Linden Lab’s Second Life has been one of the largest and most successful virtual world ecosystems with nearly 13 years of existence. But Linden Lab recognized that the infrastructure and foundations of Second Life was not going to be able to drive the level of low-latency performance that virtual reality requires, and so they announced in June 2014 that they were going to be building a new project codenamed Project Sansar that would be optimized for VR.
I had a chance to sit down with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg this year at SVVR to talk about their design goals and plans for Project Sansar. We also talked about a lot of deeper issues about the future of the Metaverse ranging from the tradeoffs of walled garden silos vs the open web, control vs. freedom, identity vs. anonymity, and moderating for the group experience vs. justice and reconciliation beyond a one-strike ban.
This interview with Ebbe also inspired a lot of deep thoughts about how the overall political, economic, and legal context is setting the tone and boundaries about the future of VR. This interview made quite an impression on me, and I appreciate Ebbe’s candor and honesty to discuss and explore some of the larger issues of the closed vs open web, and the future of privacy and data tracking as we move beyond the “Information Age” and into the “Experiential Age.”
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Linden Lab has had a lot of experience of running a successful virtual world with Second Life, and they are well-positioned to make an early move at creating a user-generated virtual world at scale. A press release from last August mentions that pilot users of Project Sansar will have to “create 3D content using Autodesk’s Maya® software,” and so it will be interesting to see to what types of world-building tools will be available within the experience to their non-expert, 3D modeling users. At SVVR, Linden Lab announced that they’re taking creator preview applications for people interested in creating experiences on their platform starting later this summer.
This interview inspired a lot of deep reflection, and I noticed that there was a qualitative difference between being able to track data from your behaviors in a web browser and being able to track biometric data from a VR experience. I think this reflects some of the wider discussion in the tech community that VR and AR may be catalyzing a larger shift from the “Information Age” and into this new “Experiential Age.”
MOVING FROM THE INFORMATION AGE TO THE EXPERIENTIAL AGE
On Monday, Mike Wadhera wrote an article on TechCrunch titled “The Information Age is over; Welcome to the Experience Age,” where he argues there’s a fundamental shift of “the changing context of our online interactions, shaped by our connected devices” that has users posting and consuming less personal information and moving towards having more “experiences” online.
Wadhera argues that Facebook and Twitter are Information Age natives where users aggregate data to reflect their identity. He says, “Accumulation manifests in a digital profile where my identity is the sum of all the information I’ve saved — text, photos, videos, web pages.” With original Facebook status update sharing on the decline, then this could be an early indication that the tide is shifting away from experiences that value data and information, and more towards ones that emphasize visceral emotions and deeper meaning.
The Experiential Age is more about having an authentic experience of being yourself rather than collecting abstract representations of identity through the posting of information. Wadhera argues that Snapchat is a native to this new Experiential Age, and that their ephemeral, self-destructing messages “force us to break the accumulation habit we brought over from desktop computing.”
Wadhera identifies mobile technologies as one of key drivers of this shift, but I would also argue that the rise of virtual and augmented reality has the potential to move the center of gravity of our attention from information on screen-based media to experience within immersive media.
The Virt’s Phil Johnston argues a similar point in his post from 2014 where he says that Virtual Reality represents the Dawn of the Experiential Age. VR allows for the direct transmission of experiences that goes beyond a level of data transmission that happens when it’s abstracted into a 2D plane.
This is a similar conclusion that I came to within my summary of 400 Voices of VR interviews talk that I gave at SVVR. I titled my graphic “The Human Experience of Virtual Reality” because it was the underlying human experience that I found could make the most sense of understanding the virtual reality landscape. The “human experience” landscape of VR is less about market verticals, and more about how VR has the capacity to reflect the full complexity and nuance of the human experience.
I would argue that the more of these twelve different domains of human experience that a VR experience can include, then the more popular it will be since it will be able to reflect the fullness of our actual human experience. Both Second Life and Project Sansar aim to give expression to all twelve of these domains of human experience within the context of their virtual worlds, and this is often overlooked or not fully appreciated by the new consumer VR community.
