How the makers of Second Life are using VR to build the next generation of virtual worlds
"We're not really here to talk about the future too much, but I'm going to tell you that our biggest investment by far will be a next-generation virtual world. Something in the spirit of Second Life."
I'm sitting at Linden Lab ready to see Second Life running on an Oculus Rift and suddenly I'm being thrown into something totally different by company CEO Ebbe Altberg—something far crazier.
"Even though Second Life today is better than it's ever been—it performs better, the graphics quality is better, the stability's better, scale is better—you still can't create something in Second Life that creates the feel of a AAA game, even though you can create some cool stuff," says Altberg. "There are things we can do to enable people to create things that have that complexity and visual fidelity. We know we can do that.
"And then it gets interesting because now people who otherwise might choose to build something using Unity or Unreal or something like that, now they have a choice. 'Oh, I can do it on this platform where I get a ton of cool services and communities and social networking and communication tools and economies and all that stuff for free as part of the product,'" he continues.
What have I stumbled into?
A new life for Second Life
Although Altberg is technically new to Linden Lab, at five months on the job, he's got quite a history with the product: He was formerly a roommate of one of the board members and was an early alpha tester for the platform. And he's not very happy with the rise and fall of Second Life in the media.
"Second Life went on this ride where in '06, '07, '08 it was like, 'Oh my god...' Cover of Newsweek or whatever that was. Like, it's going to change the world," he says. "They way overhyped it. And then it got this backlash. 'Oh, it's not changing the world so I guess it's shit then.' No. It was overhyped and then it got underhyped."
But now Altberg thinks things are different—thanks to Oculus. "The Oculus has regenerated new excitement around the whole idea of virtual worlds and virtual reality." Where just a few years ago virtual reality and virtual worlds were seen as a silly pipe dream, now there are hundreds of people worldwide plugging away at problems—software, hardware, usability, voice recognition, and the like. In other words, the last barriers standing between us and a truly virtual world.
Virtual world is a loaded phrase, though. "[Oculus has] said 'We want to build a virtual world for a billion people,'" says Altberg. "When you say virtual world, what do you mean? There are a lot of people that would say that's a fairly broad range of things."
Not Altberg and Linden Lab, though. " We define it to be more narrow—not necessarily equal to Second Life, but we'd say Second Life is probably the only thing that deserves the wording 'virtual world.'"
The key is freedom. Linden Lab abides by a strict philosophy—if it's not illegal, it's fine. Gambling? That's off limits. IP infringement? You can't do that. But Second Life is not, Altberg makes it clear, a game. It's a platform for users to build experiences on, and those experiences cover a broad swath of content—games, education, roleplaying, et cetera.
"There are lots of other virtual experiences, but when it comes to 'virtual world' I think you have to be somewhat close to the expectations we have in the real world—of the amount of freedom we have in the real world and the things we can do and the things we can create," says Altberg." An economy, all those things. Nobody else really has all those elements to make it considered a world."
An intuitive third life
A "next-generation" version of Second Life has to follow the same tenets. "We want to be able to reach an audience that's way beyond what any one game could do," says Altberg. That comes with some challenges—accessibility being the primary issue, Altberg continues. "Today, there are too many users that hit these walls and bounce out. We have to figure out how to get people to come in, how to discover the things that are relevant."
And it extends to creators, also—those who build content for Second Life and its eventual successor. "A lot of things people do to build cool games we make a bit difficult for them to do in Second Life, whether it's graphics quality, instancing—a number of things we take for granted in a game context," says Altberg. "I think the next-generation product will be a really cool game platform. But again, we wouldn't say this is a gaming platform. It's more generic than that. We want to have that sandbox that allows for anything and everything that's taken place in Second Life."
Anything and everything like the woman who painstakingly recreated 1920's Berlin in Second Life. "The first time she experienced her build [in virtual reality], she said she cried. She was just freaking out," Altberg describes. That's the type of reaction Linden Lab wants.
Despite the overhyped-underhyped cycle of Second Life, Altberg still thinks virtual worlds are coming, and coming relatively soon, and not just to PCs this time. Nor does he expect these digital environs to be limited to virtual reality. "I want to stay in touch with my social community on my phone," says Altberg. "Maybe in time I'll be able to stick some goggles on my phone—that'll happen in a few years, and I can sit on the bus and hang out with my community building a rocket or whatever.
"We obviously overestimated how soon that would happen eleven years ago. It's taking longer than we thought it would, and it took long enough that the hype came down," Altberg continues. "But how soon? There's no doubt that in a short period of time with the Oculus and things like what we're doing combined, you'll have moments of total immersion where you're completely lost in the space. Your brain cannot tell the difference."
That's a huge proclamation. Enormous. But there's no hint of a smile on Altberg 's face. No wry grin. He firmly believes this is the case—that soon we'll be in a virtual world so realistic we won't be able to tell it's virtual.
So, of course, I ask him about the nightmare scenario—what happens when we're all addicted to this amazing, virtual world? Does he worry about what he's enabling? Whether it's Fallout 3 or The Twilight Zone or Ready Player One, these types of stories never end well.
"I've never gone to bed going, 'Oh my god, what am I enabling? Holy shit,'" says Altberg. "I've never felt that." He tells me about a woman with Parkinson's who's helped retrain her brain to walk by playing Second Life. He tells me about visiting Mont Saint-Michel in the game—"How many people have a chance to go to that place in real life?" he asks.
"For some, it's an upgrade to [their real life.] Who are we to say, 'No, you shouldn't upgrade'?" Altberg asks. "If we can extend their lives or augment it, it's their choice. I think it's great."
Optimistic, maybe, but sometimes you just have to admire that sort of "no regrets" outlook on a project—even when there's the potential for some horrific dystopian future nightmare down the line. Will this next-generation, virtual-reality-built version of Second Life be the platform that gets us there? Maybe, maybe not.
Regardless, it's clear that we're headed that direction, even if it takes a bit. "We're undertaking something on the scale of a massive MMO. It's not something we can chuck out over the weekend; it's going to take a while," says Altberg.
Thank goodness—you still have a few years to stock up on nutrient rich-IV drips and Power Gloves.