Friday, August 21, 2020
Philip Rosedale at Lab Gab
By Bixyl Shuftan
On Friday August 7, Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Lab, and therefore of Second Life, and co-founder of High Fidelity, better known here as the former Philip Linden, appeared on the "Lab Gab" show hosted by Strawberry Linden. Philip looked as he had in his days as a Linden, in his trademark "Rocky Horror" lips t-shirt and spikey prim hair, along with the speckled codpiece. This time he sported Japanese kanji tattoos on his upper arms, and had a red rose in his hand.
Strawberry called him, "everyone's secret crush," to which he responded, "I'm blushing, but you can't see that as I'm digital."
She asked him how are he and his family doing these days. He responded, "Isn't this the strangest time that any of us have ever seen?" commenting he's been around for a while. He talked about a "Saturday Night Live" skit, "It's not a good thing if a miracle is plan A. ... Captured the horror and complexity ... I've had enough of this dream for a while."
Strawberry then asked Philip how often does he log onto Second Life. What communities does he enjoy exploring? He answered, "I love it," Hr had gone to the new Linden homes and was talking to someone on his dock for a while. "I have to admit, I have fun being the founder. ... People slowly figure out who I am, I am not Philip Linden." Joked about wanting to be like Bill Murray. "I try to give as much happiness as I can."
And what did Philip think of Second Life still around twenty years after Linden Lab's founding? He replied, "I'm not surprised at all." He found it "interesting" that the size of it's community has stayed about the same so long, "over time ... most things change." While some of his thoughts and opinions have changed over the years, "I still feel humans get the chance to build new worlds now. And those worlds are becoming increasingly sophisticated. ... Look how far ahead of our time we were. ... There are still so many things that Second Life can do that have not been replicated elsewhere after almost 20 years of work."
"It was Andrew whom had made himself into a kind of leviathan ... this wonderful sort of marbleized avatar. ... He was the one for whom we bought dinner. I made this kind of playful, almost kind of silly person, who was just kind of fun, what I could do in a couple hours. And I never changed it. And that identity became iconic and kind of part of me. And so, I've never been inclined to change it. I'm sure some of that is because I'm the founder, and I am a known sort of a public person. But it still is an interesting inquisition into identity, 'Why did I make those choices?' This kind of cowboy character."
Strawberry then asked him why did he think that crafting one's own identity is so important in Second Life? Phillip called it a subject people have written a lot about. It was designed at the outset that "everyone could find their own look." "I think the fact that you knew you could do something that was uniquely you, and of course ... for the first time in human experience had the ability to sculpt yourself, basically with your skills and hands. Who wouldn't be delighted by that?"
Strawberry made a reference to recent times with Facebook. Philip responded, ""I could talk about that stuff obviously for days. There's so many ways of creating identity." There was talk about using audio at High Fidelity, "2D with high quality audio. ... Still important investigations ongoing that I hope we can continue to do as an industry. ... Second Life is still a line in the sand."
Strawberry then brought up the start of Linden Lab, and asked what inspired Philip to create Linden Lab and Second Life. He answered, "I was born at just the right time for using computers over the Internet." He commented that when people like Steve Jobs were young, the exciting thing to discover was the idea one could make a personal computer. He would say he came of age later when the Internet came to be. In the early 90s, he would do experiments with networking computers together. When the Internet did come out in 1994-95, "I didn't think it was fast enough" to do a really big project. They were still on dial-up. In 1999, his San Francisco office had stacks of modems 3-4 feet tall. In 1995, worked on video compression, was hired by another company that was interested in the technology, "learned something about engineering management." "In 1999, everything changed" when Nvida released the Geoforce 2 chip and companies began putting them in their PCs, "they could do ... pretty good graphics ... that was the big motivator." The second was when people started switching to broadband and cable modems. He left the company he was working for, returned to San Francisco, "and in late 1999, I found this warehouse in Hayes Valley and moved into it. Andrew (Meadows) joined me a couple months later. And the rest as they say is history."
