Perry Carpenter

The current and future state of Second Life

By Perry Carpenter
April 25, 2007 5:45 PM EDT

This week I am attending the Gartner Symposium ITXpo.  One of this morning’s keynote presentations featured an interview with Phillip Rosedale (Founder and CEO of Linden Labs -- creator of the virtual world, Second Life).  During this interview, Mr. Rosedale addressed many interesting topics; including some of the types of judgments that I and others have made.  All in all, I was impressed with Mr. Rosedale and the interview.

The interview began with a brief (about 4 minutes) film capture from SL featuring Gartner Research VP James Lundy’s avatar.  Mr. Lundy provided narration explaining SL to those who were unfamiliar with the virtual world.  He spoke of the numerous businesses and organizations which are currently in Second Life – businesses such as Toyota, Mercedes, Circuit City, and Dell; and organizations such as Ohio University.  In fact, Gartner maintains a “Higher Education Room” at the Ohio University location in SL.  Companies like Gartner and IBM routinely hold meetings in the virtual world.

Many people, me included, have previously made judgments against Second Life because there is no distinction between the gaming/exploratory experience and the functionality that business users seek. In the interview, Mr. Lundy got right to the point by asking questions related to some of the criticisms of SL.  Linden Lab’s CEO, Phillip Rosedale, answered by stating that they are actively looking at making some business friendly advancements.  For example, Mr. Rosedale mentioned that there is a group exploring user friendly initiatives such as scanning a photo and using that digital representation as a starting place for one’s avatar.  He also mentioned the possibility of changing the orientation experience to make it more business friendly.

However, it seems that Linden Labs wants to keep everything in the current SL environment.  What I’d like to see is for them to spin off a segregated intended primarily for business users.  This may be something being considered, but it was never presented as such.  One argument for keeping the two may be the desire to produce a new kind of synergy.  Mr. Rosedale stated that the “really smart” companies are using SL to start a conversation or engage in discussions with their user base.  Companies can get design feedback, reviews, and so on.

Some interesting factoids:

  • Many businesses are being talked into going into Second Life by their PR agencies  
  • About 180,000 people per day enter SL for approx 4 hours each  
  • More than one-half of the people who login each day are non-US based
  • The environment currently consists of about 8000 servers  
  • Some HR departments are doing recruiting in SL
  • SL has a monthly economy in USD is approx $50 million comprised of mostly $1 per transactions.

 

Future strategy:
Linden Labs reports that they are going to publish their architecture to demonstrate that they are web-scalable.  Along with the concept of scalability, they are working to allow the simulators to be moved into the hands of businesses, individuals, or service providers.  In other words, you will be able to host parts of the environment.  Hosting operators and service providers will be able to utilize this as well; in essence, subletting regions of the environment.

Perhaps one of the most notable features about to be launched will be “voice.”  Mr. Rosedale stated that bringing voice to the virtual world will be transformational to human communication.  3-D audio should solve some of the down-sides which currently exist in normal conference call environments.  In addition, there could be benefits for HR departments or other interrogative applications because studies show that some people will reveal more information during online interviews than in physical, face-to-face conversation.

Future considerations:
It will likely be that there are localities or governments on SL that impose different restrictions on their populations (e.g. taxation).  Mr. Rosedale states that SL in inherently open and transparent, thereby helping to address copyright (and similar concerns).  Everything in SL is marked, labeling the avatar of the person who created it and the person who owns it.  Other interesting future possibilities include the offering insurance in SL, lending, and so on…

Others companies are looking at doing something similar to SL.  Mr. Rosedale says that it is great because it will scare them and make them work harder.  Healthy competition will help point out what they are doing wrong so that they can fix it faster.  Rosedale anticipates that there will be a very small number of players in this space because the environment is social and that people will naturally cluster -- the fewer number of services available, the easier it is to maintain the relationships.

Concluding thoughts:
When asked about the future of virtual worlds over the next 5 years, Mr. Rosedale answered, “I don’t know.”  Elaborating, he stated that the rate of change is so fast and is driven by very profound shifts in technology.  Visual realism will become increasingly important.  Voice will be transformational.  One inevitable technology change will be that SL will be “like walking through the screen into a movie.”  This will be empowered by the mainstreaming of technologies used to create today’s movies.