#34: Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, on Second Life insights on virtual world identity, economies, governance, culture, the Metaverse, and making it easier to build & discover experiences

Ebbe Altberg CEO of Linden Lab, talks about how Second Life is the currently the biggest and most successful virtual world. He shares all types of insights that he’s gained over the years when it comes to identity, in-world economies, governance and culture.

He also talks a bit about Second Life’s support for the Oculus Rift, with their Second Life Project Oculus Rift Viewer
ebbe-altbergThe consumer virtual reality movement has added a lot of renewed interest and vitality in the idea of virtual worlds and the Metaverse. Ebbe is more cautious in the concept of interconnected, but independent virtual worlds because he sees that there are a lot of challenges with making the overall experience a lot easier and better first.

He sees some of the biggest open problems with virtual worlds are:

  • having a stable economy
  • easy communication tools
  • social tools to stay connected
  • having great building tools
  • being able to easily enhance or modify your world
  • having discovery mechanisms to find the experiences and communities that will resonate with you.

He sees that everything has to become easier before thinking about what data and information needs to be available to be exchanged with other systems.

He also talks about how the mouse and keyboard are not necessarily the best input devices, and that Linden Lab was investigating other input devices. This interview was at SVVRCon and since that time, Ebbe Altberg has revealed that Linden Lab is looking to rewrite Second Life from scratch to address to make it better suited for virtual reality.

Ebbe told The Next Web that “With technology, market interest, hardware and software available, now is the time to give it another big shot. We have the experience to do it more than anyone else… We’re not going to constrain ourselves with backwards compatibility.”

Linden Lab certainly has a lot of lessons learned over the years for running a virtual world, and it’ll be interesting to watch to see if they’re able to innovate and adapt to all of the latest virtual reality technology and new input devices.

Reddit discussion here.


  • 0:00 – Key pioneer of virtual world
  • 0:41 – Immersive VR in Second Life. There’s a plug-in. Pushing for a real sense of presence. Want other device access with phone, tablet and PC.
  • 2:04 – Insights from SVVR. Not a lot of new discoveries because they’re doing it everyday. PR peak in 2006-2008. Renewed energy in the space. Lots of technological innovation since then. Hoping for more acceleration in this space
  • 3:27 – Experiences within Second Life as Ebbe Linden.
  • 4:27 – Experiences with VR within Second Life. Lots of work to change the user interface beyond the keyboard and mouse. New input methods needed.
  • 5:27 – Identity insights in identity. Should be up to the user depending on the context. Has an anonymous alt to be treated less as a Linden employee. Big part is being able to be someone else.
  • 6:26 – Closed aspects and walled garden? It belongs to the user and can be imported elsewhere. Haven’t figured out how to make it mass market. Lots of problems to solve. Compatibility and getting to work for lots of people first before thinking about data portability. Make it more approachable and easier to use for more people first.
  • 8:18 – Economy within Second Life. Hundreds of millions of dollars in GDP. Mostly of people selling goods to each other. Non-trivial effort to have a stable economy and have exchanges around the world. People depend upon Second Life as their livelihood.
  • 9:46 – Rules, laws and governance within Second Life. Have rules & laws just like the real world. Try to be as open as possible and not limit people from expressing themselves. Proud of how open and free Second Life is.
  • 11:02 – Code as law and then how to enforce violations beyond that. Can watch what’s happening, but with freedom comes responsibility. Harassment, causing harm, being mean spirited. How do you enable all the good, but prevent the bad. With openness comes the risk that people will abuse their freedoms, but have gotten good at managing that balance. Give people control of the environment within their in.
  • 12:42 – Create artifacts and the range of different cultures from different communities, experiences. Arts, games, role playing fantasies as vampires, be in a different time and place, experience world through different set of eyes. It’s part of the freedom and diversity of experiences within Second Life.
  • 13:45 – The metaverse and Second Life’s connection to that. Interconnected, but independent worlds should come later. First make it easy before make it interconnected. Then talk about what data and information should be interchangeable.
  • 15:56 – Potential of VR is unbounded. Go anywhere, be anywhere with anyone. Second Life is on the leading edge, and they’re way early. Networking, devices and software is getting there, and it’ll be an interesting journey.
  • 16:48 – Biggest open problems in virtual worlds: economy, communication tools, social tools, great building tools, enhance and modify world, discovery mechanisms. Everything has to become easier. Needs to get easier to get in, navigate, communicate, find relevant experiences. Still earlier and geeky, and hasn’t crossed the chasm to reach early majority. Ease of use is the biggest issue to solve.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