"So Andrew's always been there?" Strawberry asked. Philip answered, "Eddie's still with me now, it's fabulous." He would say all of the early Lindens are "still in touch" with one another. And two are still with Linden Lab.
Strawberry then asked about rumors that he was experimenting on virtual reality "with a protoype hardware device called 'The Rig.'" Philip answered, "Yes, absolutely." He was "driven" to develop "a consumer accessible magical world." Instead of a VR helmet, one would sit in front of a monitor, and the computer would determine how much you were trying to move. "The crazy thing was, it totally worked! It wasn't something that could be practically be turned into a consumer device, although I still wonder about that. ... We used it as part of convincing our earliest brave investors that what we were doing made sense." When working on the software that would before Second Life, work on 'The Rig' stopped. It eventually got taken apart into peices and boxed up. "Maybe they're at the Linden offices." When assembled, it was very large and strong.
Strawberry then asked, what were the early days at Linden Lab like? Philip told her, "Well, it was very fun. It was fun to be ... something that nobody had seen. It was a combination of working on these really delightful ideas, we could simulate a world and watch the sun rise and set ... the water would have ripples in it ... At the same time, it was an exciting time in the computer industry where companies like Google were questioning the status quo. There was an enterprise software feeling that maybe Microsoft most gave off. They're different now, but Microsoft at that time was the big evil company. And we wanted to be different. We wanted to manage ourselves differently. And we from the very beginning had a very, I guess you'd say a more bottom-up as opposed to a top-down approach. I was always 'I'm the CEO and engineer, but I'm not going to tell you what to do. I want you to do it because it makes sense. I don't want you to do it because I told you so. And so that drove a lot of our culture. And that culture evolved to respect and contain a lot of those ideas over the years. But it was very exciting that way. It was a very excited group of people that were seeing this stuff come to life"
Strawberry then brought up, "You led come corporate innovations that helped shape and inform the culture at Linden Lab, such as the Love Machine ... and you also publish the Towel of Linden, which we all still follow and it's still published." Philip responded, "The Love Machine was Corey Andreka, our CTO at the time. ... Corey and I were tossing ideas around about economies, because Second Life had this economy. The Love Machine was from about 2005, so Second Life was up and running. We knew we had chat, we had money in the system, and we had the ability to give people little digital things. So I think that shaped some of our thinking. I can remember Corey and I were talking about a sort of tipping machine where you could tip your co-workers. ... What really matters is that you describe in a sentence what you're thankful for or whatever it is you're doing. I remember at some point where Corey and I were refining that idea. And then Corey wrote a prototype of it that weekend. I said, 'Well, we got to call this the Love Machine.' That's just so great I thought of that name, and it was I think a 70s-like funk band, or something. ... You got to send people love, and that was before Twitter. It was pretty cool, especially at the time that you just send a short message. Remember, this is before Slack too. So we used the Love Machine in email. The thing that we prototyped was just a little form that you would fill out that would just say 'Strawberry' as the username, which is basically your email name, and then what you want to send, 'thank you for having me on Lab Gab, that was a lot of fun.' And you'd send it and it would go out, and it was timely.
"And also we would, I don't know how much Linden Lab does this now, but we would put these big screens that had the last ten or twenty messages that have been sent. And we'd put them near the kitchen or near the bathrooms, so that you'd be likely to encounter them all the time, so you'd get a good feeling for what was going on just by reading the love that had been sent."
Strawberry stated that she works remotely, so wasn't sure if that's in the office, "But you can see it on the site. And the Love Machine is ... great for morale." In the Youtube chat, "For those unfamiliar with The Love Machine, it is a positive way for Linden Lab employees to acknowledge each other with a compliment (and small tip) when they do good work in the company."
"By the way, we turned it into a product. And we sold it to a few companies. We still use it today. We've used it every day at High Fidelity for the whole time we've been in business, and we use it just as much in a similar fashion to how Linden Labs does. And other companies are starting to adopt that ... doing identical or very similar things that allow you to send recognition that way ."
