E85: Philip Rosedale, co-Founder of High Fidelity – Interview

January 5, 2017


This is interview with Philip Rosedale is all about virtual reality. Philip has probably more experience with virtual worlds than anyone on the planet. Philip founded Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, in 1999. Second Life was and is a wonderful experience that created an entire virtual world and economy. To this day it still has over a million regular users.

Now Philip is taking the virtual world experience to another level with High Fidelity, which he started in 2013. High Fidelity allows anyone to launch and share an interconnected virtual reality environment. You can create a beach domain or a spaceship domain or whatever type of domain you want. In the domain you can interact and have fun with other people.

I’ve talked to people from countries around the world. The first time you experience it is awesome and surreal. I knew I was looking at people’s avatars but the physical presence (including personal boundaries) was there. Very cool.

Here are some other things we talked about:

-What attracts you to virtual worlds?
-What’s something that surprised you about Second Life?
-How will High Fidelity scale when millions of users are on it?
-What’s your favorite book around VR?
-When will we have realistic looking avatars?
-When will we hold our virtual meetings in High Fidelity? Can’t wait for this.


David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we are lucky enough to have Philip Rosedale with us. And Philip has quite a background in Virtual World. As many of you may know Philip founded Linden Labs, creator of Second Life in 1999 and Second Life was a wonderful virtual experience that captured the world and I remember playing it many times and now Philip has taken the virtual world experience to another level with High Fidelity, which he started in 2013. Once again, he is way ahead of his time and that High Fidelity allows anyone to launch and share an interconnected virtual reality environment. So we’ll learn more exactly what that means and Philip has also started two other companies which we can talk about. So Philip, thanks for coming on the show today.

Philip Rosedale: Thanks for having me.

David Kruse: Great. Well, before we get into High Fidelity can you give us a little bit of a background on yourself and how you got to where you are now?

Philip Rosedale: Sure. Well, I guess I’m a combination of with an interest in engineering and entrepreneurship, I started programming when I was a kid in middle school and really loved it. But before that I’d also done a lot of electronics, you know so a little bit of hardware and that’s a helpful project that I’ve worked on in the past. And in addition to that I think I was from a young age always very entrepreneurial you know wanting to come up with business items and so I put all that together and started a company doing data base systems for business when I was a teenager in high school. And I’d run around and hook up before the days of Ethernet, before the modern PCIP networks, so I’d go hook up people’s computers together in businesses, car dealerships and architecture firm and built some really interesting software doing that. So got into it really young and then for the big moment, not the big continental moment, you know the moment for which the timing was really right, was I got out college, I got my degree in Physics and got out of college and took my little software company up to San Francisco and arrived at San Francisco in 1994, which was basically the epicenter of the consumer internet and so I had the fortune of being able to suddenly be this young ready to do anything and build anything entrepreneur and I was lucky enough to land in San Francisco there for the start of the internet. So just looked about at the internet and said, ‘My God! You know, you could do absolutely anything you wanted to with this,’ but I had always had this other kind of passion in my life which was fascination that I think came both from physics and you know my entrepreneurial zeal. I just had this fascination, could you build another world inside a computer and a lot of people could go in there and that’s what I just couldn’t stop thinking about.

David Kruse: So what was your first company that you started up?

Philip Rosedale: Well, my first company was called the Automated Management Systems and that was my high school company if that’s what you’re asking.

David Kruse: What was the one that you built and then I think you sold it.

Philip Rosedale: Oh! 3D View.

David Kruse: Okay.