UPDATE: A Linden Lab press rep reached out and shared this statement about their future plans

Linden Lab is working on a next generation virtual world that will be in the spirit of Second Life, an open world where users have incredible power to create anything they can imagine and content creators are king. This is a significant focus for Linden Lab, and we are actively hiring to help with this ambitious effort. We believe that there is a massive opportunity ahead to carry on the spirit of Second Life while leveraging the significant technological advancements that have occurred since its creation, as well as our unparalleled experience as the provider of the most successful user-created virtual world ever.

The next generation virtual world will go far beyond what is possible with Second Life, and we don’t want to constrain our development by setting backward compatibility with Second Life as an absolute requirement from the start. That doesn’t mean you necessarily won’t be able to bring parts of your Second Life over, just that our priority in building the next generation platform is to create an incredible experience and enable stunningly high-quality creativity, rather than ensuring that everything could work seamlessly with everything created over Second Life’s 11 year history.

Does this mean we’re giving up on Second Life? Absolutely not. It is thanks to the Second Life community that our virtual world today is without question the best there is, and after 11 years we certainly have no intention of abandoning our users nor the virtual world they continually fill with their astounding creativity. Second Life has many years ahead of it, and in addition to improvements and new developments specifically for Second Life, we think that much of the work we do for the next generation project will also be beneficial for Second Life.

It’s still very early days for this new project, and as we forge ahead in creating the next generation virtual world, we’ll share as much as we can.

If we had one message to share with Second Life users about this new project at this point, it would be: don’t panic, get excited! Again, Second Life isn’t going away, nor are we ceasing our work to improve it. But, we’re also working on something that we think will truly fulfill the promise of virtual worlds that few people understand as well as Second Life users.

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.904] Ebbe Altberg: My name is Ebbe Oltberg. I'm the CEO of Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, amongst a few other things. And, well, Second Life is one of the key pioneers of consumerizing the idea of virtual world. It has been the most successful to date, and even today is the most successful interpretation of a virtual world. So that's me.

[00:00:40.957] Kent Bye: Cool. And so with Second Life, you have a virtual world that's experienced through a 2D space. And so where do you see this going in terms of having a fully immersive 3D virtual reality?

[00:00:53.125] Ebbe Altberg: Yeah, there's a lot happening in hardware. Obviously, the Oculus is a big mover. We already have a beta version of an Oculus-compatible viewer for Second Life, so you can be in Second Life as opposed to looking at Second Life. So that's already out and being tested by our hardcore users today. And we will obviously continue to push to make sure that people can immerse themselves and ultimately sort of achieve a real sense of presence in something like Second Life, enable our creators to create things that are optimized for those types of experiences, but at the same time realizing that people are going to want to stay connected to their virtual world in lots of different ways. Just being able to keep connected with your social connections or your messages might be all you need on a phone. On an iPad, you might want to be able to move around more freely and maybe do some light construction. And then you might pull out a PC to do some really hardcore development and coding. And so it's a huge sort of span of devices and experiences that we're going to enable creators and consumers of those creations to use.

[00:02:04.833] Kent Bye: I see. And what were some of the insights or things that you're going to take away from this gathering of the first ever Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference back into where you see Second Life moving forward in the future?