This was a point that was brought home to me in my 2014 interview with Ebbe as well as with Second Life documentarian Bernard Drax. Linden Lab does have an incredible amount of experience in fostering and cultivating each of these domains of human experience, and so I would expect that if Project Sansar enables user-friendly world-building capabilities, then they’ll have the potential to be one of the first virtual worlds that captures the full range of expression for all of the different dimensions of the human experience within VR.
INFORMATION AGE BUSINESS MODELS DRIVEN BY SURVEILLANCE
One of the primary business models of The Information Age has been that information is freely available, and that it’s supported by ads. There’s an explicit agreement that authenticated users are volunteering to be tracked and surveilled by companies in exchange for all of this free content and social connections that they are enabling.
Zuckerman feels guilty that he may have “helped create a world today in which Edward Snowden can come forward with his revelations about government spying, and most of us will just shrug, because we’re so used to being generally surveilled by the websites we visit.”
We often don’t hesitate to consent to the Terms of Service agreements of Information Age websites that dictate how our data are collected and used in exchange for the attention of our social network and the platform tools to share photos, status updates or videos. We have a lot of agency over what information we share and don’t share, and so this is a value exchange where we’re willing to trust these companies in exchange for the real value they’re providing.
WHY EXPERIENTIAL AGE SURVEILLANCE IS DIFFERENT
While there’s a level of consent for data that we are explicitly sharing on websites within the context of the Information Age, the Experiential Age is going to be tracking behavioral and biometric data that is a lot more unconscious but yet still revealing. Virtual Reality has the capability to gather an enormous amount of biometric data ranging from our heart rate data, our emotional states, identifiable body language cues extrapolated from head and hand tracking, and eventually our eye-tracked “attention” for what we’re looking at and getting impressed by.
While we have had no real pause with sharing abstracted information with companies, then perhaps we will be more cautious about what type of unconscious medical data from our bodies that we’re willing to share with companies. That means that Facebook, Google, or Linden Lab could start to save vast repositories of personal biometric data that could become a target for governments or hackers.
US companies can receive a National Security Letter from the government requesting data that they’re prevented to talk about under a gag order. There are government transparency reports available from Google and Facebook that have assurances that they’re not required to hand over certain private data, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation has found thousands of pages of documents from a related lawsuit that showed repeated revealations of government abuses of power.
The Terms of Service from Oculus even remind us “[No] data transmission or storage can be guaranteed to be 100% secure. As a result, while we strive to protect the information we maintain, we cannot guarantee or warrant the security of any information you disclose or transmit to our Services and cannot be responsible for the theft, destruction, or inadvertent disclosure of information.”
While we like to think that all of our personal data will be completely safe in the hands of these companies, the truth of the matter is that there are hackers and abusive governments that make it impossible for companies to be able to guarantee 100% security.
THE EVOLVING BUSINESS MODELS OF THE EXPERIENTIAL AGE
Will the Experiential Age catalyze a change in what types of Terms of Service that we’re willing to accept? And will this lead to new viable business models that don’t rely upon surveillance? Here are a number of big open questions as to what the emerging business model of this Experiential Age:
- Will VR users still be willing to share personal data in exchange for free content?
- How much of this gathered data will VR users be willing to share?
- What types of benefits of interactivity or more targeted content would this data enable?
- What insights and judgements could AI-trained, deep learning networks be able to assert about us after studying months of our biometric data gathered from VR experiences?
Overall, I think that the underlying business models of The Experiential Age may be evolving towards a pay-per-event type of model. So rather than receiving all of the immersive content for free in exchange for seemingly innocuous data collection, then perhaps we’ll move towards a culture that is willing to pay for experiences up front without having to submit to additional surveillance.
We’re already moving towards an app-based ecosystem with VR where there is a pay-upfront mentality that more mirrors what we have seen in the gaming market, but it’s still an open question as to whether we’ll be willing to pay for every immersive experience after living through this Information Age ethic that “Information should be free.”
We are still willing to pay for live sporting, music, and cultural events, and so perhaps The Experiential Age will introduce new viable business models for holding virtual events.