Philip Rosedale: Yeah, so the very first thing I did. So on arriving in San Francisco and discovering the Internet, I said well I’m certainly going to you know start building things for the internet, you know for the web or things could PCBI for networking, which was – you know that’s the new big innovation, because you could send these packets around anywhere in the world right. The other computer in 1994, that was like going faster than the speed of light or something. It was just so cool to imaging that you could do that you know computer to computer you just onboard and so I wanted, even that, even ‘94 I wanted to build a virtual world. I was super passionate about that idea. But in ’94 basically PC couldn’t do 3D, they just couldn’t do it. We weren’t there yet. Doon was around, but you know videogames like Doon, but they weren’t really 3D, they were kind of faking. There weren’t actually 3D capabilities in computers. So I said to myself, you know you practice speaking, you never could make money on that, you know enough to survive. You got to come up with something else to do, so being interested in general in using the internet for communication more so than you know web browsing, I contrived the idea that I would come up with a way to compress video and steam it over 28 modems, so that you can basically have a video conference over the internet. Again, this was a completely unexplored idea at that time, and in fact there is just one product in that world really that has been done that was a kind of a college experiment that didn’t work very well, but its tools called CUCD and I looked at that and said, ‘Well wait a second. You know I can do a much better job with that video quality, then I can get to work on a PC to over Windows’ and that’s what I did. Then I built this product, and the product was called 3D View and what ended up happening was I ended up meeting the CEO of a company called Real Networks which is today co-creator of Real Audio and now Rap City. This company is still around, still doing well and I met Rob and he convinced me to sell my company, my little video company to Real Networks and join Real Networks as an early senior team member. The company was pretty small at that time, I picked some people, and I joined and was basically the video guy. I was the guy that was supposed to come up with what Real video was and I did that, and I went on to become CTO of the company and had a lot of fun there and really got to learn a lot about management and growth and we went public during that time and we grew. When I left it was 1999, there was about 650 people there, that you know crazy growth, you know 10x growth in the size of the company and revenues and all that, just those couple of years.

David Kruse: Oh man! That must have been a great experience. So after that you started Linden Labs and you know ‘m curious, what are the – you know you said you’ve always been interested in virtual worlds. What is it around virtual worlds that attracts you or interests you so much?

Philip Rosedale: Well, a couple of things. I mean one is just the possibility of it. I mean if we can create a great sort of planetary scale campus and all go in there and start building things, what are we going to build you know. I think I was just always, I don’t know, just fascinated and awestruck by the idea that you might be able to do that up here and get to see what people are going to do. I think I had that sort of escape to me as well. I think I always felt that I was a shy kid and very into computers and reading and not you know totally social and comfortable and so I think that the idea of creating my own world and being inside it you know and I guess being able to you know have a bit of context or welcome people in or whatever, you know get to know people more equally there or whatever, I think that appealed to me as well. But I also, because I has this interest in physics, I had a pretty solid command of the potential scale of things, both the sheer size that a virtual world could be and also the fact that a virtual world could potentially kind of have life inside it that basically computers were going to grow to be able to simulate things at greater and greater levels of the tail and what that inevitably meant was that you know things like you know bio-systems and evolution and you know maybe even human thinking and you know all these things that we think of as being things you can only do in the real world, I had a real insight and the confidence as a young guy that those things could be done on the computer. So I was really struck by this idea that you know we maybe you know ultimately kind of evolving into worlds that we built inside computers and that I think kept going in those early days you know and Linden Labs for example was soo early you know we could barely get this stuff to work, but I was just soo confident that what we found in that world was going to become just more and more amazing and that was how I approached it.

David Kruse: I guess, well before getting to High Fidelity, can you just give a brief overview for the audience on Second Life in case they have been in a cave and don’t know what it is?

Philip Rosedale: Well, second life – yeah, I mean second life was intended to be an open virtual world where people could basically come in and buy land and build things on the land that they bought and all that land would be next to each other. So it was literally an expanding digital violin that you could just come into and you could go just over to the habitat, you know the initial body and you can make it look like anything you wanted to and you could build literally you know kind of digging the ground and build yourself a house and do whatever you wanted to do and there is a real economy in it. So if you wanted to make clothing and sell it to other people for example for them to wear on their avatars, you could choose to do that and you can ask the second life crew if it can be possible to do that as a living and today there is you know somewhere between like a half to three quarters of a billion dollars a year in people buying and selling digital things from each other, things like clothing and cars and furniture and toys and you know just anything.

David Kruse: Wow! And I mean that’s why I think a lot of people don’t realize is that, a lot of people probably think Second Life kind of went away, but there is still like a million people on there.

Philip Rosedale: Yeah, there is actually, as many – there is just about as many people as there ever were at the most and Second Life is still going strong. Now that there is one big challenge with Second Life, which was that I was just really early building it and the big problem was that you have do everything using a mouse and using the keyboard and your desktop monitor and it turns out that that is really unbelievably difficult if what your trying to do is move around and communicate and build in a 3D space; it’s just too hard for people to do and nothing we were able to do from design perspective was able to solve that because the mouse was just not the right way to get in.

David Kruse: You must have had quite a bit of processing power back then to run Second Life, especially when it started really taking off?

Philip Rosedale: Yeah Second Life today and at its largest is about 25,000 servers.

