Fan Mail from the Metaverse

Last month I received a note that turned out to be just about the best piece of fan mail I've ever received.

It was from Timothy Jackson, a Technology Review reader. Timothy said that my 2007 cover story "Second Earth," which was about the potential confluence of digital mapping tools like Google Earth and online virtual worlds like Second Life, changed his own life, providing him with a new career and even propelling him into a long-term relationship that's been going on for five years now.

The note was so amazingly nice, not to mention gratifying, that I wrote back to ask Tim if I could share it here. It's reproduced in full below.

To understand Timothy's e-mail, you need a little background about Second Life. Opened in 2003, it's one of the earliest and most extensive online virtual worlds, with about 1 million regular users overall and about 50,000 people online at any given time, according to the company that built it, San Francisco-based Linden Lab. It's a vast, unstructured, user-driven environment where there's no real goal or "game mechanics" other than building, sharing, exploring, and co-inhabiting beautiful virtual objects and environments, from toy-sized to building-sized to island-sized.

But while Second Life doesn't have the kind of scorekeeping system you'd find in a real online role-playing game, providing users with pre-made virtual objects to decorate their avatars or virtual homes or clubhouses is a real business. Hundreds or thousands of Second Life merchants building online stores where they sell virtual merchandise for Linden Dollars (which convert to real US dollars at a floating exchange rate of about 240 to 1).

That's the business Timothy entered after reading my article. Under the Second Life name Maxwell Graf, he's spent the last seven years designing virtual home furnishings (think beds, sofas, and coffee tables) and running a Second Life marketplace called Rustica.

Timothy was working as a 3D designer before he joined Second Life, but he says "working in SL has given me unprecedented levels of success as both a business owner and more importantly as an artist and designer, allowing me to reach vastly more people with my work than I would ever reach working within my real environment." He even met someone in SL and eventually moved across the country to live with her -- "all thanks to an article you wrote," Timothy said.

It's not every day that a technology writer gets that kind of positive feedback. Despite the rise of online comment sections and real-time Web analytics, science and technology journalists get all too little substantive input from readers. Sometimes, even if the page-view numbers are encouraging, it's hard to gauge whether anyone really read and appreciated what you wrote. That's the main reason Timothy's note had me flying high for a few days.

It's a thrill to hear that my attempt to explain what I found so compelling about Second Life fell on eyes prepared to understand, appreciate, and act on the information. In his own way, Timothy is helping to create the "Metaverse" that William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Linden Lab, and so many others have envisioned for decades. It its most idealized form, the Metaverse would be an online environment (or family of environments) paralleling, enhancing, and in some way transcending the real world—places where citizens and consumers can express themselves creatively and pursue experiences that would be impossible in meatspace. 

While the merger of mapping and gaming tools that I predicted in the "Second Earth" piece hasn't happened in the way I speculated it might, Timothy thinks there are still exciting possibilities ahead, as a new generation of technology supporting 3D virtual environments emerges—some of it supported by the same people who built Second Life more than a decade ago.

Here's Timothy's full note. If you're equipping yourself for a voyage into Second Life, I heartily recommend Rustica as your outfitter!

Mr. Roush,

Back in 2007, you wrote an article in Technology Review on Google Earth and Second Life. Reading it inspired me, working as a 3D designer at the time, to delve into SL. I recall being so excited and intrigued by the idea of it that I registered/paid for a premium account and rented a piece of the mainland before ever having logged into SL. I landed in-world as the avatar Maxwell Graf and began immediately building a conference center to meet the engineers I worked with, for our regular meetings.

I quickly realized the much larger scope of what was possible in SL and began my virtual content business there, which has been a full time operation for me for almost 8 years now, named Rustica. Working in SL has given me unprecedented levels of success as both a business owner and more importantly as an artist and designer, allowing me to reach vastly more people with my work than I would ever reach working within my real environment.

I eventually ended up meeting someone in SL, whom I dated for several years virtually before meeting in the flesh. This led to me moving across the country to live with her, where we have been happily together for 5 years now.

All thanks to an article you wrote. It changed my life in many ways. I wanted to say thank you, and share this with you, as I recently found that issue of Tech Review in a box of stuff, and it brought back many memories.

SL has certainly changed a lot since then, and several more virtual worlds have come and gone (bluemars and cloud party, for example), yet the future of virtual worlds is gearing up for a resurgence and the next step, with Linden Labs working on a "Second Life 2.0," updated with much more advanced foundation technology and new features. Additionally, Phillip Rosedale (the creator of SL) is working on his new virtual platform High Fidelity, which will incorporate the Oculus Rift as a primary technology. A third, and very promising contender is Mivvo, a project being developed from the ground up by several ex-SL'ers. All 3 of these platforms should be going into beta testing in 2015.

It seems that a proper convergence of technologies is about to happen, as broadband speeds, rendering tech and the power of personal devices all have been surging forward to higher and higher levels. Social media is searching for the next big thing and I personally believe that virtual environments, whether 3D, augmented or headset-enabled, are the logical conclusion. Not only have we not seen the last of virtual spaces but it seems that they are about to become a larger part of what most of us do on the internet, as Facebook/Twitter did, but in a much richer, substantial way. It is, if you consider the money, time and energy being spent by the likes of Sony, Google and Facebook, almost inevitable. For example, Cory Ondrejka, one of your leading sources in the article from 2007, was involved in the (now defunct) world Cloud Party and is now head of mobile technology for FB.

I would love to see you revisit the virtual world space and explore the matter 7 years later. I would be more than happy to offer any help on catching up to speed in what has happened in SL over the years, having spent over 17 thousand hours logged in there.

Thank you again for inspiring me to start my own journey in the metaverse, one which has changed me considerably.


Timothy Jackson

(Maxwell Graf in SL)

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist