READ MORE: How to Build a Better Metaverse (Wired)
Visually expressive avatars, spatial audio and the feeling of mass participation — those are the bugs metaverse builders need to fix, according to the creator of Second Life.
Philip Rosedale, who built the prototype metaverse at Linden Lab two decades ago, claims Second Life today makes more per person who uses it than YouTube or Facebook.
“Second Life is free for basic access, just like Facebook or Gmail or YouTube. But the way Second Life makes money is through fees,” Rosedale explained to Wired.
Second Life peaked at one million active users, active today, not the billions of the tech giants.
“We didn’t really have the advertising business as a temptation when we were building Second Life, which I started doing in 1999. That was before Google introduced the world to the idea of this crazy ad auction market. So Second Life makes some of its money from charging people what’s basically a property tax if they choose to own land in Second Life. And then the rest of its money it makes from small fees on transactions.”
These digital transactions are like proto-NFTs but they aren’t tracked on the blockchain. Every “primitive” in Second Life, which are the atoms from which things are made, has a stamp on it, related to public database held at Linden Lab.
“That information contains who created it, who presently owns it, and, if it’s for sale, what the price is and what you’ll be able to do with it once you buy it. So it’s very, very similar to the metadata associated with an address on a blockchain.
He adds, “I think a lot of the things that are being bandied about as what you need a blockchain for might actually just be things that you need a public database for.”
He calls out the inflated craze for NFTs, saying it’s impossible to separate the speculative noise from the value of the underlying assets.
“But if you ask what is the actual value of a digital painting that you can hang on your wall in your digital house, or a digital pair of shoes you can wear on your avatar? I think Second Life provides at least some guidance, which is to say that the value of those things is, sensibly, lower than it is in real life, but it’s certainly not zero. The average Second Life transaction is about $2. I think it gives evidence that there’s a value to NFTs.”
Rosedale, who is now an advisor to Linden Lab having also founded spatial audio company High Fidelity, suggests three barriers to metaverse adoption.
One is that nonverbal expressions, like nodding your head or leaning toward somebody, don’t work very well yet with VR headsets, he says.
He thinks VR headsets — good ones that might solve this and also stop the feeling of nausea — are more than five years away.
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A second enhancement is 3D or spatial audio. “You have to be able to hear everybody. You can’t sit and have a productive group conversation unless you hear people’s voices coming from the place around the table where they are, because that’s what enables everybody to talk at the same time, like in a cocktail party.”
Another nut to crack is the experience of having hundreds of people in the same virtual space.
“Many, many human experiences, like a big freshman class, a music concert, or a political debate, require more than 100 people in the same place. Facebook’s product Horizon Worlds, which is the closest thing they’ve got to the metaverse right now, can’t have more than 20 people in a space. That’s just not enough.”
Beyond that he also picks out the need for the “right kind” of systems for governance and moderation. The systems that we have today for things like Facebook or Reddit, are not applicable in Rosedale’s view to embodied environments in digital space.
The tech inventor also believes mobile devices should play a far bigger role in enabling a metaverse than VR hardware.
The forward-looking camera of a smartphone detects the user, can turn you into an avatar and put you into the virtual world. There’s no need for a headset.
A VR headset is mixing up two different things, he says. One is visual and sensory immersion in space, “your ability to have a wider field of view and to look behind you”.
The other one is being able to communicate to people near you, for example by nodding your head. That can be done using a forward-looking camera or a webcam on a desktop computer. “I can track your face and animate your avatar with it. In fact, if you’re not wearing a VR headset, I can see your whole face with the camera so the optical tracking and AI that you can use to detect people’s faces works better if you don’t have a VR headset.”
Wearing headsets are also socially divisive. If you put a bunch of randomly chosen people in a room and ask them who’s comfortable basically putting on a blindfold in front of other people, you are going to get a biased outcome, where big white men, for example, are going to be comfortable putting a VR headset on because they would also be comfortable blindfolding themselves in front of other people. But that’s not true for everybody.”