David Kruse: Wow! Okay.

Philip Rosedale: A lot of machines, in fact then there was more less servers per cubic foot so to speak. So we had racks and racks and racks and racks of equipment to our location facility, so I did I have those cool science friction moments like walking down the rows of blue light in the server farm and thinking there is a world in there with all these people walking around in it and it was quite literally true and I think I still have the good fortune of being one of the only people you know on earth to have ever actually done that which we typically only see in science friction.

David Kruse: So what was one, before we get into High Fidelity what was one thing that kind of amazed you or surprised you of Second Life or a lesson learned?

Philip Rosedale: Well, everything surprised me, but certainly the richness and the depth of people’s creativity just blew me away. I mean we were going as fast as we could, but the construction tool they had used to build things in Second Life were really difficult to use and we had a whole another language you had to learn to program. But the stuff that amazed me was the things that people made just because they wanted to, you know just because to like each other or to you know blow people’s minds or whatever and I remember one of the stories that actually kind us put us on the map with Second Life was that there was one place in this increasingly large world that all the new users came in and was kind of a crowd and I think of a little work crowd and the new users would sort of show up. So you can image with the existing who just would hang around and kind of drink coffee and wait for the new people to show up and then you know hopefully be nice to them, teach them how the world worked. But one day this one guy shows up who has been around in second life for a while and he turns himself, he makes himself an avatar that is a perfect area 51 Roswell alien and then he makes himself a little disk, alien spaceship and with the help of a bunch of scripting that was extremely difficult to do at that time. So I was just, we were just a gasp, you know a gog that this guy did. He basically created you know like a listing ray that would come out of the bottom of this little spaceship. Because when you log into for the first time in this virtual world and because you are on the mouse and keyboard, even though you could look up, straight up in the sky, he didn’t typically do that. So this guy would basically sit there over the welcome area and the other users of course would be sitting around, you know someone who knows this guy was there, he’d come in as a new user and you know he’d try to get your bearings or whatever and this guy would turn on the listing ray he would suck you up. You could actually lift somebody up off the ground as an avatar. He would suck you up into this spaceship, close the doors, all with the inscription and then he would drive off never say anything. You’d be you know as a new user, what’s going on? He would drive off and then he would take you over like some dance club or something that’s far away in the world and he’d open the doors and drop you out of the thing in the middle of these you know people as a pathless new user and then he’d fly off without a word, and then he’d go back and he’d do it to the never new user and somebody at some point basically wrote a blog that I was abducted by an alien in Second Life and at this time we were quite small and somebody like I think Wired Magazine picked this up and ran it. And we had tons and tons of people coming in and I just remember that was one of those things where we were just like – this is so awesome. How could this guy – how could this guy have put the time in to figure out all this you know very difficult stuff that he had to do.

David Kruse: That’s a good story and that’s a good segway into High Fidelity I think and I mean it’s interesting, that article you mentioned about being abducted by aliens because you know we talked before this and been in the High Fidelity a little bit and it’s just, that experience would be that more amplified in using virtual reality, because it’s such a like personal experience. Like even though no one knows who I am and what I look like, it still is like a really personal experience and that’s just going to get more and more personal as things get more realistic and – but we can get into that. So anyways, so I guess you may want to just give a brief overview on High Fidelity and then we’ll kind of get into the details a little bit more.

Philip Rosedale: Sure. Well in terms of the capability, High Fidelity is almost like Second Life in its design to be at this point that allows people to build anything in the virtual world and then at the same time it allows them to be in there face to face with each other. And this time a couple of things are different. You know the big one is that we now have these heading on the displays, we have these new HMTs which are of course why everybody is talking about VR lately and in addition to that this factor was somewhat more important. Some of the HMTs and an increasingly large number of them have this ability to use your hands completely naturally in a way. Holding on these little gadgets and probably a next year of two by wearing gloves and to your hands they are modeled completely accurately and can basically – this enables you to use both your head and your hands, both for communicating that is to say you can now. Turn your head to look at who is talking to you and you can jester with your hands and you can you know you can look, people can see nodding, you now all of that stuff carry across perfectly, you know you have seen it moving in High Fidelity. And on the second thing is you can use this, your hands and your head to basically build you know move, you know navigate, fly, make modifications to the environment. Because of the difference between the HMT and the mouse which is the difference between two degrees freedom from the mouse and 18 degrees freedom to put your head and hands in there it’s a just an enormous difference. And then the second things that’s different about High Fidelity is that because we are anticipating a world where there are millions of servers, billions of people using it and millions of servers, we design the architecture of High Fidelity to kind of skip to the ultimate end where we think this is all going which is everybody deploys their own servers in the same way that people acquire web servers today. So we designed the architecture with the assumption VR is going to be a brilliant user scale phenomena and I think myself and the team member here and the folks at Second Life as well I think are uniquely aware of how true that’s likely to be.

