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Last Updated: Friday, 14 December 2007, 15:42 GMT
A very real future for virtual worlds
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Second Life avatars, Linden Lab
Many people spend a long time getting their avatar right for Second Life

Second Life has long been seen as as the bell-wether for the growing interest in virtual spaces. Here, founder Philip Rosedale talks about the past and future of the parallel world he is helping to create.

These are interesting times for Second Life. In the four short years it has existed, it has seen media coverage go from hysterical to hectoring. It has been hailed as both a harbinger of the next big thing and a brake on the burgeoning development of virtual worlds.

Speculation about its future has intensified as news emerged that chief technology officer Cory Ondrejka, who helped design and build Second Life, has left the company.

But said Philip Rosedale, one of the founders of Linden Lab which oversees the running of Second Life, the departure will not dent the vision all the original engineers had for their creation.

"Cory is a fantastic guy, he's fantastically capable and we will miss him a lot," said Mr Rosedale.

Philip Rosedale and his Second Life avatar, Linden Lab
Philip Rosedale and his Second Life avatar Philip Linden
"Our differences are more about how to run the company and how best we organise ourselves as a company going forward," he said. "We really do not have any differences in strategic direction."

"There's not a shift in direction in the company that I wanted to make or Cory wanted to make that was incompatible," he told the BBC News website.

"We are a core of technologists in our heart," he said. "The first 10 people that joined, there are only two that have left, they are all engineers."

For the near future, Linden Lab is looking at ways of making the technology behind Second Life much more open and easy to use.

Web worlds

"We are still in the early days so the things that are wrong are still wrong," he said, "It is still hard to figure out how to use Second Life and how to find things."

In many respects, he said, online virtual worlds are at the point now that the web reached in the early 1990s.

"We have often had fun in the office finding quotes from the early 90s that map exactly to what they say about Second Life now, " he said, "that it's disorganised, you cannot find anything and there is a lot of crap."

We are at the very early stages of something very big
Philip Rosedale
Despite the scepticism from many quarters he is fervently convinced that virtual worlds are the future of online life.

"Virtual worlds are inherently comprehensible to us in a way that the web is not," said Mr Rosedale. "They look like the world we already know and take advantage of our ability to remember and organise."

"Information is presented there in a way that matches our memories and experiences," he said. "Your and my ability to remember the words we use and the information we talk about is much higher if it's presented as a room or space around us."

Equally important, he said, was the visibility or presence that being in a virtual world bestows on its users.

By contrast, he said, when visiting a website people are anonymous and invisible.

Shopping on Amazon might be much easier and enjoyable if you could turn to one of the other 10,000 or so people on the site at the same time as you and ask about what they were buying, get recommendations and swap good or bad experiences.

Second Life screenshot, Linden Lab
Many firms are using Second Life to collaborate
Many firms and educators were starting to use Second Life as an online collaboration space that helps them work together like they do in the real world but to which is added the malleability of a wholly digital space.

For virtual worlds to be able to extend this usefulness to the mass of people a lot of work has yet to be done, said Mr Rosedale.

What it might take, he said, was software that would let people browse virtual worlds like they do webpages. Built in to that software would be an identity management system that re-drew yourself to match those different spaces.

"I think it is going to happen, that kind of portability of identity is important but I could not hazard a guess right now about how quickly it will happen," he said.

"But," he said, "with a sufficiently open platform then people will move into it quite rapidly."

It might, he speculated, one day outstrip the web as a means for people to communicate and work together.

"Because virtual worlds like Second Life do not impose language barriers like the web does - that almost certainly means their ultimate utility range is larger," he said. "We are at the very early stages of something very big."

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