[00:02:17.701] Ebbe Altberg: Well, it's not that there's necessarily a lot of new discoveries here. I mean, we're in this business, so we know most of the things that are being discussed here firsthand because we're thinking about it and doing it every day. Probably the most notable is just the renewed energy around the whole space. I mean, Second Life sort of reached a, call it a PR peak in sort of 06, 08, when Virtual Worlds was going to change everything. It was probably overhyped at the time. not possible for anyone including us to sort of deliver on the promise of a virtual world at that point. Since then a lot of movements have happened in technology and what we see here with all these companies and new startups and new investments coming into the space means that we're hoping for further acceleration in all the things that we all depend on to move it forward. So I think this is helping lift all boats, including experiences like Second Life, and will make it ultimately something that's easy and enjoyable for everybody to consume and be part of. So this is a good place in time to be right now in our business.

[00:03:27.832] Kent Bye: And have you personally experienced virtual reality within Second Life?

[00:03:31.993] Ebbe Altberg: Of course. I try to spend quite a bit of time in there. I unfortunately don't have time to visit all experiences. There's too many. So you have to choose, just like in real life. But yeah, I do jump in quite a bit to see first-hand and interact with first-hand with users and the creators and the things they create and understand what they're trying to achieve and how we can make things better for them. And I have a lot of fun in there too. just walking up to a group of people as Ebbe Linden and start chatting with them and giving them a chance to speak their mind as to what they would like to see changed or improved or how they're enjoying their experiences. I get a lot of invites for lots of different types of experiences and I try and join up with as many of them as possible but there's not enough time in a day to just get all out of first and second life but yeah I spent quite a bit of time in there.

[00:04:27.780] Kent Bye: Have you done the fully immersive virtual reality plugin experience of Second Life?

[00:04:32.902] Ebbe Altberg: Oh, of course, yeah. We have setups in the office for the Oculus, and so I've spent quite a bit of time in-world sort of testing out our viewer. We're going to have a new version of the viewer, hopefully this week, that will fix some of the distortions we had that made the 3D space look a little strange at times. So we're getting that fixed out. And then we have a lot of work to do to make the user interface. Clearly there's a lot of discussion here about different types of input methods. The keyboard and mouse are not necessarily an obvious set of devices when you strap the Oculus on your face, so we have to think about that. So the on-screen user interface as well as the input and output methods is something we have to think about a lot. So that's interesting for me here to talk about with companies that are sort of pushing the envelope of those kinds of things and see what we should integrate with that will make the most positive difference to our users.

[00:05:27.555] Kent Bye: What kind of insights have you gained over the years in terms of identity and identity in virtual worlds?

[00:05:34.453] Ebbe Altberg: Personally, I believe that it should be up to each individual to choose what identity they want to have in any particular context. I've chosen to spend most of my time in Second Life with sort of my own identity. I chose to use my first name so that people can recognize who I am in there. But I also have an alt, so if I want to cruise around and be less obvious to people who I am, which is useful for us because then I can treat it less as a Lyndon and more as just any regular Joe. So I tend to do a little bit of both. But I'm perfectly fine with being there as myself. Obviously for a lot of our users, part of the experience is to be somebody or something else and that makes things interesting and creative for people. So I don't think there's a yes or no to that question. I think we should provide the range and then let people choose what they want to do and what they want to be.

[00:06:26.740] Kent Bye: I see. So, you know, in Second Life there seems to be, like, kind of a custom scripting and objects, you know, you create in Second Life. Are you able to get them out? I'm just sort of wondering about the, I guess, perceived closed nature of some of the components of Second Life.