Strawberry then asked, "What about the Tao of Linden?" Philip answered, "The Tao of Linden was, if I remember was really written first by Gene, by Jinsu, another famous Linden over the years and a very good friend of mine today. Gene really took on writing down what he felt we were doing. I don't remember which elements of it I had previously written. Probably choose your own work and no politics, which were things that I felt very strongly about at that time. But Gene really filled it in and made that first list of seven things. Of course the last one was a joke, 'Might makes right,' (chuckle) which I thought was just wonderful. I don't know whether that's still there. But Gene thought it was particularly irreverent to include in the list something that wasn't in the list."
In the Youtube chat, the Tao of Linden would be posted - https://philiprosedale.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/the-tao-of-linden/
Strawberry then asked, "If you could do one thing differently when creating Second Life, what would it be, and why?" Philip wanted to know if she wanted to hear about the virtual world first or Linden Lab, and she asked for Linden Lab. He answered, "I think that I was really a rebel. I think everybody would agree with that. I kind of liked to shake things up. So I liked the idea of building a work culture around it no being top-down management, not telling people what to do. I just loved that idea. But I think looking back, I was so aggressive about that idea that I made it into a kind of a monoculture. That was probably not a perfect fit for everybody. And I think at work, in the world right now, we're talking about inclusion. And we're talking about diversity, and that is really a powerful conversation, and an important one. And I think I had these wonderful ideas. But I think I forced them on everybody so uniformly.
"For example, this idea of choose your own work, which was one of my first crazy things. 'Nobody can tell you what to do. You have to pick what you want to do.' Not everybody ... I jokingly at work .. say that famous Princess Bride line, 'Good work Wesley, sleep well.I'll most likely kill you in the morning,' (chuckle) which was the original dread pirate Roberts to Wesley. And we used to laugh about that. But I think the problem was like 'choose your own work' kind of felt like that sometimes, like 'Hey, work on whatever you want to and know one thing, it's not the right thing, we're not going to keep you.' And I think that's quite a task like I don't think that everybody gets on in the morning and goes 'I want to work at a company where they tell me to do whatever I want, I'll be evaluated on that, and if I'm not useful enough, I won't get to stay around.' That's not how Linden really was, and it's certainly not how it is today. But I think it kind of felt like that sometimes.
"And I wanted to be that person who was the crazy, aspiring dread pirate Roberts, like I wanted to have everything be incredibly high risk and on my shoulders. But I think culturally, what I've learned to respect as I've grown up is that while you definitely want to create a culture where some people can have it that way, you don't want to necessarily ... uniformly force that behavior on everybody. So that's an example of something that I would have done differently. I think Linden Lab has done it differently after me. So, let me say, I think it's been good that way. But I think I would have earlier said 'Okay, here are some alternative ways we can work together. Let's figure out, let's play with them.' And I think I would have been respectful of and listening to some people saying 'Philip, the way you want to do it with this incredibly high-stakes poker stuff, or internal markets or whatever, that's a bit much for me. I don't like that.' And I would have said 'Okay, no problem.'"
Strawberry then asked Philip what she thought of Linden Lab being acquired by an investment group meant for the future of Second Life, bringing up that he knew one of it's leaders, (Brad Oberwager). Philip answered, "While I certainly can't say much, what I can say is this. I've known Brad (Oberwager) for a long time, and he has been just fascinated with and delighted by the stories of and the things that he had seen about Second Life. And he was always just so respectfully ... like 'Man, I wish I had your job. I wish I could work on something like that.' He always had this kind of approach to it. And then he's .. well, you've seen a bit already. He's just a wonderful, very capable, very smart, very adaptive, great listener, person. And so, when the opportunity came around for him to become more involved in this way, I was delighted. And so, what I think at a high level it means is that the spirit of and the excitement of and the things that make Second Life magical, I think a lot of the things that are really wonderful about Second Life are going to continue on and prosper and grow. I'm just very excited abou."
