November 17, 2006

Birth of a Metaverse: Reminisces with Linden CEO Philip Rosedale

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For better or for worse (depending on who you ask), Second Life will always and forever be intricately linked to the real-life persona of Philip Rosedale -- a co-founder, the current CEO of parent company Linden Lab, and the voluntary "public face" of this suddenly hot commodity. And once you learn a little about him, it's easy to see why Rosedale has become LL's very public spokesman; he is in fact the Web 2.0's wet dream, a surfboard-handsome southern Californian with the geekiest background you'll ever see. A self-taught assembly programmer at the age of thirteen, by high school Rosedale had already established his first commercial software company; and made so much money from it, in fact, that it largely paid for his college education in traditional physics.

Rosedale's company ended up getting bought by the then-fledgling Real Networks in the mid-'90s; Rosedale ended up as an executive there because of the buyout, right at the time that such apps as RealPlayer were at their height. He left it all, though, to start the Metaverse that we now all know and love, even though the idea of a persistent 3D online universe at the time was little more than a science-fiction dream.

We all know what's happened to the grid since then, and we all know of Linden's infamous "hands-off" approach to what happens there. But the question still remains; what was Rosedale's idea for what Second Life was going to be, long before anyone else ever got involved? This is the question I've always wanted an answer to, ever since joining Second Life myself in the previous spring of this year; and when I suddenly found Rosedale at the ITG headquarters yesterday, agreeing to an interview based on a completely random email I sent to him on a whim last month, this is the subject I decided to address.

I know that a lot of readers might wish that I had asked Rosedale some more pertinent questions about current topics; but with only 30 minutes at my disposal, and with (as far as I know) no one ever asking him about these subjects before, I thought that my time might be better spent discussing the background of the grid, and what led him to starting Second Life to begin with. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it; and needless to say that I greatly thank Rosedale for taking the time in the first place, given that he has much bigger media outlets than mine vying for his attention these days.

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Philip Rosedale: When I was a kid, I learned to read early, and was one of those kids who liked to take things apart. By fourth grade I was building stuff out of electronics, reading a ton, and was generally interested in how things physics, chemistry, etc.

In The Grid: Where did you grow up?

PR: Mostly in San Diego. My dad was a military carrier jet pilot. Sorry, that's unclear -- he flew S3 jets in the Navy on aircraft carriers. Later [by the way], he became an architect; so you see he was creative too! So I was a combination of really into science and pretty creative, meaning that I wanted to dream up and then build a lot of stuff: lasers, synthesizers, computers, spy gadgets, you name it.

ITG: And how involved were you with computers specifically at that point? If my information is correct, for example, you actually studied physics in college, not computer programming.

PR: Yep. I got a [Bachelor's] in Physics from [the University of California - San Diego]. I was self-trained enough in software that I didn't find it as interesting. Even in the start of Linden Lab, Andrew and I worked with electronics and mechanical engineering, Working on this amazing interface technology that is part of LL's past, and that we will probably work on again sometime. So anyway, I was really into making stuff, and I was always struck by the idea that the computer was the best 'place' to make things. And as networking came around, it seemed that the best way would be to simulate a huge place by connecting a lot of computers, and that such a place would be an amazing place to make things with others. So very focused on creativity and building -- [the] 'ultimate Lego kit.'

I also had, since I was young, a deep belief that computers could simulate anything; great amounts of complexity. I programmed some simple cellular automata in assembly language on an old Apple, and [while] watching those patterns on the screen, I was struck by the feeling that anything could happen in there. That a computer-simulated space could be real and compelling, like outer space; because you might find anything there, once it was big enough.

ITG: So was this still back in high school, when you started playing around with simulations in assembly language on the Apple?

PR: I was in eighth grade when I wrote the automata stuff. In high school I was doing database software on PCs and arcnet networking. I started my little company then, doing software for small businesses.

ITG: And how did that go?

PR: Well, it went great. Put me through college, and ultimately that was technically the company I sold to RealNetworks in '96, when I joined. Though by then I was doing very different work -- video compression.

ITG: Yeah, let's just back up a moment and walk through those steps you just mentioned. You started this software company in high school...which then led you into college and studying physics? Or was there another step in there?

PR: Hmm. Well, I was always pretty into physics, so I figured from high school that I would probably study that in college. The software company was mostly a good way to make money without spending too much time.

ITG: Why not stick with the entrepreneuralism? Was formal academic study something important for you?

PR: Actually, I had my doubts about school, because my business was doing okay. Like many entrepreneurial kids, I actually dropped out of school for a year.

ITG: I should say. Most people go to college so that they can end up in the position you were already in during high school.