[00:06:42.645] Ebbe Altberg: Yeah, I'm all for openness. I'm not trying to create a wall garden. I'm not trying to trap people's content so that if for some reason they want to take their creations and their scripts and their objects, everything they create. It belongs to the user, and if they want to be able to take it out and do something else with it, or then import it somewhere else, I think that's perfectly fine. But at the same time, nobody, including us, the most successful virtual world to date, has really figured out how to make this mass market yet. To get to tens of millions, or hundreds of millions, or billion people, we have a lot of problems to solve. make it easier to use, make it faster. And I think one could spend too much effort up front on, call it compatibility amongst lots of different things that don't work, as opposed to just making sure that each of us try and make it work. Once we get it to work for a lot of people, then I think it will be more interesting to start having conversations about, OK, now how can we make things more compatible or easier to move in between, or whether it's content or users. But I think that we premature problem today, since there's not that many of us that are actually doing this stuff today. We're not enough of us. So I think the first problem to solve is to make it much more approachable, easier to use, and make sure we can get a lot more users to experience what we know is in there, lurking and hiding from people to really have the opportunity to experience themselves, and then get to the next set of problems after that. I see.

[00:08:18.880] Kent Bye: And can you talk a bit about the economy that's in Linden Labs?

[00:08:23.541] Ebbe Altberg: Yeah, this is one of our strengths. And we're unparalleled to date. The in-world GDP in US dollars is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And this is all user-generated stuff. Yeah, we sell land, or rent land, if you will. But all these transactions are happening between users, creating content and buying and selling it from each other. And so to run an economy of that scale and to make sure that we have a stable economy that people trust takes quite a bit of effort. You know, running all these external exchanges we have so that people with all kinds of crazy currencies around the world can, you know, go buy their Lindens is a non-trivial effort. And then allowing residents that earn money with their experiences to be able to, you know, get paid out at the end of the day in real money. so they can actually make a living. I mean, we have a lot of people that actually their income is second life. And to enable that at scale in a compliant and safe manner is quite an undertaking as well. So it's a piece of the puzzle that I think we believe is required to make a successful virtual world is to have this very open environment with a stable market, stable currency, and empower and enable users to earn money at the end of the day. So we're very proud of that.

[00:09:45.825] Kent Bye: And are there a set of rules or laws or governance that are in place in Second Life?

[00:09:52.843] Ebbe Altberg: Of course, we all have to adhere to laws. I mean, just because it's inside a computer doesn't make it so that you can suddenly do something that is not legal elsewhere. So yeah, there are things you are not allowed to do, not just because we said so, but because the world we live in says so. So there are certain activities you can't do on the internet in this country, and you can't do it inside Second Life either. But we try to make sure that we're as open as possible and try to not limit people's ability to express themselves freely, and we therefore have content from almost everything you can imagine that people create. Lots of cool stuff and lots of things that many of us might find objectionable or not like, but that's okay. It's just like the real world has a lot of variety to offer, some that appeal to us and some that don't. So we're proud of how open and free we have managed to create Second Life for our creators. And we're going to try and stay as open and free as we possibly can.

[00:11:01.541] Kent Bye: And so just to follow up on that, you know, in some ways you can implement rules by code by making it impossible for people to do. But I guess the question I'm getting at as well is whether or not there are certain things or behaviors that people can do that aren't prevented by code, but then have to be reported by some sort of like enforcement agency or something like that, how that kind of works.

[00:11:20.404] Ebbe Altberg: Yeah, of course. I mean, we have people watching what's happening in Second Life and we also have an ability for our residents in Second Life to, you know, provide abuse reports to us if they see someone who is abusing someone else. And with freedom comes, you know, responsibilities and some people choose not to be totally responsible. So yeah, there might be people that for some reason want to harass someone or cause other people harm, whether it's technically or just being mean-spirited. And in order to clamp down on that, you would then potentially also clamp down on all the good things people want to do. So how do you enable all the good? and at the same time sort of prevent all the bad. It's impossible even in the real world. So with openness comes some of that risk that we're taking that people will abuse the system to do bad things. But we've gotten pretty good at sort of managing that balance. And we also give our users and creators quite a bit of control as to who can participate in their experiences. And we want to give people control to also sort of control the environment they're within. So yeah, some of the negative things that happen in Second Life, I think is a side effect of the fact that we enable so much openness and positive to happen.

[00:12:41.921] Kent Bye: I see. It seems like part of identity is also creating artifacts that can be put into the virtual world and then create an almost culture, a virtual culture. And so I'm curious about, you know, just as different cities have different cultures, if you've noticed sort of different cultures, even within Second Life.

