Emerging Technologies

Second Life: What this 20-year-old virtual world can tell us about the future of the metaverse

Two decades ago a virtual world called Second Life was launched, which was the forerunner of the metaverse.

Two decades ago a virtual world called Second Life was launched, which was the forerunner of the metaverse. Image: Unsplash/Ales Nesetril

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Emerging Technologies

  • Two decades ago a virtual world called Second Life was launched, which was the forerunner of the metaverse.
  • Founder Philip Rosedale reflects on how the platform has survived and what lessons a future metaverse might learn from its 20-year-old predecessor.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Social Implications of the Metaverse and Privacy and Safety in the Metaverse reports analyze some of the challenges involved.
  • Hear the Radio Davos podcast here and subscribe on any podcast app via this link.

“The metaverse has always been an amazingly powerful, aspirational North Star for a lot of engineers and Silicon Valley-type people. But it remains a kind of a mystery as to what it might actually look like and whether it'll be good for us or not.”

So says Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, the virtual world he created two decades ago, an online multimedia platform that allows people, in avatar form, to interact with other users and user-created content within a multiplayer realm.

Yes, the idea behind the metaverse has been around much longer than most people think.

In a Radio Davos podcast, Philip Rosedale reflects on how his Second Life experiences could inform a future metaverse.

Two recent reports by the World Economic Forum shed light on privacy and safety concerns and the social implications of developing the metaverse.

How do contemporary ideas about the metaverse differ from Second Life?

Technology, understanding and attitudes towards virtual worlds have advanced in the two decades since Second Life was launched.

While, today, interest in a metaverse is a given, 20 years ago fewer people had home internet access or could imagine the idea of occupying a digital environment.

“Back then things were different in that computers were tremendously slower than they are today. The graphics weren't as good,” says Rosedale.

“It was technically too difficult to make the virtual world itself something that everyone could run little pieces of on their different computers.

“Investors, people that I was trying to get to work on it, were very confused as to whether or not such a kind of a sandbox, a big open world, would actually be interesting to people. And then it turned out that it was.

“A few things have happened that I think make people relate differently to Second Life now than they would have a long time ago. One is certainly the idea of ourselves being avatars or pictures or in one way or another virtual beings online.

“Another change is the proliferation of virtual reality (VR) devices, which now many of us have had the experience at least once of putting on these strange headsets and being literally immersed in a three-dimensional world.”

How has the platform survived two decades and is still going strong?

“What’s made the platform compelling in a way that other experiences have not been, is its deep commitment that everything from the tiniest detail to the largest idea is built entirely by the people who are in it, not by the company.

“And it's that ability, combined with the ability to build and maintain communities and relationships with other people, that gives Second Life its staying power.”

Can a future metaverse emulate this staying power?

Amid the hype, the look, feel and functionality of a future metaverse has no clear shape, structure or definition. But is there a lesson here for the virtual environments of the future?

Figure illustrating the definition of social value in relation to metaverse.
Creating social value is an important part of efforts to develop a metaverse for all. Image: World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum’s Social Implications of the Metaverse report points to the need to create social value, where the virtual world exerts a positive influence on individuals, communities and the environment. But for this to happen, the metaverse must “be built with human rights, safety and privacy at its core”, say the authors.

According to Rosedale: “The challenge for the metaverse is the same for any virtual environment. The only reason we're there is for the other people we find. And so the technology, both the hardware and the software, has to be good enough to make us feel like we're really there with someone else, and like we really understand them.

“The biggest thing that will make metaverses finally begin to have global impact, is going to be the true sense of other people there in a way that is satisfying to most of us.”

How important is establishing trust?

Trust has been eroded over the past decade, but this can be turned around. Virtual worlds have the promise of being able to build trust between people rather than damage it, by allowing them to share the same space together, says Rosedale.

“One of the reasons that we don't have trust online today is because we're all living in different online worlds. When we're communicating online, we have a deep sense that we're not really in the same space as the other person, quite literally.”