"So it's going to be good news, you feel?" Strawberry asked. "Oh absolutely," Philip responded, "I'm just delighted to see Second Life continue on. Under new management I suppose. But I think that we're all going to really enjoy this, and I'm looking forward to being involved and handing out inworld and helping out wherever I can."
Strawberry brought up that prior to Linden Lab, Philip was a key executive at Real Networks. She asked about his work there and how it influenced his decision to form Linden Lab. He answered, "Well, I got all the right training. I had a wonderful opportunity to work for a wonderful boss who was really passionate about not just building a big company, but doing something really amazing. Real Networks was initially called 'Progressive Networks.' He wanted to use the ability to communicate with audio over the Internet in some way to be of service to people. And that was what he was inspired by, and I think speaking for Rob (Glaser), still is. So I think that it gave me that kind of support, that I could go after something that was really a passionate mission. So I think it really helped me that way. And then I got great experience and I got lots of relevant technical experience with stuff like video codex and things like that, that I was able to apply to the design of Second Life."
Strawberry then mentioned that a decade ago, Philip had left Linden Lab "to explore other entrepreneurial efforts." She asked him why that time to move on? Philip's answer was, "We were growing so quickly then. And I had always been a contrarian in my thinking. I'd always been a rebel. And at the time, I felt like maybe I wasn't the right CEO. We were a couple hundred people in that year, around 2009, 2008. So at some point, I was always really hardcore. I remember having conversations with my investors, some really remarkable investors that I'd be able to call on from time to time to ask things of. And I can remember asking this question, 'Look, a lot of the day-to-day stuff of being the CEO of this kind of an undertaking, I don't know if that's what I want to do. I'm an inventor. I'm a tinkerer. So I had this crisis or question as to whether I was the right leader. And I was such a contrarian. I was immediately like, 'Well, if I have that instinct, I should just be fearless and replace myself and hire a new CEO.
"So, I did this blog post and I remember the company being like 'We truly have a crazy leader here' yet again. So rather than conducting a private search or having some lengthy thing, I just did a blog post. And I said, 'You know, I'm going to look for a new CEO. I want to find a new me. And Mark Kingdon sent me an email a few days later, I think. He was like, 'I think it could be the right job for me.' So, it was really just a fascinating process where I just decided I ... didn't have the right set of capabilities for that job. We were growing so quickly. It was very exciting at that time. A lot of the early kind of legal and regulatory stuff was going on. It was just ... you can imagine, it was a wild roller-coaster to be the boss. And so I wasn't sure it was the right thing for me. And so that lead me to replace myslef and kind of, wander the Earth and do a number of other things. And I think that experience was great. And I think Linden (Lab) was just fine without me. I think the experience was a good one."
Strawberry then brought up High Fidelity, asking what is it, and how can people check it out. Philip told her, "From 2009 I left Linden Lab, and Ryan Linden (Ryan Downe) left with me as one of my two co-founders of our new work of Love Machine, which then became 'Coffee and Power,' which then became High Fidelity. So the way Coffee and Power became High Fidelity was, we had done a number of interesting things together. We were about twelve people at that time, or something. Sorry, this is about 2013. And because I'm a tinkerer, I bought one of the very first chips, a chip called an analog rate mems gyro. ... And that little tiny chip which you could buy for ten bucks from sparkfun was a tiny chip that for the first time could tell you which way it was turned. So you had this little chip, and you put it on a little board, and you tipped it in the air, and it could tell you exactly how it was turned. Now, nowdays that may seem easy, like my phone can do that. But this was in 2013. These chips that could do that had just come out and they had just become inexpensive. And I got one of those chips and I hooked it up to an oscilloscope. And I started tilting in in my hands. I held it in my fingers, and I tilted it while looking at the scope, which was basically telling me the electrical output, how it was moving. So there's a line on the scope that was moving up and down as I tipped my hand left and right.
