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Second Life by Linden Lab
Second Life by Linden Lab

Deep down, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale knew that the controls for the virtual world he was building in the early 2000s were too complicated.

Second Life founder Philip Rosedale
Second Life founder Philip Rosedale

Second Life became a viral sensation after it launched in 2003, offering a digital space where “residents” could spend real money on virtual goods like clothes and property. It was a novel idea to launch an open world where people could create, interact and build real relationships in cyberspace. The concept attracted huge attention, and investment dollars from the likes of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and others.

But things fizzled and the game never lived up to the early hype. Second Life is still around today, but only with a niche audience of about one million users.

Rosedale — who prior to Second Life worked as CTO of Seattle-based RealNetworks — says Second Life failed because game players could only use keyboards and mouses to control movements. It took the average user about 40 hours just to learn to interact with the virtual world, and by then most people had moved on, said Rosedale.

“That process is like learning to play the violin or something,” he told GeekWire after speaking at the SEA VR virtual reality conference in Bellevue on Wednesday. “I have to say: I was too ambitious at the time. I thought we’ll just figure out how to use a mouse to do this all. But it was too hard.”

And then along came virtual reality.

What used to take hours to learn through a mouse and keyboard, could be picked up in minutes with VR headsets. It turns out Second Life was about a decade ahead of its time.

Virtual reality was the kind of technology that would enable the virtual world he envisioned from the beginning.

Second Life founder Philip Rosedale speaks at the 2015 SEA VR conference.
Second Life founder Philip Rosedale speaks at the 2015 SEA VR conference.

In other words, virtual reality makes the original concept behind Second Life, well, a reality.  Anyone can don a headset, grab a controller and start interacting with the virtual world in about a minute. It just comes naturally.

At the same time, it’s a more immersive experience that allows players to look into each other’s eyes and form emotional connections.

“It means, I think, that we’re going to finally see a breakthrough in the number of people who can participate in these experiences,” Rosedale said.

Rosedale left Linden Lab, the San Francisco company behind Second Life, years ago. In 2013, he launched a new virtual reality startup called High Fidelity.

The new company is attempting to build an open source platform for VR-centric worlds.

Rosedale says he’s still on good terms with Linden Lab, and that company was even an early investor in High Fidelity. But he split off because he just wanted to “start all over again.”

“It is amazing how little people understand the ideas of shared virtual spaces,” Rosedale said. “People still are asking how this can be. I find that staggering because we proved them wrong with Second Life. I think people still don’t understand what good things happened, and how people used Second Life, and why they’re using it today. But it’s fun working on something that futuristic and hard to understand.”

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