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Second Life Creator Linden Lab Says Virtual Worlds and Virtual Reality Belong Together

Virtual worlds are "cool again." Thanks, Facebook.

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“We don’t call it a game,” says Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, almost before our interview has begun.

He’s talking about Linden’s most famous product, Second Life, now 11 years old. That’s old by game — sorry, “virtual world” — standards, but its “significant revenue” means the 185-person company is profitable, Altberg said. Coming to Linden from BranchOut after the departure of CEO Rod Humble in January, Altberg does not mince words about Second Life’s past mistakes.

“It was on the cover of Businessweek, and it was trying to change the world,” Altberg said. “It was ‘going to replace the Internet.’ So, it got overhyped.”

The fact that Second Life, the last time anyone checked, has not replaced the Internet has led many to write it off as a mid-2000s fad. But along with those revenues, the game still has a passionate group of “creators” who design and sell virtual items to other players for virtual currency, which can then be cashed out into real money.

In addition to maintaining the game and working on a new virtual world, which will be distinct from but “in the spirit of Second Life,” Linden is betting that virtual reality is part of Second Life’s next life. When it announced that it was buying Oculus VR earlier this year, Facebook said it hoped to turn the gaming-focused startup into the “most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”

“We were like: Okay. It’s cool again,” Altberg said.

A VR version of Second Life was already in the works well before Oculus became a household name. I demoed the latest version recently and got a first-person, up-close look at a room full of carefully crafted items that I could inspect more closely than I would have been able to in the normal PC experience.

“One creator went into her virtual world in Oculus for the first time and was crying,” Altberg said. “It’s very powerful stuff.”

Linden is not the only one trying to anticipate what a virtual world will look like in virtual reality. Linden’s own founder, Philip Rosedale — who stepped down as CEO in 2010 and left the company’s board last year — is working on an ambitious new made-for-VR world called High Fidelity.

Rosedale demoed an early prototype of High Fidelity at this year’s Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, calling it “a sensory experience” (seriously, we’re not using the word game here).

“When I go into a crowded street, I expect there to be people,” Rosedale said at SVVR. “And when I look at those people, I expect them to make eye contact with me.”

To that end, his complex demo incorporated a Prio VR motion capture suit, the RazerHydra controllers made by Sixense, and a camera running facial detection software made by Apple-owned 3-D sensor company PrimeSense. The graphics were unpolished and the demo was beset by glitches, but Rosedale acknowledged that High Fidelity “is obviously not ready for prime time yet.”

“I talk to Philip a lot,” Altberg said. “But he’s got a long way to go. … We’ve talked about whether we [would incorporate facial tracking] for Second Life or the next generation. The thing is, no one has a camera like that. Right now, Philip is creating a demo that a handful of users on the planet could take advantage of.”

The same could be said, of course, of Second Life in Oculus. A consumer version of the headset has yet to be announced.

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