David Kruse: Yeah and to your point, your tutorial at the beginning, you know it’s really interesting since you have like the person like practice right, like grabbing a fire cracker and throwing it in a fire which is quite clever, that’s pretty fun. I’m like, I could just do that all day, and…

Philip Rosedale: Not good…

David Kruse: Yeah, and so how – well, this is a big question, but how in the world did you develop High Fidelity and like because this you know like it kind of has that peer to peer, but then on top of that you have the ability for people to build their own worlds. I don’t even know where to start, so I mean you had to experience Second Life.

Philip Rosedale: It’s been a big project.

David Kruse: Yes, I imagine.

Philip Rosedale: Well, a part of it is as I did in the Second Life. So you know you get to – standing on the shoulder of the giant you know I had the ambition – I guess I had that – I felt a great degree of certainly that I could build this, I don’t think anybody else starting from scratch would have put together such an ambitious plan, because they not had know how things would go and I think one of the big intuitions that drives me and has turned out to be very true is that there are so many people willing to help with something this important. There were so many people willing to help us build the virtual world, because you know it’s going back to that billion dollars a year economy, you know those people are staking their lives you know in this new world and so… For example we have done High Fidelity entirely as open source and that has enabled already you know hundreds or so people to help us develop software so we get a boost out of doing it that way and there is a lot of other things like that that I think had just been intuition that has enabled us to be confident that we can build such a big project with such a small team, but as you say, it is an enormous project with a lot of moving parts.

David Kruse: And if somebody wanted to build their own new world, how do they go about doing that?

Philip Rosedale: Well, you download our software. The same software that is kind of the browser to look around, to get into the world is also the server. So if you go to our site today, HighFidelity.com/download there is just download there and as soon as you download and install that software, it actually puts a little server on your computer right there, right where you are and then it jumps to that server, and in fact that fun tutorial where you are blow up firecrackers is actually your server, that is once you are done with your tutorial, you can tear up that whole sever and you know make a new basketball court or whatever you want to do. So you get your own sever when you install it and that sever has a name and you can actually share that name with your friends, we’ll give you a temporary name that you can share. There is a little share button on the thing and it will tell you the name of your server. You can have your friends over right away. I can see people on our dashboard right now that we have to go in the office are doing that, there are hundreds of servers that are up right now, mostly they are peoples private servers and yeah, you can just jump in and get started. I wouldn’t say that it’s completely easy yet you know, but it’s up and running and people that have a little interest in having their own virtual space can definitely do it right now.

David Kruse: What languages or tools do people use to create their world?

Philip Rosedale: Well, you can import 3D models from standard formats, the most common that we spoke of right now being FBX and OPJ, which means that that there are millions of 3D models that you can even freely download at a variety of different sites that allow you to basically import you know sort of almost drag and drop content directly into your world. For things that you want to make interactive, like if you want to make a white board pen or a gun or you know a toy of some kind that moves, to do that you have to use java script. We chose this time in High Fidelity to use the worlds most well know programming language which is java script. So all that interactive content we have done with java script, so if you have got java script experience you can actually jump in there and start building interactive content as well, which a number of people are already doing and some of those we actually have a very early version of the market place up and running. You can’t start your things yet, but you can share things with people and that market place is already contained in the program.

David Kruse: That was my next question is when the market place was coming, but you kind of actually answered it. I mean when do you think you will actually build or buy and sell. I imagine it would help user adoption, because then you know like Second Life people could actually you know devote time to it and get paid and really yeah.

Philip Rosedale: Yep. Yeah, we anticipate turning on money in our market place probably in the next two quarters. So soon, we are working on it.

David Kruse: Well, that will be exciting. Okay, and let’s see well – and we are almost out of time here. One question I had was, you know when do you think – so the conference calls are, like for business meetings let’s say online are just horrible and it would be awesome just to build, like set up your own room right in High Fidelity and get in there and so that would be really interesting and then what that is, when would it be possible to have like a very realistic looking avatar, maybe your own facial expressions eventually you know. I actually interviewed How Lee who is a research, developed like his algorithm to…

Philip Rosedale: I know him well.

