'The real will come to resemble the virtual': Philip Rosedale talks to Phaidon.com

The creator of Second Life on virtual architecture, a giant beanstalk and why office blocks will soon be a thing of the past

Philip Rosedale is the creator of Second Life, the virtual world that allows visitors to socialise via a digital version of themselves known as an 'avatar', and to create and trade virtual property and services. He spoke to Phaidon.com following the Architecture Foundation's 2010 John Edwards Lecture, in which he explored the interaction between the virtual and real built worlds with author Shuman Basar and Winy Maas of Dutch design practice MVRDV.


Q: When you first developed the ideas behind Second Life, were you aware of the potential virtual design and architecture would have for the physical world?

When I started, I felt confident that people would begin building some sort of digital city inside Second Life, but I didn't know what it would look like. I didn't think as much about how design in SL might influence real-world design, but as we started to see more people using SL, it became obvious that the ease of exploration and experimentation in the virtual world, coupled with rapid feedback loops for comments and critique, would make it useful for the real world as well. 


Q: Which of the structures created in Second Life have you found most surprising – and inspiring?

There are just too many to list. So many fantastic experiments. I remember a designer who built in dramatic changes of scale. For example, he took a small normal house with a kitchen and living room and blew it up to the size of an island, and put the actual meeting/living spaces in unusual places you had to discover, like inside the springs and padding of the couch cushions. You were able to explore things in the real world at a scale you would never see them, like being on a fantastic voyage. Someone once built this giant organic beanstalk where you have to physically climb the leaves to get up. It literally reached into the clouds - outside of drawing range - and it cast a long shadow across the entire world. I can also remember a floating building that was like a space station or a gerbil maze... just connected tubes and cells. It was very claustrophobic, even virtually. 


Q: You’ve previously said that in the future the virtual world will be a natural testing place for potential structures. Have you already seen this happen?

The first Aloft Hotel was built as a prototype in SL and gathered numerous comments on the design that led to practical and useful changes before the first real hotels were built.  They held parties in the lobby of the virtual hotel to get more people to come by. I remember that there was a suggestion related to the size and feel of the bathrooms that the designers found useful. It was a very detailed prototype. 


Q: The virtual world is now so advanced as to be impossible to replicate in real life. To what extent are we likely to see the technology used to develop Second Life itself affecting design development in the real world?

As we increasingly advance materials technology, the real world will come more to resemble the virtual world. We are already creating buildings of radical shapes that are assembled from automatically machined parts; as this technology reaches down to become more cost-effective for residential homes we will see people able to build things that are very similar to virtual world structures. Probably the real world will look a bit more like Second Life, with it's constantly changing design landscape.


Q: ‘Second Lifers’ can buy and develop plots of land. Have you developed any of this yourself? What did you create?

It has been a long time since I've built anything by hand. In the beginning we developed a number of interesting structures and places that are now lost to history, having been bought and redeveloped by the many people who came to Second Life afterwards. We did a very nice little main street USA city for our old 'LindenWorld', when SL was in alpha. Then we hid more experimental structures out in the rolling hillsides around this very normal looking little town. These included a disco where you could dance to music and mix/DJ; a series of platforms that would teach you how to build content in SL and a very tall tower, covered in stained glass. 


Q: If, as you've suggested in the past, we will no longer have a need for large office blocks and commerce centers, but will interact from home, what will the urban landscape of the future look like?

I think the urban landscape will be more varied, as the need for homogenous/repeated structure goes away. So large office buildings with identical stacked meeting spaces and cubicles will get reconstructed into more interesting organic spaces, maybe in some cases leaving the exteriors intact. Probably a similar transition to what happened as industrial areas of city centers were transformed into live/work loft and art spaces. This time it will be the general use office and meeting spaces that are transformed, as virtual reality makes it unnecessary to hold most meetings face-to-face. 


Q: What’s in store for Second Life over the next 18 months?

Lots!  We're working in the direction of making Second Life easier to use and understand for a larger audience of people, without taking away the power, openness, and magic that make it such an amazing place already. It's hard work, but very rewarding in terms of the positive impact virtual worlds have had and can have on people's lives.


Philip Rosedale, thank you.