Interview: Second Life's Creator On How Virtual Reality Can Help Foster Genuine Connection
In this interview, co-founder of High Fidelity Philip Rosedale discusses how his blockchain-based virtual reality platform enables new and improved ways for people to not only socialize but also genuinely connect, harboring the potential to improve how people and communities around the world relate to one another
Virtual reality is poised to revolutionize how people can relate—and the potential applications for fostering better communication and interactions between users the world over are only continuing to expand. Rather than increasing isolation, for which technology is often blamed, the latest versions of this low-latency digital interface instead can be implemented to improve relations between people who otherwise wouldn't have the chance to interact, providing the opportunity to create greater compassion and understanding between previously disparate communities.
This is what Philip Rosedale, founder of virtual-reality platform High Fidelity, and more famously known as the creator of the virtual civilization Second Life, explains in this interview for a podcast with PSFK founder Piers Fawkes. Philip describes how his company uses blockchain technology to enable genuine social interaction between users, from creating a shared environment where people can dance with one another in VR to the platform's potential to one day ameliorate tensions between certain groups and communities thanks to more sophisticated and life-like means of communication.
Piers: You are the founder of High Fidelity. Can you describe trends that you see emerging, and the culture and technology that you're responding to?
Philip: My life's work has been working on enabling people to communicate and to close the distance between each other using technology. The whole progress, in my opinion, of the Internet and of computer technology over the last several decades has, generally speaking, been to allow people to communicate in different and increasingly sophisticated ways from text messaging and web pages to virtual worlds and full‑blown virtual reality. My passion has always been around putting people in spaces together.
What's new that's making the adoption of these experiences more accessible?
The subtle thing that most people don't think about that's new with technology is that the lower the delay, or latency, in a connection between two people, the more connected, compassionate and understanding people can become. As we all know, when you talk on a cell phone nowadays, the delay is about a half a second. That delay is too high, because you aren't able to make the small sounds that enable you to agree with someone or interrupt them—there's too much delay. It also causes people to not be able to establish certain types of connectedness and compassion for each other.
The Internet of 20 years ago had about a one‑second delay for every piece of information that could go over it. That delay was created by the routers that started being ambitiously installed in the mid‑'90s to allow people to send messages to each other. In about 2012, driven largely by things like Netflix, which was just a tremendous increase in the amount of information that people wanted to move over the Internet, that trend also inevitably resulted in much faster transmission of things like voice information over the Internet.
This has been one of the things that I have followed because I'm so passionate about the space. In about 2012, I observed that Internet delays even from, say, the United States to Europe or from the United States to Singapore fell to speeds approaching the speed of light. At that speed, it is fast enough that people can have a face‑to‑face conversation with someone that's on the other side of the world and have it indistinguishable from sitting in the same room with them cognitively. That means that people can connect with people in a way that's profound.
For example, in VR, you can dance with someone. You can move your body to respond to how they're moving their body, in the same way that you can when you're standing in front of somebody in a dance club. That was not possible. You couldn't do it on the Internet at all in, say, 2010. In about 2013, you started being able to. We certainly can now.
Could you give an overview about what High Fidelity is and what the experience is for the people who use it?
High Fidelity is an open-source software platform that enables people to create virtual spaces and then bring a lot of other people into them at the same time to have an experience together. For example, you could put up a Egyptian tomb as we've done demonstratively and then let a teacher, all her students and an Egyptologist go through it together. Even though they may all be in different parts of the world, they can literally walk around in that tomb and point at things, ask questions and talk to each other.
Another example would be creating a dance club that enables people from all over the world to come, sing, dance and play with each other in that way. We're an open-source platform that enables users to create spaces that people can be brought into together.
Do you provide an access to the different communities as well? Are you a portal to these different experiences?
We're a portal. We provide search services. We provide marketplace services. If you have a hat or a pair of sunglasses on your avatar, we also provide a marketplace. Think of it as being someone like Amazon.com or eBay where you can buy a pair of sunglasses from them. Then, wearing those sunglasses, you can go to any different server, any different VR space. You might go to the dance club and have your sunglasses on, or you might go to the Egyptian tomb and have your sunglasses on. They'll be the same sunglasses. We provide services that enable people to take their identity and their property easily between these virtual worlds.
You're using blockchain technology to allow that to happen. Can you explain how that works?
The important thing to understand about a blockchain is basically that it's a public database that has an unusual property, which is that thousands or even millions of people are keeping the same exact database up‑to‑date. What's so revolutionary about it is that a lot of people can do that together. Basically, everybody gets paid a little bit of money to keep the same database up‑to‑date. The way the game of the blockchain is played, so to speak, is that if you can't agree on everybody having exactly the same data, nobody gets paid. This is a very revolutionary idea that was going to have a lot of impact on many different areas.