"And as soon as I saw that, I knew the Occulus Rift was going to work. I knew it was going to be possible to build a VR headset. As I mentioned, and you talked about with The Rig, I had been very passionate about these devices. And so when I saw that chip, I made a very aggressive move. And I basically said to everybody 'We're gonna move to a completely new project. We're going to start working on VR again. We're going to go back into virtual worlds.' And so High Fidelity was a company founded with at the dawn and before ... during the kickstarter for the Occulus Rift. And so I made a guess that these headsets would work, which in retrospect I was wrong. We're still too early. But I made a guess that these headsets were going to be the way everybody did 3D in a few years. And so I said, 'Let's start building a whole new virtual world, which is designed from the very start to work with those headsets. Interestingly, Linden (Lab) around the same time began thinking about some of it's own projects in that regard. Which as we know was the genesis of Sansar.
"So anyway, that's what we worked on for five, six years. And then last year, we realized that the VR headsets weren't going to be the consumer entry point that they thought they were. And of course everybody debates this. I love debating with people, and I do routinely, to talk about all this. And of course it's anybody's guess exactly what'll happen with VR hardware. ... I could talk about that for days too. But basically we said, 'We've got to build something that doesn't rely ob these VR headsets. As much as we've worked on it, we've got to stop.' And so, we did something that is a really fun set of ninja moves over the last year or so. But where we ended up with today, and we actually built this before COVID, so it was crazy-interesting that we kind of, the timing there. But what High Fidelity is today is, we made it into, ... we decided to start it with a differnet strategy, which was to build something that was 100% accessible to everybody, but that still delivered some kind of an amazing virtual world experience. And that's what we're doing right now.
"We're in the middle of that. But basically, at the beginning of this year, we got only the audio working. So it's kind of ... that experience people talk about called 'dining in the dark.' Imagine a virtual world where you can move around because you can see yourself from the top-down on a map. But you can't see anything, well, other than a background. You can't see anybody, but you can hear them perfectly. And I mean really perfectly. ... So, High fidelity is a radical leap in audio quality and in particular, it perfectly spatializes in three dimensions where the sound is coming from. So, what that means if you haven't experienced it is, you can close your eyes and you can point at where (the) person is. You can do that by the way in Second Life today with the Voice that we're using. But it's not as good. What High Fidelity is, is it does that much better, and it does it with very high quality. So you can play music as easily as you can speak. And the other thing is that the delay, the time that it takes for my voice to reach your ears, is very low. And so, we built a system based on that. That's what we have today.
highfidelity.com . You can actually jump into a space that has about 65 people all talking like at a party. They're bots, but they have real voices. ... You can just jump in there, it's one-click. You don't have to sign up for an account or anything. And you'll see what I'm talking about. It's a shocking experience."
There was a brief discussion of Strawberry's experience in High Fidelity, then Philip commented, "It's a remarkable experience and we're evolving it rapidly with ... we're a team of about twenty people now. So we're working away on that and having a lot of fun. And like I said, COVID happened. ... I mean I think that COVID has ... forced the entire world over the last six months or so to go through the same process of becoming virtual that we all chose to in Second Life. I mean how weird is that? So, everybody's discovering."
Strawberry then asked what's next for High Fidelity. Philip answered, "Some of it's a secret, but let me just say that first of all, we're going to work really hard to create super-accessible inclusive technology that can bring thousands of people into the same place. That's kind of where we think there's something exciting to be done and something that's say, different than something like Second Life. Because as we all know, to render a room like this, with your hair, your tennis shoes with all their detail, and the cats in the room and their flickering candles, and I can see steam coming off the coffee, I'm holding a rose that's close to photorealistic. I mean, that's incredible ... that's amazing.
"But, you can't do that with modern technology, even with 2020 technology, you can't so that for five hundred people at the same time. It's unfeasible. It's very difficult. And there there's this trade-off between the detail. And so you know in Second Life you can be in small groups of people with an extraordinary amount of detail, if you have a fast PC. So I think one important direction is to say 'How can we all?'" And I think there's roles for the Lindens in this as well, how can we get more people in the same space so that they can communicate with each other and have an amazing experience and feel connected like we do in Second Life. But maybe take those numbers up. We've got lots of other crazy ideas we're working on as well, and you'll see them in the future."