MICROPAYMENTS AND DISTRIBUTED TRUST WITH THE BLOCKCHAIN REVOLUTION
One key technology that may provide a viable solution for micropayments and the anonymous exchange of payments is the “Blockchain,” which is the underlying trust mechanism in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Don Tapscott & Alex Tapscott just released a book on May 10th about The Blockchain Revolution, which talks about some of the implications of the blockchain including, “Keeping the user’s information anonymous, the blockchain validates and keeps a permanent public record of all transactions. That means that your personal information is private and secure, while all activity is transparent and incorruptible–reconciled by mass collaboration and stored in code on a digital ledger.”
I believe that there are a lot of decentralization implications of the blockchain that could impact our political, economic, and legal systems, and that the blockchain is a technology that has the potential to change the larger context towards enabling the full potential of The Experience Age.
Will companies and the government still try to track and surveil us? Of course. Just because our attention is moving towards the Experience Age doesn’t mean that the Information Age is over. We are still a long ways away from completely transcending the limitations of our current obsession with Big Data and the Information Age business models based upon the pervasive surveillance of our digital lives. We’re still just at the very beginning of this transition, but the overall political and economic context may shift more towards privacy and liberty given the decentralization of power that the blockchain enables. Perhaps after that point, privacy will have become an absolute requirement for any viable implementation of the Metaverse.
THE METAVERSE IN TRANSITION FROM INFORMATION AGE TO EXPERIENTIAL AGE
There are a number of different companies and technologies that would love to be the foundation and primary enablers of the Metaverse, and this battle is unfolding as we are still shifting from the Information Age to the Experiential Age. There are two major approaches to building the foundations of the Metaverse, and it comes down to a walled garden versus open web approach. There are walled garden, hosted virtual world solutions like Linden Lab, AltSpace & Facebook, and then there are more open source or self-hosted solutions such as High Fidelity, VR Chat, JanusVR, self-hosted Unity Builds, or WebVR.
Each of these approaches have different tradeoffs between control and freedom, identity and anonymity, and whether or not there will be different sales or property taxes that are collected within these virtual worlds. It’s also an open question with the walled garden solutions whether or not you’ll be able to export and reclaim ownership over the content that build within these worlds. The walled garden tools will no doubt have some of the most user-friendly content creation tools and communities form around them, but there may be some free speech and behavioral restrictions with these tools and networks. It’s also most likely that the walled garden approaches will have the strongest networks of people and vibrant social interaction.
The Information Age has also had a very punitive mindset when it comes to policing trolling behavior, which could get your IP banned for life. This may have been tolerable for authenticated websites within the Information Age, but getting banned from a virtual world could have implications that are much more serious and long-term. If the Metaverse becomes the primary source of income or social interaction for some people, then banning them could have a much bigger impact on their life. Having the ability to restrict access is one of the potential risks of consolidating power to a private company with no official appeals process.
There will need to be tools to deal with legitimate trolling behavior, but what types of recourse or due process will be available for those who have been unfairly and permanently banned from a virtual world that may be as enriching than the real world? Will could be new truth and reconciliation mechanisms in the Experiential Age where a more restorative justice system evolves that balances accountability with the chance to change and grow?
The walled garden versus open web is a debate has played out on the World Wide Web since the early days of AOL and CompuServe when the balance of power was concentrated within a handful of walled gardens sites. Then the ugly HTML pages become more interconnected, and it was this linking between documents that ultimately provided more value according to Metcalf’s Law. This was a victory for the decentralized open web, but now there seems to be a reconsolidating of power into a small handful of social media, technology, and entertainment websites. Will VR experiences and the evolution of the interconnected Metaverse experience a similar trajectory of Closed, Open, and then Closed again?
CULTIVATING TRUST AND PRIVACY IN THE EXPERIENTIAL AGE
After talking with Ebbe, I realized that a lot of these privacy issues may go beyond what Linden Lab are reasonably able to design for at this point. There is not a lot of direct evidence for how big of a concern these evolving privacy issues are going to be within the context of this New Experiential Age. And there’s not a market demand that can be articulated down to a specific feature request, and so it boils down to whether or not the consumer can trust a company like Linden Lab or Facebook with their data.
