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In conversation with the man who created VR

14 December 2020

Web Masters is a new podcast that explores the history of the internet through conversations and stories with some of its most important innovators.

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You can listen to the latest podcast here and read more about the newest episode in the transcript here.

Aaron Dinin, the host of the new podcast Web Masters, spoke with Philip Rosedale to discuss Second Life.

Since 1999, Philip Rosedale has been creating pocket universes for internet users to explore and have adventures in. By creating Second Life, Rosedale became the creator of the first 3D immersive virtual reality world, and it expanded due to internet users moving away from being the early adopters and into the general public. 

Explaining the way that Second Life expanded, Rosedale says: “Late 2005/2006, it took off and it took off just absolutely explosively. And at the time, there was something like 600 articles in the press about us every day, of which about half were in print. I used to just tell people I couldn’t even read all this stuff. The delight people had with the idea of there being another world is so amazing, and so galvanising. It was incredible to be the company at the moment that was at the centre of that attention. It was a very interesting experience.”

Rosedale is originally a physicist, and Second Life stemmed from his love of the subject.

“I had always been obsessed with this idea of building a virtual world. I loved the idea of building some kind of a big physics-based world that was immense and somehow simulated on many computers. I built an analog computer when I was in the fourth grade and took it to school and made everybody do a show and tell with it. I loved gadgets and tinkering. And a lot of that kept coming back to physics. How the world ultimately worked at the bottom. I wanted to know how atoms worked and I wanted to know how planets formed and that kind of stuff.”

Telling Aaron how he got into the entrepreneurial side of things, Philip explains: “When I was in high school, I got a job selling cars and I discovered that they didn’t use computers, which of course involved a lot of calculations and contracts and things like that. So, the entrepreneurial me jumped on that and I wrote some database software using one of the oldest database technologies called dBase, which is an old software that was around in the eighties for PCs. And I wrote some software that helped these car dealerships keep track of all the cars that they had to sell and all the details about them, and also print out all the contracts when they actually sold them. I actually put myself through college with the money that I made.”

After finishing college, Philip moved next to the Caltrain station in San Francisco, to work for a computer software company. This was seen as the ‘ground zero’ for the internet. Philip used the work he had done with the car dealers to connect them to other dealerships to allow them to know what cars were in stock in other locations. 

With all of Philip’s successes, he puts it down to good timing: “They always say that timing is everything, and it certainly is. Timing is bigger than any of us. And for me, the timing was the internet. That is to say the idea of the personal computer had come of age just a few years before I was a kid. So, I had the advantage of having these relatively inexpensive computers around from the time I was 12 years old or something. And I was able to start programming with them and enjoying them, not as internet devices yet, but just as PCs.”

Showing his entrepreneurial side once again. Rosedale explains: “Even in 1994, when I came up to San Francisco and found out about what was happening with the internet, my first thought was I’ve got to build a virtual world. I’ve got to build what ultimately came to be called Second Life. But even as ambitious as I was, and as perhaps irrationally interested as I was in the idea, I didn’t feel that I could do it at that time. I felt that it was too early. The internet was too slow. It was a modem-based experience then and computers couldn’t do 3D graphics yet.”

Rather than waiting for computers to be advanced enough to do 3D graphics, Rosedale went on to work on how to send audio and video over the internet. He created a programme called FreeVue which was downloaded by thousands of people – and Philip describes it as “a very bad conferencing system”. He ended up selling the programme to a man in Seattle, Rob Glaser – a former Microsoft executive, who went on to pioneer internet audio and video streaming technologies. 

However, in 1999, after three years working for Glaser as a VP and CTO of the company, Philip left to pursue his dreams of creating a virtual reality universe.

“I started it in 1999, invested my own money in it for the first year and a half or two years. Got some amazing investors, chief among them Mitch Kapor, who is my mentor and just a tremendous, amazing person. We got ourselves up to maybe about 20 people and got Second Life really built by about 2003. And Second Life, which we started in 1999, really launched in 2003.”

In 2020, there are still one million people that use Second Life as a means of escapism, entertainment as well as business – users can buy, sell and trade items just like the ‘real world’.

Some key takeaways from the podcast: 

• It took Philip Rosedale and his team four years to build Second Life
• Second Life has an average training process of 40 hours
• In 2020, there are over one million users using Second Life

Web Masters, the new podcast set to talk about technology with some of the biggest tech giants across the US and world, is available to listen to on all platforms. Subscribe to hear from more internet and tech giants here.


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