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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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User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 6:40:26 PM
Re: Second chance
I simply never saw the point. It had nothing to do with the sophistication of the technology or graphics; I just had no interest in adopting an avatar personna and interacting with people in a virtual world. I'd rather pick up the phone or meet someone in person. 
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 5:50:00 PM
Re: Second chance
Second Life always felt like a technology in search of a purpose. Here at InformationWeek we experimented with "virtual events" in a Second Life-like environment, and they didn't take off. With the technology at the time, they didn't replicate the connection of our live, in-person events (, for the next one coming up) yet they weren't as efficient as a straight webcast or online radio chat.  

We didn't think to have orcs, Tom. 
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 4:33:44 PM
Re: Second chance
Second Life would have fared better if it had appealed to MMORPG fans, the primary proven market for such activities. Philip Rosedale, you need orcs.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 4:10:33 PM
Never went back
I enjoyed playing around with Second Life for as long as it took me to write a cover story about the technology and the company for one of my former employers. But even though I got really into it at the time, learning how to do scripting and graphics in the Second Life environment, I essentially never went back once the story wrapped. I found it very cool, but ultimately not that compelling or engaging.

Good observation about communities like Facebook allowing engagement with much less effort. You can have a snack, rather than a 3 course meal you have to cook yourself.
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 1:56:48 PM
Second chance
Thanks for reporting this. It will be interesting to see if the new features the 2nd time around will be enough to overcome the learning curve and latency issues that hamped Second Life.  There's still a lot of pent up interest in the government, notably from military, homeland security, and engineering folks who saw Second Life as a great way to stage mock training events.   
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