Philip Rosedale: Why Build A Virtual World? Why build a virtual world? Philip Rosedale talks about the virtual civilization world he created, Second Life, and how virtual reality might only get better — and more integral to our lives.
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Why Build A Virtual World?

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Why Build A Virtual World?

Why Build A Virtual World?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, part two of a two-parter we're calling Screen Time. In this episode, we're stepping inside the screen, looking at this idea that more and more of our lives are being lived there.

So we just heard Jon Ronson's talk about the Internet, where, a lot of the time, we are our worst selves. But there are places in the digital world where, believe it or not, the opposite is true.

PHILIP ROSEDALE: People would often meet, and I would smile because I would know that, you know, two people who wouldn't like each other in the real world loved each other as avatars.

RAZ: This is Philip Rosedale. And this place he's describing was his invention. It's called Second Life, and it was an online virtual world that debuted back in 2003.

ROSEDALE: A place that is just like the real world. And you can, you know, pretty much do anything there that you can imagine.

RAZ: Second Life was the first virtual world to go mainstream. It would pave the way for games like "Minecraft." And it was designed without any specific rules or quests or goals. Instead, the whole point was to encourage people to explore and socialize and build stuff and collaborate. And all you had to do was download some software, make an avatar, and you were in.

ROSEDALE: And suddenly you're standing, you know, in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans or something as this digital person. And there's some rolling hills and some trees and some buildings off in the distance.

RAZ: You could wander around, maybe walk up to a group of people.

ROSEDALE: You say, what are you guys doing? And they say, you know, we're trying to build a house.

RAZ: And if you wanted to help them, you could. If, on the other hand, you wanted to start a business and sell stuff to other users for real money, you could. If you wanted to spend all your time going on dates with other avatars, you could. If you wanted to color your skin green and fly across the city, you could.

The point is, most people in Second Life created a life there that was nothing like their real one. And at its peak, about seven or eight years ago, more than a million people spent a part of their day living there. So why create this fake world? That's the question Philip Rosedale asked when he gave his talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROSEDALE: Why build a virtual world at all? For me, I know that when the Internet came around and I was doing computer programming and generally trying to run my own little company and figure out what to do with the Internet and with computers, I was just immediately struck by how the ultimate thing that you would really want to do with the Internet and with computers would be to use the Internet and connected computers to simulate a world to sort of recreate the laws of physics and how to make things, and do that inside a computer so that we could all get in there and make stuff.

And I was so fascinated as to what that place would look like and what we'd be able to do there.

RAZ: And, in a way, that place already existed in the real world.

ROSEDALE: The Burning Man festival.

RAZ: Burning Man, where every year, in late summer, thousands of people gather at a desert in Nevada to create a kind of self-governing utopia where they built these huge and temporary pieces of art. Philip first went there in 1999.

ROSEDALE: And as soon as I got there, I realized, oh, my gosh, people were better to each other. And they were more inclusive, and they were more intimate in their willingness to communicate with each other than we are in our day-to-day lives.

RAZ: Philip saw all this and he thought...

ROSEDALE: My gosh, if I can build a virtual world, it'll probably look something like this because people will have some of the same motivations.

RAZ: I mean, so you did build that world, right? I mean, that was Second Life. What was there? I mean, you had people, like, walking around in a virtual world. And what would they do?

ROSEDALE: You know, when we started, we thought we knew what people would want. So we built a kind of a Coney Island boardwalk and had a bunch of games that demonstrated how you could use our programming stuff to build things with it. And we had a sort of a nightclub place, and we had a forest and we had a beach and, you know, we built these things. And one of the things that was so inspiring, but funny and humbling, was that even after a few months, the first few hundred people who'd gotten in there had kind of revamped the whole thing. And I always thought that was just so delightful that we had already been kind of outdone by the very first arrivals.

RAZ: Another important lesson Philip learned from the whole project was how people interacted with each other.

Were you surprised that there were actual human emotions playing out in Second Life?

ROSEDALE: Yes.

RAZ: Like love, right? I mean, there have been (laughter) stories of people who got married after they met there.

ROSEDALE: There's an immediacy of virtual worlds. You know, you are standing there, right in front of me, feeling my presence, you know as an avatar. But, I mean, it's a person standing in front of you. That's what creates the right kind of tension that gets people engaging and talking to and coming to know each other. And - but as you said, it was amazing in Second Life how well people came to know each other. And as you say, in some cases, they were people who would become lovers.

RAZ: I mean, you came to this realization that humans can find real fulfillment in a virtual space.

ROSEDALE: Oh, absolutely, indeed. My suspicion is that our access - our very access to virtual worlds will become a kind of a civil right. In other words, I predict that in the years to come, maybe even 10 years from now, we'll regard taking away your access to virtual worlds as completely inappropriate. You know, we will regard access to virtual worlds as essential to our intellectual capacity in the same way that we regard the rich experiences of, say, childhood and education that we have today as important. You know, we move to cities so that we can engage with a broader set of diverse people and learn things that we wouldn't know. We will move to virtual worlds for the very same reason. They will be the biggest cities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROSEDALE: If you think about going into space, it's a fascinating thing. So many movies, so many kids, we all sort of dream about exploring space. Now, why is that? Why do we, as people, want to do that? One is that if you went into space, you'd be able to begin again. And then the second thing is that you have no idea what you're going to find once you get there, into space. So that's kind of the idea. We, as humans, crave the idea of creating a new identity and going into a place where anything is possible. And I think that if you really sit and think about it, virtual worlds represent, essentially, the likely, really tactically possible version of space exploration. We are moved by the idea of virtual worlds because like space, they allow us to reinvent ourselves, and they contain anything and everything and probably anything could happen there.

RAZ: I mean, a part of me is really excited about this, and a part of me is kind of freaked out (laughter), Philip. Like, I don't know, I just think that we are - we're these social creatures, you know? Like, we're flesh and blood, with nuance and conflict and good and bad. And we need to touch and smell and feel and understand people. And I just think that being in a world where we're basically just a series of ones and zeros doesn't fulfill that. I can't wrap my head around that.

ROSEDALE: Well, when we speak to each other face-to-face, we are also a series of ones and zeros. We are, you know, making sounds that travel into our ears. And we are ultimately interpreting each other by these sort of millions of nerve cells that, you know, reach out into our ears and the back of our eyes and the tips of our fingers. There isn't really any difference between that and the data that flows between us on the Internet when we're using all these new devices, as I describe. So the question is really whether online worlds present an adequately rich and complex and sometimes challenging set of experiences for us. And this is what we saw in Second Life. They actually present types of opportunities and cultural exchanges and diversity that at no point on the planet's surface can we find all in one place.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, opportunity, I think, is a key word, right? Like, it'll democratize experiences. Like, we'll all be able to go to space or we'll all be able to go to the Marianas Trench.

ROSEDALE: Exactly. And how amazing to imagine that the real space we were looking for might be the one that we create ourselves inside these machines.

RAZ: That's Philip Rosedale. He's now working on a new kind of virtual reality world. It's called High Fidelity. Check out his talk from 2008 at ted.com.

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