[00:12:58.554] Ebbe Altberg: Oh yeah, I mean there's a tremendous amount of variety in communities, cultures, experiences, you know, people that are into the arts, people that are into games, people that are into role-playing, whether it's things that are emulating real life or completely fantasy related things, people that want to be vampires, people that want to feel what it's like to be in a different time and place. People that want to experience the world through a different set of eyes, not as themselves but as something else and see how people react to that. So yeah, this is part of freedom and we're very proud of the extreme diversity in communities and experiences that Second Life enables.

[00:13:45.248] Kent Bye: And with the Oculus Rift and coming into fully immersive virtual reality, there's been a lot more talk lately about metaverse, the metaverse or multi metaverse ease. I'm just curious about, you know, your take on the metaverse since, you know, Second Life for a long time has been considered to be developing their own sort of idea of the metaverse.

[00:14:04.119] Ebbe Altberg: Yeah, this goes back to what we talked about a little earlier, and I'm sure it'll be discussed more in the panel I'm on here in a little bit. If metaverse is the notion of interconnected but independently created verses, I'm still of the opinion of it's almost premature. No one's created a verse or a world yet that is appealing to an extremely large audience or might be appealing to a large audience but too difficult for them to really, you know, partake in. And I'd rather focus on that problem and get to the interconnected stuff later. I don't think the interconnected stuff is something that has to be their day one. And a lot of energy will have to be devoted to both of these problems. How do you make it easy? And how do you make it interconnected? You have to choose which battle to fight. And I think I'd rather more people fought the battle of how do we make it easier for more people to have these types of experiences. And then we can talk about what kinds of data or what kinds of information, what have you, should be interchangeable between these different things. And I think over time we'll also have lots of different types of experiences. I mean there's Just like the internet itself, you have a tremendous amount of similar experiences that appeal to different people for different reasons. And I think we'll get similar situations here, where there will be a lot of competing experiences that appeal to different users for different reasons. And once you get there, how much of those things can interchange that's common across all of them? Because otherwise, you're maybe at risk of trying to do something that's lowest common denominator. when we need to aim for something higher than that.

[00:15:56.418] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the fully realized potential of immersive virtual reality?

[00:16:02.724] Ebbe Altberg: Oh, I think it's ultimately it's unbounded. It's just a matter of time. I mean, it might be 3, 5, 10 years, but there's going to be a time where any of us can go anywhere and be with anyone about anything. And so we're at just the beginning. And Linden Lab is just in the fortunate seat of being sort of one of the leaders in trying to figure out what that is. So yeah, we're way early, but we're already starting to see signs where hardware, software, networking, and all the things are starting to come together. Devices, it's all going to get to a point where you can really choose to do almost anything, anytime. And that's going to be a fascinating journey.

[00:16:47.997] Kent Bye: Just a quick follow-on, what do you see as the biggest open problems when it comes to building virtual worlds?

[00:16:54.441] Ebbe Altberg: Well, it takes a lot at lots of levels. I believe you have to have an economy, you have to have great communication tools, you have to have great social tools to enable people to connect and build communities and manage communities. You have to have great building tools to make it easy for people to create experiences and enhance experiences and modify the world around them. You need to have great discovery. How do I find the right experience? How do I find the right community to be part of and to participate with and to help create? All of those have interesting problems to solve and more, but I think the main issue I think is All of these things have to become easier. It has to be easier to get in. It has to be easier to navigate. It has to be easier to communicate. It has to be easier to find things that are relevant to you. And it'll come. It'll come with time. I would say still today we're still kind of early and geeky. and you even look at sort of the terminology used around the products we use that you can tell they haven't reached sort of mass consumer type of level yet when we talk about things like meshes and detaching objects from your body and stuff like that that doesn't relate to how normal humans even speak or think. So I think ease of use is the big one.

[00:18:15.421] Kent Bye: Great, well thanks so much. Thank you.

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