David Kruse: Oh! You know How, okay. Yeah, so doing really interesting stuff and so I’m like wow! when can High Fidelity get this stuff?

Philip Rosedale: Well, the kind of work that How Lee is doing is already built into High Fidelity today. We actually started with How and we worked with his team and with us. We have the ability to watch your face with 3D camera and animate it today. Now what’s happening on the display is we sort of have a different problem, because now you got to basically put the camera on the head on its display. We worked with a small company called Binary VR that has actually developed a custom camera that they are doing a kick starter on and that camera is a camera that you can stick on to head on its display and it will move your avatar’s face to match what your face is doing. Even if you don’t have those cameras though, we do move your avatars lips and response to the audio that is you know coming out of your mouth wearing the microphone and that actually works surprisingly well when it’s used in conjunction with your head and your hands moving you know fluidly, so that someone else can see them. So I do believe actually that its mostly a matter of hardware adoption that will keep business users from beginning to replace business travel with High Fidelity and I think it’s going to take a little while. I think the adoption curve or VR was going to be on the scale of a Smartphone. That is we are looking at seven to 10 years or billions of people using this device with that curve records you know. Now we’ve already got you know probably the better part of the million people out there starting to use this stuff and I think we can get there in that period of time. So I would expect that you know wide spread kind of Skype like business use we might see that starting to happen in the next three years. But today, smaller teams that are exploring High Fidelity for use of business meeting, it’s already doable. We have our own company meetings as you can imagine in High Fidelity and it’s a ton of fun being able to talk with your hands and look right into somebody’s eyes as an avatar, it’s just enormously better and have 3D audio where you hear the person on your left and the person on your right exactly where they are, it’s just enormously better than using video conference. So I think the fun factor of it and the utility of being able to you know practically get into a group meeting that really works will make the use of VR as a replacement for business people start to happen. You know today for a smart early you know adoption, three to four years for widespread use.

David Kruse: I’m ready, because yeah like you said, it replaces business travel and I mean the business units, of course they spend lots of money, we have the teller presence systems. I mean this just takes it to another level and I like you said, even with just having kind of a generic avatar right now, I mean it just gets better, it’s still just like such a personal experience compared to even like being on Skype. All right, so we are pretty much out of time. I do have one more question for you. I was curious and I have so many more questions for you and so I might have to ask you on in the next few years again, but what’s one of your favorite books or movies about the VR.

Philip Rosedale: Well, of course the one that’s just great, you know it’s been written recently and I got the chance to show Earnest our work a while ago which was a lot of fun. You know, I met the author and said, ‘hey we are actually building…’ but I think that book is amazing because it forecasts one of the things I think is definitely going to happen with the possibility of the VR, which its use in education. It talks about kids going to school wearing a headset and I think that’s going to happen. I have four kids myself and I’m pretty darn sure that they will not finish school without they taking some of their class time you know in a headset and I think that’s one of the amazing things that going to happen. I think there is a million great books. VR the other one that I think has a much older story by a guy who teaches down in Santiago named Vernor Vinge, his story is called True Names, which was one of the – it was written in the early 80s I believe that he wrote that, it’s one of the early original imaginations of what a world of Avatars together with a big virtual world will look like; it’s pretty inspiring.

David Kruse: Interesting. I haven’t read that one. The Ready Player One, I was hoping to say that’s one of my – yeah, that book is just amazing. To be honest that was yeah, a very inspiring book.

Philip Rosedale: Amazing story, yeah.

David Kruse: It is, I mean this guy knows how to write and imagine. All right well, I think that pretty much does it for our interview. So Philip, I definitely appreciate you talking the time and you have such a rich experience. I mean you have probably the richest experience of the Virtual World of anybody anywhere.

Philip Rosedale: I’m trying.

David Kruse: Yeah, that’s right. But I definitely appreciate it and I’ll keep track on what you guys are doing and keep playing around with High Fidelity and I think the audience will too more and more in the future. So thanks Philip.

Philip Rosedale: Excellent. Great talking and send me when you get this put up and we’ll push it out there.

David Kruse: Excellent and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. As always, I greatly appreciate it. Bye everyone. Bye Philip.

Philip Rosedale: Take care Dave. Thank you. Bye.