“The metaverse can build trust between people by allowing them to share the same space together.”

“When you see your avatar sitting in a chair across from others, in the same room, in the same neighbourhood, right in a virtual world, you feel a connection to them, which is identical to what we feel in the real world.

“But when we communicate with each other in the real world, a tremendous amount of the information that we're sharing with each other is nonverbal. Unfortunately, in virtual environments thus far, it has been impossible to convey most of that non-verbal signalling.

“We may in the next few years be able to use a combination of visual information from cameras and information from AIs helping us look at those cameras so our avatars reflect the emotions we're showing as we sit in front of our computers.”

How will we live, work, buy and sell things in the metaverse?

Enabling people to earn money, spend it and sell goods and services requires some form of digital currency.

Second Life's internal economy uses the Linden Dollar as its unit of currency, and generates a GDP of about $650 million a year in the virtual world. The platform provides a full-time income for many thousands of people who live there, says Rosedale.

“If you look at different metaverses, the big difference is that Second Life's revenues are driven by fees, like hosting fees or real estate charges for the land that you own in the virtual world, and other fees related to virtual goods.

“But importantly, the platform does not profit from advertising. So it doesn't profit from attention or from behavioural modification or targeting of any kind.

“We have no interest and provide no mechanisms where people could manipulate each other, as a part of the way the system works. And so I think that's an existentially important difference.

“We cannot build metaverses based on advertising, or we will do immensely more harm to ourselves than we've already done with personalized and targeted advertisements.”

Have you read?

Will the metaverse empower people or shape their behaviour?

Most, if not all, virtual worlds that currently exist are controlled by a central individual or company. When you enter these spaces, your movements, privacy and what you can do in the environment is governed by whoever is running the platform.

This has to change in the future, Rosedale says, pointing out the need to empower people to resolve their own disputes, as opposed to the kind of central review and policymaking that exists in social media, for example.

“Governance of the metaverse is possible through a balance between individual and community, through a deep focus on local groups and local communities. It's very easy for software to be self-governed by, say, the people who live in a particular area, it's very easy to architect things that way.

“In the virtual worlds, we begin to spend material amounts of time with our friends, for entertainment, for work, for school. If those worlds are mostly controlled by single companies with the ability to do anything they want to us, one can easily imagine how potentially dystopian and horrific an outcome that will be.

“We have to graduate from these initial experiments we're doing that look a lot like video games, to some kind of a general-purpose architecture that is open and safe in such a way that we would be sane to go there.

“Virtual worlds, because of their enormous complexity of people interacting with each other in a lot of different ways at the same time, everything being live, it is utterly impossible to manage the behaviours of people in arrears by monitoring them in a virtual world.

“As some very basic widespread models of use for the metaverse emerge, such as going to school, we will build these rules, regulations, governance and privacy the right way, once there's the right early application to make it obvious what we need to do.”

How far off are these fully immersive experiences?

A number of serious challenges stand in the way of realizing fully immersive digital experiences. But within the next decade, Rosedale predicts we could see some major developments.

The first relates to avatars that can communicate effectively, including body language and social nuances, and congregate in the same virtual space at the same time.

The second is linked to overcoming the scientific and technical challenges of building an interoperable, open-access virtual world.

“I think, five, certainly 10 years from now, we will see a metaverse where big crowds of people can stand together doing the same thing.

“The appeal of the metaverse, of virtual worlds, is that we're deeply social creatures. We need each other, we need new friends, we need to extend the boundaries of our friend groups. We strive to make – and benefit greatly from making – new connections with people far away.

“There is a very broad re-examination happening in tech right now and a fundamental question being asked, which is: is this thing that I'm building going to be good for us?

“And I'm happy that, probably because we're facing such dramatic existential problems, some of them pretty related to technology, we are finally starting to ask those questions.”


How is the World Economic Forum contributing to the metaverse?

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