PR: But I got bored, and felt that there was a lot I needed to know beyond how to run a little company. So I went back, got serious about physics, met some friends in physics that really challenged me to study, and ended up doing very well. Making money has never been very central to me, or very hard.

ITG: Was [going back to college] a difficult process? I went through some pretty serious burnout in college too, for example, and found the motivation to go back quite difficult to muster.

PR: Yeah, it was hard. It was a blow to my ego not to be able to get A's without studying. So I think mostly I had to face the fact that I would actually need to study and dedicate myself, to be able to graduate in such a tough program. Good experience!

ITG: So it sounds like the seeds for SL are really rooted in computer simulations of the real world. Is it fair to say something like that?

PR: Yes, I think that is fair. We were very interested in simulating things like physics and weather as a starting point, with the goal of creating enormous complexity that would be very beautiful. We used to imagine that SL, or parts of it, could become vast forests, full of little evolving plants made of code, and you could wander in that forest and find things that no one else had ever seen. What a thought! Builds like Svarga are going exactly in that direction now. I can't wait to be able to walk in those forests.

ITG: That the environment would "grow" organically on its own, you mean?

PR: Yes, exactly.

ITG: I know we're running out of time, so let me skip ahead to some other questions I wanted to ask. Here's the real burning one, for example, that I've always wanted to ask you; just how difficult emotionally was it to walk away from Real to start up something like SL? Something just so untested at that point, if you see what I mean, that sounded more like science fiction than a viable business model when you first started.

PR: It was easy; because I felt that I had helped a lot with Real, and Real was going great. Its future was not as critically dependent on technology as when I started, and I was just incredibly drawn to work on SL. Because two things had happened: NVidia had released the GeForce2 card; and broadband was at about ten-percent penetration, which meant it was going to win rapidly. I had told people I know in the mid-'90s that I was going to build SL, but that it couldn't yet be done. Those two changes meant that it could.

ITG: So a bit of writing on the wall, it sounds like? Did you need [your past] tech experiences to see those things, or do you feel it was more about being a good business person?

PR: Tech experience, and belief in the power of simulation and open systems. You have to believe that something like this can be compelling to take on such a hard project. From the business side, I just thought that if people could build things, they would figure out how to make money, and that would be a good thing.

ITG: I'm sitting here trying to form my next question the right way, and I can't seem to. I'll put it like this: Was it the past businesses that gave you that courage to jump in like that, or was it an inherent belief in SL? I guess I'm just trying to make the point that a lot of people would be terrified to do what you did; walk away from a great job to start up something that most people thought [couldn't actually be realized].

PR: Well, a little of both, but mostly my passion for SL. Let me expand on that. When I was at Real, I definitely got lots of experience about larger-scale software development, and I do think that was really important for starting Linden. But really, my passion for this stuff is difficult to describe. A friend of mine the other day told me that he remembered going to the opening of 'The Matrix' with me and some other people. After the movie we went for a drink and talked about it. Everyone else had really loved it, but he remembered that I was pretty down on it. When he pressed me about it, he told me [that] I turned to him and said: "I'm going to build that thing we just saw, and I can tell you it isn't going to look like that!" What I meant at the time was that if it was all about having guns and fighting some unbeatable foe -- the evil machines -- that it wasn't interesting and different in the fundamental way that SL would be.

ITG: So what happened to the experiments in organic growth? Given your initial interest, it seems to me that there'd be a lot more of that in the grid. Was it tech limitations or more about shifting priorities at Linden?

PR: Organic stuff is limited by the tech. It will come, I'm sure of that. We used to have fully deformable water; you could play in the water and make waves that your friends could see, that could spread all the way across the grid. We'll get back to that. But it was too hard in terms of bandwidth and rendering. I'm convinced the organic stuff will come fairly soon.

ITG: Do you all at Linden beat your head against the wall as much as residents, as far as tech limitations? I know personally that it can get really frustrating for me sometimes.

PR: Yep. We are probably a bit early in terms of tech still. But look at the cases where it all does work, and we bring value to someone. That keeps me coming to work. I don't think I would've waited longer to launch, if given the chance all over again.

ITG: Okay, and one more question, although understanding that you don't really like addressing this subject publicly, and that your answer will reflect that. In general, what's your opinion of how the grid is progressing? Is it generally in line with what you personally like the most about Second Life, or are there things that you'd like to see people concentrating on more?

PR: I never expected anything specific, and I think that the magic of this all is in the fact that I could never have known what would happen. This is all beyond my imagination, and that makes me very happy!

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Filed at 12:18 AM, November 17, 2006. Filed under: Interviews | Linden Lab |

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