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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.

When Second Life started more than a decade ago, the latency between its San Francisco offices and San Diego, 500 miles away, was 200 to 250 milliseconds. Now, it's 40 ms. The speed-of-light limitation means the minimum transit time between those two locations is about 20 ms.

By minimizing lag time, the High Fidelity team wants to maximize realism. Getting latency down to 140 ms gets it below the level where people can usually detect it -- although for some specialized uses, even better latency is needed. Jazz musicians attempting to collaborate over the Internet report that the connection is broken if the delay gets bigger than 15 to 20 ms.

Latency is a really big deal, says Rosedale. "That's one of the reasons we don't talk on the phone anymore. They don't work. They don't work the way phones worked when we were younger," he says.

Skype is better. For voice calls, latency can be below 150 ms -- only a little bit above the 140 ms detectable lag. With video, it's about 200 ms. But even with a Skype video call, you have the problem that people aren't making eye contact. "Because of the eye contact problem, it makes everyone autistic. We'll look like we're uncomfortable and not making eye contact with each other," Rosedale said. That's another advantage to High Fidelity -- avatars make eye contact with the human beings on the other side of the conversation. 

"The systems that are using 3D online worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft, they're typically up at about 500 ms. Those systems are markedly impacted," Rosedale says. "Our goal with Hi-Fi is to be down around the 100 ms point or less. This piece is working well."

When will this become available for the vast majority of users? Rosedale won't say. It could be years. This month, High Fidelity accepted applications for an alpha program. Rosedale anticipates opening the service to just a couple of hundred people to get started, and then building from there. "We're just going to take a small number of people and let them give it a try," Rosedale said. Rosedale won't even commit to when the alpha will open. "It'll be in a couple of months," he said. 

Will it work this time? Will Rosedale achieve his dreams of mainstream acceptance of virtual worlds?

That brings us back to the question of why it took me five months to write this article. I don't know whether High Fidelity will prove any more popular than Second Life has been.

Rosedale is convinced High Fidelity will catch on. He says present-day technology will give the virtual world the ease-of-use, scalability, and latency needed to become mainstream.

I'm skeptical. It seems to me that virtual worlds zigged where the technology industry zagged. Second Life requires a lot of time. Once you've logged in, be prepared to spend a couple of hours in there. And most people don't have that kind of time. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have taken off to a large degree because they're snackable; you can spend a few seconds or a minute or two with them on your mobile phone in between moments doing other things.

On the other hand, based on my experience in Second Life, virtual worlds permit you to do something that present-day social media can't do: You can have a realistic illusion of a shared experience in real-time. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, webinars, and messages boards don't permit that, but Second Life got it right.

When Second Life was at its peak in 2007 to 2008, it was wonderful, with a promise of greatness to come that has remained unfulfilled. 

Maybe High Fidelity will be the platform to fulfill that promise.

Too many companies treat digital and mobile strategies as pet projects. Here are four ideas to shake up your company. Also in the Digital Disruption issue of InformationWeek: Six enduring truths about selecting enterprise software. (Free registration required.)