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Massively talks with upbeat Second Life founder, Philip Rosedale

Tateru Nino

Catching up with Linden Lab and Second Life founder and chairman, Philip Rosedale isn't an easy task. We've certainly been trying for years. Having crossed-off most of the plans that didn't involve some sort of indictable body-tackle outside of the Lab's offices in San Francisco, we were beginning to despair somewhat.

However, despite a very full calendar and a busy work-schedule, we unexpectedly wound up with an opportunity to put a few questions to Rosedale, arguably one of the most notable figures in the virtual environments industry, this decade.

Often referred to affectionately as the "Old Man" of Second Life, Rosedale is a hip and handsome fellow, calling to mind a younger Richard Garriott back in the day, and considerably younger than many of Second Life's most-active users.

Virtual environments have been slow to establish themselves in various industries and spheres. They're now in their fourth and fifth generation (depending on precisely how you count these things), after all. Nevertheless, gaming and education seem like two spheres that won't ever be without virtual environments for the foreseeable future. That is not to say that virtual environments must completely pervade education, but that they form a tool that -- in its place -- is simply too valuable to ignore.

We were curious, therefore, if Rosedale saw any other spheres forming such permanent bonds with virtual environments and the VE industry.

"I would bet that business meetings, both internal and external to companies, will shift largely to happening in VW's," Rosedale responded, "The productivity, travel cost, and green advantages are substantive and will give a competitive advantage to businesses that use them."

"Also, the much better experience of multi-person 3D audio in Second Life/Virtual Worlds and the memory/recall advantages of having meetings in novel virtual locations that are highly unique and memorable will drive this transition."

Certainly, the industry as a whole has moved along a whole lot further and faster than we expected it to. Back in 2007, for example, we didn't expect to see mainstream awareness of virtual environments expand as quickly as it has, or in quite the same ways. We wondered how growth, both in Second Life and in the industry, through that period had matched up with Rosedale's expectations.

"Well, I never knew exactly what to expect given the amount of change that VWs are likely to bring about over time. That said, I'd say that things are coming along pretty nicely," said Rosedale, "The compounding growth-rates were highest in 2007, so if you projected based on the first 2 quarters of that year you would have said things would be even bigger today than they are."

"But with user hours growing quite substantially between early 2008 and early 2009, I'd say things are still moving quickly."

Ease-of-use and learning curve issues still prove to be somewhat of a hindrance to growth-rates, of course. Rosedale added, "Particularly for broader sets of users like business and education, we need to keep making Second Life easier to use and get into! That will accelerate growth."

That growth hasn't hurt Linden Lab at all, either, with the Lab experiencing quite a rosy financial period, despite the global economic downturn.

"We are over 300 people and solidly profitable"

"We are over 300 people and solidly profitable," Rosedale told us, "More importantly, we are providing a platform on which people are able to create things of value and to make money. When you are able to do that, you generally can also figure out how to run a profitable business doing it."

The Lab seems to have figured that part out, though we must admit that others seem to have failed to manage to do the same.

As for Second Life itself, the mainstream media seems to spend half of its time hyping virtual environments to be something that they clearly are not, and the other half of the time running them down for failing to live up to that hype. Negative (and often quite spurious) stories focus overly on sex, addiction and escapism, and many journalists seem to be unhealthily obsessed with the common penis.

"Any sufficiently open system to be interesting is going to necessarily have people doing things to themselves or others that are undesirable," Rosedale observed, "but the important question is whether overall the outcome is positive for people. I am totally convinced that it is. "

"Virtual worlds like Second Life offer far more positive benefits to humanity than negatives, which is definitely a big part of what inspires me to come to work every day. I am proudest of the positive social and personal impact that Second Life has had. I dreamed of Second Life more as a platform for building amazing things, without thinking about what sort of effects it would have on the people using it."

"Second Life erases gender, racial, cultural, and geographic barriers in a way that nothing else can"

And it certainly has quite an impact, "Second Life erases gender, racial, cultural, and geographic barriers in a way that nothing else can. It can change the lives of people who are disabled, and teaches people things they didn't know they could do."

"As the space matures and technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, I believe they will be a huge force in educating, creating jobs, and empowering people all over the world." Rosedale said, "To see how Second Life empowers and changes people to become better often can bring tears to my eyes - just ask the other Lindens."

Now free of the CEO's position (filled one year ago by newcomer Mark Kingdon), Rosedale has had time to get his hands dirty again and get back into the systems, engineering and enablement that he loves. "I really enjoy working on product, features, and engineering at least some every day," he told us.

So, where does he see himself in the future, say, even a year from now?

"I hope that I can continue to make big design-level contributions to Second Life technology that further virtual worlds. Things like better interfaces, physics, or helping with the open source efforts like I am doing today."

Are you a part of the most widely-known collaborative virtual environment or keeping a close eye on it? Massively's Second Life coverage keeps you in the loop.

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