With respect to virtual reality, it can allow people to set up all kinds of different experiences. Having done that, they need a common way to represent in that world, things like money, people's identity and property. The blockchain does that because it lets people make these public entries to the database about, say, how much money somebody has, or that they own a pair of sunglasses or that their name has been verified as truly being Philip Rosedale. Those little pieces of information can be put on a blockchain. Once you do that, any virtual world can, with great certainty, look at that blockchain and use what they see there to represent, or identify, or put clothes on someone when they're in the virtual world. The blockchain is the best possible way to do something that we would otherwise have done in a clunkier sort of a way.
Will the transfer of goods and money be able to go between different platforms?
It absolutely can go between different platforms and between here and the real world. The public blockchains that we're using—we've built one and we're looking at other ones that are coming online soon—are public in the sense that they can be used by any service. They can be used by a VR service, by an AR service and by the real world. We are also working right now in this group that we have called the VRBA, the Virtual Reality Blockchain Alliance, with other partners who are definitely going to do things on the blockchain that cross over between VR and AR or VR and the real world in different ways.
Right now, for example, we're working with an advertising company that provides advertisements that can show up in VR, in AR and in many virtual reality platforms, not just High Fidelity. They're joining the VR Blockchain Alliance. They're working with us to create standards for how advertising should work generally in VR.
We're also working with a company that stores information about objects in general that you might find in the real world using an AR application, not High Fidelity, to see those objects.
We're working on making it so that, for example, you might be at a concert and you might be told by the singer, “Oh, there's a magic can of Coca‑Cola or something hidden in AR somewhere at the concert.” Once you find that can of Coca‑Cola with your app that you have on your phone, which is not High Fidelity, you'll be able to take it, go into High Fidelity and stick it in the virtual world and still have all the ownership information about the fact that you own that can of Coca‑Cola, carrying it across between the AR world and the VR world, if that makes sense.
For a brand, what is the opportunity for advertisement within these virtual worlds?
I've believed all my life that the opportunity for virtual worlds broadly is to create new spaces where people can come to to do things—for example, go to school. It seems very likely given that there are amazing specialists in educational topics all around the world that you can't get right in front of, face‑to‑face, very easily right now. Those specialists will be able to, say, teach classes in the virtual world. There could be educational campuses where you have people with a specialization in archaeology perhaps from all over the world teaching lessons in virtual reality. Those spaces will be opportunities for brands to advertise in. When users exit the classroom to go into the next one, there might be an advertisement, or a Coke machine there.
Users will be able, in some sense, to think of the virtual worlds as being like continents or cities that don't right now exist but are going to start to exist and are to become very big. Advertisers and brands, just like they do in the real world, will want to have a place in those new places.
Today's most progressive brands are doing less and less advertising, and focusing more on more brand experience.
Absolutely. I think we'll see a lot of that. Of course, there's another important question that we're hoping to be a guiding voice on, which is, obviously, that virtual worlds create an ability to intrude on people's privacy and to track their behavior, which is almost certainly unacceptable if taken to its limits. For example, the movement of my body, of my head and my hands in VR is a recordable biometric. That is to say, a computer properly programmed can easily recognize who I am only from seeing me move—walk across the room, so to speak, in VR. That fact is one scary example of how we as a society need to set the right standards regarding what can and can't be done for advertisers but also for anyone.
What do you think about the future of this space?
I'm unbelievably positive about this stuff because it's what moved me in my whole life. I saw this in Second Life. We're going to do it here with High Fidelity, fostering the ability for two people who are far across the world to come together and just debate their differences.
We're going to enable Muslims and Christians, for example, to sit together as if they were in the same room, where traditionally they would have to pay $6,000 to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to do that with each other. If they're able to do that as avatars in VR, they can yell and scream at each other, they can fight but they can't kill each other. By taking advantage of that very low latency that I discussed earlier, they can reach compassion. They can understand each other's perspectives and find a common ground.
The general sentiment is that the more people are in close connection with each other in different regions, say, due to economic forces, the more compassionate and understanding they tend to be with each other. I view that as being a potentially world‑saving impact of VR and the work that I'm doing. If we can put diverse groups of people from around the world into a nightclub together, then they can become friends. They can become friends rapidly and in a way that they absolutely could not do were they only reading websites about each other.
I look forward to seeing how this evolves and seeing how your hard work contributes to that future.
The ramifications of new and more realistic ways to connect people using virtual interfaces are wide-ranging and exciting. For more from Philip, listen to PSFK's podcast, and for more about how companies like High Fidelity are permitting new forms of entertainment, see PSFK's report The Out-Of-Home Entertainment Experience.