a demo of the software, which is in prototype, running on a MacBook. An off-the-shelf webcam captures the user's facial expressions and copies them to the avatar's own face, reproducing movements of the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. For movement, point where you want to go. Or you can point at what you want to look at inside the virtual world.

High Fidelity is working with several hardware motion controllers to enhance the experience, including the Leap Motion, Razer Hydra, and Sixense. High Fidelity also supports the Oculus Rift, a prototype virtual reality headset. Rosedale anticipates these won't require a big investment for users -- the Leap is under $100 on Amazon, the Razer Hydra is $499. The Sixense and Oculus Rift are still in development. And they're optional. High Fidelity works fine without them. 

The software now runs on Mac and Windows. However, High Fidelity relies extensively on WebGL, so it will be relatively easy to port to mobile devices, with tablets a priority, Rosedale said. 

Another big problem for Second Life was scalability. The standard Second Life server, or "sim," supports about 40 avatars -- big enough for an intimate nightclub, but not for a big live event. 

The reason for the scalability problem is the same as the reason why Second Life is so hard to use: It's based on technology from 2003, when the service launched, Rosedale said. In 2003, the smartphone and tablet market was insignificant, and users got Internet connectivity through a desktop computer connected by a hard Internet connection. (WiFi and cellular data was used only by a few early adopters.) 

The cloud was also embryonic and so Linden Lab, which operates Second Life, had to run its own servers in expensive datacenters.

High Fidelity uses a peer-to-peer architecture, distributing the world over the same computers users use to access it. The more people connect, the more computing power is available for an event; Rosedale envisions events populated by hundreds of thousands of people. And High Fidelity will run on both desktop computers and mobile devices -- another advantage over Second Life, which has never had an officially supported mobile client.

Latency is another problem High Fidelity is looking to solve. When there's a lag between an action taken on one side of an interaction and the action being seen or heard on the other side, the system feels unnatural and awkward to participants. Conversation proceeds in fits and starts, with people interrupting each other and pausing to simultaneously defer to each other -- "Go ahead," "No, you go ahead." This is a huge problem in virtual worlds. It's one that the High Fidelity team is working hard to eliminate.

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading. View Full Bio

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JuliaW505
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JuliaW505,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/10/2014 | 7:31:47 AM
Re: I disagre!!
See here's the thing.  As someone who rents an entire sim and runs a virtual business on it and who has almost 6 years invested in SL, seeing people talk about shifting away from it makes me almost ache.  It's not that hard to learn, it's not that difficult to navigate and it's very, VERY true that the thing that drove people out and still is, is how high the cost of land is vs the interaction from Linden Labs. It feels very much to the standard SL user that Linden Labs has walked away from us.  We are an afterthought that continues to give them money to hold on to what we love.  With out some way to import what we have already created in SL in to HF, you won't see a huge rush to move to a new virtual world.  I'm sorry but look at what happened with InWorldz as an example.  Bring costs down on Linden Dollars and on Sim tier (and the set up fees on said sims) and watch your world grow again.  Also who the heck does PR think he's selling to?  I can promise you your average SL user, those who might be drawn to his new world, don't have a spare 800 usd just lying around to invest in new technology just to go play in his new world.

 

 
DarleneT888
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DarleneT888,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/7/2014 | 7:23:46 PM
Ccmmerce
I am excited to see what happens with this, but really tier has to come down or LI (prims allowed)has to go up. I have had a successful business in Second life for 6 years and I don't think Second Life is failing at all but the one thing that keeps it static is the cost for anyone who wants to do anything but wander around.  I don't see LL doing anything about this so hopefully this new world will have better pricing. 
FakeMitchWagner
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FakeMitchWagner,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/6/2014 | 5:06:23 PM
Re: I disagre!!
The price of virtual land -- basically, leasing space on a server -- needs to come way down, as Web server hosting has done. In a few years over the 90s, hosting a Website went from $1,500/mo. to free on Geocities. 
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
2/5/2014 | 2:40:32 PM
Re: Second chance
DavidC681, you make some great points.  In covering some of the virtual worlds on display at a National Defense University workshop a while back, it was easy to grasp why virtual worlds actually offer a lot of value fto enterprises.  Once they're set up, they provide a cost effective and measurable way to conduct military and first responder training exercises. Or you can create structures that have a lots of flaws, that would be impossible to recreate in real life, to train engineers and inspectors.  But as you note Second Life had many draw backs, cost being perhaps the main one. Glad to hear OLIVE, OpenSim and MOSES are still working for military.
RavynB431
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RavynB431,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/5/2014 | 11:41:32 AM
I disagre!!
Second Life is EASY for anyone to use. The problem is the cost! Nobody wants to spend $400 US Dollars on Virutal Land. That is ridiculous! You have to rent from people who have their own limits, as usual, that you have to abisde by, while spending $400 US Dollars every month?? And if you purchase a sim directly from Linden Labs it is $1000.00 US Dollars up front, and then just under $300 a month on top of that. Horrible! And even tiny parcels is still horrible. $40 US for an 1/8 sim a month? With prices like that you wont ever get as popular as you want. Bring the prices down (A LOT) to affordable- realistic amounts and you will get more users. Plain and simple. 
DavidC681
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DavidC681,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/4/2014 | 11:56:57 PM
Re: Second chance
A lot of us DO do training simulations for the US and other militaries. We just use OpenSim, or MOSES or OLIVE, rather than Second Life. It's too damned expensive and they have the worst customer service EVER. And they don't like guns. Regardless of that I still find Second Life satisfying and enjoyable, because I have a secret fantasy life there as an architect. Other people, other fantasies; some of them quite odd, yes. I don't think Second Life really appeals to people unless something is just not there in their real lives. Interpersonal relationships, a family, the ability to walk. Whatever. The latency and all that, it's been greatly improved the last year, and the sims are able to support a lot more people in them now, but the greatest mistake they made at Linden Lab was in going with backwards compatability. They've trapped themselves.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
2/4/2014 | 5:01:54 PM
Re: Never went back
In a way, Second Life suffers from the same problem as the 3D printing -- the power and capabilities are amazing, but the motivation isn't there. Games provide us with a motivation to participate that Second Life, with its open-endedness, did not. Likewise, 3D printing (as it currently exists) offers infinite possibilities in terms of creating objects, but when it comes down to it, we don't really need to custom manufacture much stuff (outside of those in the business of doing such things) on a regular basis. As a consequence, these are activities that have value, but only to a niche audience.
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2014 | 11:01:52 AM
Re: Second chance
I think the Orcs comment is spot on. It's one thing to fix the technological elements, but Second Life never appealed to me because it was so open and amorphous. Part of the fun of an immersive experience is having an objective and a set of limitations to work within (or against). An open world where you can do anything sounds great, but then you run up against the limits of your own imagination.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2014 | 7:05:20 AM
Virtual Worlds have never been dead
Mitch, 

Virtual Worlds have never been dead. They just didn't go mainstream as we thought they would at the beginning. Education keeps on using them, like this event in Manchester, UK. 

-Susan
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
2/3/2014 | 8:18:47 PM
Re: Second chance
I am with you - the technology has advanced quite a lot in the past few years and the effect of PC game has amazing effect. But I never bother to play long time with it. No matter how good it is, it's a virtual world and you are interacting with computer eventually. In addition to pick up the phone and call my friends, I am more than happy to meet them and have afternoon tea together.:-)
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