Ebbe said that there are some websites that he would not trust with his data, but that he does happen to trust Facebook with the limited amount of engagement he has with the site. But a lot of other people are not so trusting, and they were very vocal with their skepticism when Facebook bought Oculus. Ultimately, in the short-term, there’s no doubt that the Facebook acquisition legitimized VR in a powerful way, and therefore overall helped VR on it’s path towards going mainstream. But yet, the long-term privacy implications for VR are still very much open up for debate.
The Information Age has cultivated a culture where in order to use a website, then we have to sign a Terms of Service where we consent to having all of our actions and behaviors tracked on their site while we’re an authenticated user. Most people barely read the terms of service before checking the box because there have been no real severe consequences. But these same seemingly innocuous Terms of Service may have much broader impact within the Experiential Age.
UploadVR’s Will Mason wrote an article about some of the potential privacy concerns with Facebook and the Oculus Rift’s ‘always on’ process that’s detailed within their Terms of Service. This article got a lot of social media buzz, and it even caught the attention of Senator Al Franken who sent a letter to Oculus asking six specific questions about privacy. The Oculus Terms of Service has a clause that says that “We use the information we collect to send you promotional messages and content and otherwise market to you on and off our Services. We also use this information to measure how users respond to our marketing efforts.”
Oculus responded by saying that they’re not even using that data for anything yet, and that they’re not yet even currently sharing any information with Facebook, but they may do so in the future. Given what the Terms of Service allows, then there’s absolutely nothing stopping them from using that data they’ve collected and sharing it with Facebook at any moment.
Facebook has traditionally taken a slow and steady approach of eroding default privacy controls over many years. Matt McKeon made a visualization of the default privacy settings (shown as blue in the graph below) at Facebook from 2005 to 2010, and the pattern is clearly moving towards making more and more information public by default.
In 2010, the Electronic Frontier Foundation traced the evolution of Facebook’s privacy policies since 2005 to see a very clear story evolve. The EFF concluded the following:
Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information.
So while Facebook may be taking a conservative approach to what data they are collecting and sharing with the Oculus Rift, then the clear trajectory is that privacy will continue to erode in order to benefit their advertising and business partners. There seems to be a certain level of autonomy and independence that Oculus is emphasizing to give the impression that they’re still independently operating from Facebook, but this will not last forever. Given Facebook’s history, then it’s almost inevitable that their Information Age business model will continue to push towards gathering and analyzing as much data as possible for the sake of selling more ads.
There are a lot of open questions as to whether the future of the Metaverse will be dominated by a handful of walled garden sites or a larger set of openly connected virtual worlds.
Here’s a number of open questions that can only be answered over time by the virtual reality community, and eventually everyone as we transition into the Experiential Age.
- Will any of these companies building the Metaverse be willing to take a strong stand on privacy?
- Do VR consumers even care? Or will it even matter?
- As users of VR, will be we willing to support a culture of micropayments or pay-per-events?
- Or do we want an ad-supported immersive future where we’re willing to be share whatever data on us can be gathered and used to get better targeted advertising?
- Will the winning business models of the future be based upon an Information Age paradigm or some sort of emerging Experiential Age paradigm?
- Will it be a matter of the best technology winning? Or will market demand for strong values around privacy be a differentiating factor?
These are all big open questions, and you can bet that some users will be keeping a close eye on these terms of service as we continue to move into the Experiential Age. Ebbe was right that many of these questions go beyond what individual businesses may have the capability to reasonably address, especially with the lack of consumer demand for specific features.
But if we really are in the midst of moving from the Information Age to the Experiential Age, then perhaps we’ll start to see a larger shift in the political, economic, and legal context. Then perhaps this will enable us to fully live up to the ultimate potential of virtual reality that accurately reflects the full complexity and beauty of the human experience. And ultimately any tracking and data that’s collected will be primarily focused on enriching our experiences within VR rather than enriching a small handful of companies at the cost of our privacy and freedom.
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