Strawberry then brought up the Pandemic and asked how it affected his plans and/or outlook for the future of virtual worlds and social networks. Philip responded, "On the one hand, it certainly is affirming. I feel it's wonderful that I've been able to spend my career working on technology which is now all the more useful. We have more reasons. We have a pandemic that forces us to interact digitally more. And so, I've learned so much about how to do that right, and Linden (Lab) has. And I'm so glad that we're here. I'm so glad we can be of service, that as High Fidelity and as Linden Lab we can provide something for people that are now more forced to come into the digital domain.
"That said, as we all know, there are challenges with being digital, with crossing the divide. We've learned a lot. What have we learned in the last six months as a human species? Well, one of the things we've learned is video is not as good as we thought it was. You know, everybody was like ... 'My goodness, I use Facetime,' or 'I use Zoom,' or 'I use Team.' 'You know, I'm just going to use video.' And what we've discovered is, and this doesn't surprise the designers at Linden (Lab) or High Fidelity, ... there are some problems with ... being on video conferences all day long. Your self-image is affected by looking at yourself view where you're badly lit. And you're not in make-up or whatever. There's this hyper-vigilance problem or this physiological arousal problem, which is when you do the 'Brady Bunch' thing with your team at your company, and you've got nine or twenty people looking straight at you. As humans, you know, although I daresay that would be the same as avatars too. But if people are just staring straight at you, pointing your noses at you, it arouses you. I'm using that term, it's a physiological term. Your heart rate speeds up. You get ready to fight or run or whatever, like you're aroused when somebody you don't know well is kind of staring right at you. And of course video, the Zoom call, or whatever, the 'Brady Bunch' sort of format totally does that to you.
"And so ... one of our advisors at High Fidelity is a brilliant researcher named Jeremy Balenson who has spent his life studying VR and avatars and how people interact and he wrote something in the New York Times very early on in COVID that really did a good job of explaining ... video makes us extremely fatigued. It's just too much. And of course sitting here as avatars is not fatiguing. And using only your voice, provided the quality is reasonably good is not fatiguing. So I think we're learning things. I do think there's a long way to go, though. I guess the flip side of that would be I'm struck by how difficult losing physical contact with people is, and how the virtual technologies don't yet capture all of that. It doesn't make me not want to be near people, or able to ... walk into a real room, shake someone's hand, give them a hug. We can give virtual hugs, but they're not real hugs. And I'm inspired to keep working on that. I'm as inspired as I've ever been to keep working on these things and keep trying to cross that distance."
Philip had time to take one question from the audience. Martin Mouni's question was the one picked, asking him how he saw the future of virtual worlds, particularly Second Life. Philip told, "I'd like to see this experience more accessible to more people ... I think we're getting to technologically to a point where we can make this experience more accessible on more computers or maybe accessible on mobile. And of course user-friendly. Everybody says that we got to make the interface better. I think that that's true. There have been a lot of good experiments in that. I think it's hard, by the way. I think it's hard to drive yourself as an avatar through the real world while being a real person. Not just playing a shooter game or something, but being a real person. I think that problem is, I'm not going to say irreducibly hard. But I would say that it's harder. ... It's sort of like everybody's saying 'Well, just make it easier.' And I tell you, I've been away from the company for a while. We have had so many people, and there have been so many products in the industry that have tried to make it easier. And it's pretty hard. ... There's still not a lot of products that demonstrate how to do the interphase better or best for people in a virtual world. So I think improvements are going to be made there, though. I'd love to see this experience be something that was a bit more accessible, so more people could have it, that they wanted to. It feels to me like the people for whom Second Life is a wonderful, inspiring, useful, helpful, educational thing, is larger than the subset of people who have the right equipment to do it right now today."
Philip had an appointment to make, so he didn't have the time to answer more questions. Strawberry thanked him again for the interview.
So see the video of the interview, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISKdUs6kLlY