Nov 29, 2021 - Technology

A virtual world pioneer has doubts about the metaverse

Photo illustration of Philip Rosedale.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Courtesy of Philip Rosedale, Breakroom.

Early metaverse architect Philip Rosedale is no longer confident the metaverse will be a huge hit, despite the surging interest from Meta (fka Facebook) and many other companies.

Driving the news: Rosedale, who evangelized the concept of an immersive virtual world while overseeing the storied platform “Second Life” a decade ago, shared more tempered thoughts in an interview with Axios.

  • Of the metaverse, he says: “I think what we've learned — and somewhat with some sadness, given the work that I've done, I would have to agree — is that it's not for everybody, and maybe it's never for everybody.”
  • And of Meta’s chances of succeeding with their new metaverse project: “Well, I hope they don't.”

Between the lines: Rosedale oversaw “Second Life” company Linden Lab from 1999-2013, at a time when virtual worlds were more novel. (He now runs spatial audio company High Fidelity.)

  • The draw of a “metaverse” then, as he recalls it now: “That inevitably we would all spend an increasingly large fraction of our lives in a virtual world.”
  • The freewheeling “Second Life” garnered press and about a million monthly users, who could buy virtual land and make anything their imagination and the program’s tools would allow.
  • Users staged concerts, crafted art, built virtual ecosystems, ran fashion shows and established a red light district, much of this chronicled in the essential New World Notes blog.

Rosedale highlights lessons learned from “Second Life.”

  • “People can come together in an online place and actually treat each other well,” he said, noting the conviviality of many of the service’s users.
  • But people, in general, didn’t want to spend long periods of time in it. “I was saying that almost immediately we were all going to be spending television length durations of time or something like that in the virtual world, doing things with people. And that part was definitely not true.” 
  • Rosedale cites many people’s discomfort with controlling avatar versions of themselves and communicating that way with others.

History repeats itself: There’s now a metaverse land rush, as companies and brands try to claim territory in the virtual world. Rosedale saw it all nearly two decades ago.

  • Just as he experienced with "Second Life," Rosedale says, "there still arises this weighty question of what is it that's going to cause, you know, normal people, a lot of the time, to be willing to go into these online spaces?”
  • “And I think we still haven't answered that question.”

He sees new factors driving renewed interest in the metaverse concept:

  • COVID and the “the fear that we might have to move more of our lives online.”
  • Companies circling “like vultures about the possible spoils of more of your time, having to go online.”
  • The transformation, for better or worse, of the internet to a space where people aren’t alone, even when doing online shopping or watching a streaming movie.
  • And Facebook’s “Hail Mary call” to reinvent itself.

Rosedale hopes some of today’s metaverse energy can at least result in virtual public spaces.

  • “You might be able to create a public space that could be a positive thing for people, where you could go and make new friends, where you could cry out about injustice.”
  • “I think that we're just not there on some of the communication components that would be needed to make it comfortable.”
  • His modern metaverse vision necessitates public freedom, one not centralized in which any company controls identity and advertising.
  • That's too much power to put in the hands of a big tech company, he says. “We're all watching this movie with Facebook in 2D,” he said.
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