Second life, one of the world’s first metaverses, was created in 2003 by Linden Lab and received widespread attention. It had hundreds of thousands of active residents and a self-reported $500 million in GDP.
Second Life (SL) is a 3D virtual world that allows individuals to create avatars to explore virtual landscapes, build their own mansions, forests, spaceships. It might be an online environment but its impact expands and stretches into the real world insomuch that it includes a virtual economy that is dependent on actual money – in many ways, providing early inspiration for big tech companies now building out the metaverse.
From Second Life then, to the Metaverse Now
In 2007, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale made a bold announcement that “The 3D web will rapidly be the dominant thing and everyone will have an avatar”.
Although Second Life stopped growing in 2006, it was not necessarily a failure as it still stands as a major system where millions of people were introduced to and familiarised with virtual universes for the first time.
It was responsible for fostering very connected communities, especially for people with special needs and introverts uncomfortable with in-person interactions. The platform also paved new ground for digital economies.
Second life still has a dedicated user base and is probably the longest-running experiment metaverse-like experiences.
Dr. Richard Bartle, co-author of text-based virtual world MUD1 and professor of game design at the University of Essex, believes that virtual worlds have long been overlooked in the current rush to build metaverse platforms.
He continued, stating,
“Certain things are not being considered, because the people who are developing these metaverses may be great at tech and may have wonderful ideas for the future, but ultimately a lot of this has been done before, and it doesn’t work.”
The comments come as big tech companies, including Microsoft, Nvidia, Epic Games, and Meta, invest billions of dollars into metaverse platforms.
Lessons Big Tech Companies Can Learn from the Immersive Game of Second Life
There are several lessons that Biotech metaverse builders can draw from Second Life.
For example, a potential flaw in Second Life, which caught users’ attention and drew people in, was the aimlessness that initially confused many users.
Tom Boellstorff, an anthropologist who spent two years inside the virtual world and author of Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human said in a statement,
“It’s often not that going into a virtual world is sort of fulfilling a pre-existing need, a lot of people check these things out because they hear about them, but then discover something that they enjoy doing or a community they enjoy interacting with that they didn’t know about ahead of time.”
Speaking on the need for toolkits, Rosedale added the reason tens of millions of people tried Second Life was due to the ability to be creative and expressive in a “realistic, lifelike domain.”
Second Life not only developed user-generated content, but depended on it. By encouraging user innovation and participation, Second Life created a loyal community of enthusiastic residents.
The platform’s interface also includes several menus, buttons, and keyboard shortcuts, which many users found had a steep learning curve and quickly gave up.
Research from the New Scientist revealed in 2009 that only about 10 percent of all users who made accounts ever bothered to return after their first visit. Many found the world extremely difficult to navigate.
Any virtual world hoping to win over a large audience must overcome barriers to entry. It can be difficult for the average user to want to reimagine themselves as an avatar, which cannot yet match the experience of face-to-face human interaction. With advancements in technology, Second Life was able to resolve many of its teething issues, but should serve as a guiding principle for big tech companies favouring functionality over usability.
In Conclusion: The Metaverse May Struggle Beyond the Hype Cycle
Ultimately, it is not easy to get people excited to spend most of their time in virtual worlds under normal circumstances. Recent interest in the Metaverse skyrocketed due to restrictions from the global pandemic as well as Facebook’s rebranding to Meta, but now that the hype is beginning to wane and other announcements take over the news cycle, this is the biggest lesson big tech companies can take away from Second Life: conceptualizing a new technology sector is a tectonic shift and will not happen overnight.