Taking 'Second Life' to the next level

newsmaker Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale goes in-world to take on the challenges of the virtual world's explosive growth. Image: In-world interview

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
For better or worse, one of the hottest names in technology these days is Linden Lab's "Second Life."

Over the last few months, the virtual universe has solidified its place as a media darling, appearing as the subject of a BusinessWeek cover story, an eight-page package in Wired and endless stories online and in newspapers around the world. Plus, an ever-growing roster of household corporate names have arrived in-world, including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Warner Music and many more.

Through it all, "Second Life" residents--963,212 accounts have been created as of this writing, 396,616 of them active within the last 60 days--have had to deal with denial-of-service-like attacks that have shut down the virtual world's main grid, as well as ongoing problems with lag, a difficult user interface and other problems.

Yet, the number of "Second Life" residents is growing rapidly, and in an environment where nearly all the content--landscapes, buildings, clothing, vehicles and much more--is built by users, Linden Lab estimates that participants are creating the equivalent of more than 5,000 full-time engineers' worth of content.

Philip Rosedale

On Monday, Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale's avatar took the stage in CNET Networks' "Second Life" headquarters to talk about the metaverse's latest developments in front of an audience of several dozen residents.

Q: There's a lot of buzz right now about news organizations opening up bureaus in "Second Life": CNET, Reuters, Wired. What do you think of this phenomenon?
Rosedale: I think it shows that we are all collectively doing the right thing. The fact that news organizations want to be here is powerful because the value of news is in explaining hard things and making complex stuff more obvious. And that shows that there is enough interesting complexity here to warrant their attention. Which means this is all working.

Are you surprised to see so much mainstream media in "Second Life"?
Rosedale: Nope, not really. Increasingly, the profile of "Second Life" users is pretty broad and mainstream. It is as hard to describe the "typical" Second Lifer as to describe the "typical" New Yorker or San Franciscan. I think that "Second Life" is a kind of new language, as it relates to media, marketing and the like, and that this language is one that, as yet, no one really knows. So there will be a huge win for the early companies and people that experiment and learn to speak that language.

Talk about the new "Second Life" real last names policy (under which individuals can buy their own last name for $100 upfront and $50 a year and corporations can get unlimited accounts with the corporate last name for $1,000 upfront and $500 a year).
Rosedale: Lots of people are wanting to have their real names, including last name. So we've been trying to think how to best handle that. The idea of picking a new last name has worked really well, but obviously, sometimes people may want to be their real selves. So what we are thinking, in short, is that you can pay something if you want to get a specific first name and last name. If you are a company, and have an obvious corporate name, you will be able to purchase that company name as a last name. But we are being careful in thinking this through, to not make it too easy for names to be owned. Hence the prices and the inability to totally own a fixed last name, at least to start.

Steve Rubel, who writes the blog Micro Persuasion, pointed out that a real "Second Life" last name is far more expensive than a domain name. That seems a little odd.
Rosedale: There do seem to be strong similarities to the domain name systems, in terms of fair access to all, fees, etc. We started with that idea and have been trying to adapt it appropriately here.

Let's talk about voice support in "Second Life." Vivox is now doing a push for its third-party VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) client/phone booth in-world. What should "Second Life" residents expect when it comes to voice support from Linden Lab?
Rosedale: OK. First, we clearly agree that voice can be very powerful in "Second Life" for many things. There is a critical feature--the ability to properly 3D-spatialize multiple people speaking in a room, that is going to allow meetings in "Second Life" between many people to blow away conference calls. This is a very powerful thing, and we want to get it working.

Rosedale: I have seen demos where three or four people could talk at the same time and I could understand them perfectly. So that is a huge potential feature. But not everyone wants voice all the time. And text (communication) is very, very powerful. For example, I can use (a translation tool) I am fond of, but that only works when, socially, we are using text and are therefore tolerant of a slight delay. So ideally, the implementation shouldn't push one over the other, or have everyone with voice "forcing" those without it or not wanting it to use it. So we are going to be careful with any built in capability, to make that work.

There have been several recent grid attacks and other security problems in "Second Life." What do you say to frustrated residents?
Rosedale: We are going to go through growing pains where people will attack the grid and we will have to design new systems for defending it. This happened with the Internet/Web, and is still happening in some ways. Look at early denial-of-service attacks, and look at spam today. Many people have called for us to do things that would be overly restrictive, like force everyone in "Second Life" to be credit card-verified. That isn't the right direction.

What is?
Rosedale: We need to build local and global tools that balance the tremendous individual power that people in "Second Life" have. I think this will take awhile, and I wouldn't promise smooth sailing for a while. However, it is definitely possible within the design of "Second Life" to strike a balance that works. One thing that will help is when attacks on "Second Life" are properly treated and prosecuted as cybercrimes, and we are working a lot on that.

There is so much media attention on "Second Life" and Linden Lab these days. Is it a distraction as you try to implement features, fixes and the like?
Rosedale: We probably spend a lot less time on media than you would think. Many of the stories happen without us knowing, or with the help of residents or some of the newly emerging consulting/services companies like Electric Sheep, Millions of Us, etc.

Howie Lament (from the audience) asks: How is Linden Lab going to avoid coding themselves into a corner? Isn't it tempting to do big changes that would break backward-compatibility with the old world?
Rosedale: The way we will stay "out of the corner" is by making "Second Life" heterogeneous. That means that we can try new features out on a small group of (simulators). We think we will get there in the next few months, in terms of the needed protocol and systems changes. This will allow us to deploy not only to preview, but to a small part of the main grid. Or to deploy a "beta" client, for example, that connects to the main grid.

Jonathan Sprawl (from the audience) asks: Is stability, security, and uptime Linden Lab's top priority, and are you willing to forgo new features and growth pursuits until it gets better?
Rosedale: Yes, security and scaling the main systems to handle capacity is our top priority. But that doesn't mean you will not see us do new or different things. If we didn't make steady progress on multiple fronts, we wouldn't be able to hire great people. Also, there are only so many people who can work at one time on specific scaling and security challenges.

Lastly, is there any likelihood of partnerships between Linden Lab and Sun Microsystems or any other big technology companies?
Rosedale: There really isn't anything specific we are looking for. It is of first priority that we keep "Second Life" a level playing field for all, meaning that there are many types of strategic relationships we won't do. But I think as we get bigger and more relevant there may be ways to get help in making "Second Life" work better or be more stable where we work with other companies.

Such as?
Rosedale: Well, any help where we effectively get great development teams working on problems. That is good.