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High Fidelity invests in Second Life to expand virtual world

The goal is to breathe new life into the 19-year-old platform.

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As the "mixed reality" concept of the metaverse gains steam, one of the first virtual reality (VR) worlds is making a significant comeback thanks to a new investment.

On Thursday, High Fidelity announced an investment in Linden Research, Inc. (Linden Lab) to scale Second Life's popular virtual world further. Philip Rosedale, the founder of both companies who is considered a metaverse pioneer, said he would be rejoining Second Life as a strategic advisor to aid in the expansion.

"No one has come close to building a virtual world like Second Life," Rosedale said in a statement. "Second Life has managed to create both a positive, enriching experience for its residents -- with room for millions more to join -- and built a thriving subscription-based business at the same time. Virtual worlds don't need to be dystopias."

High Fidelity's investment into Second Life includes a cash investment and distributed computing patents. Rosedale told CNET in an interview that two of the patents would be "decentralized environment patents."

Second Life has been around since 2003 and peaked in 2007 with 1.1 million active monthly users. However, its user numbers have recently begun to grow again, and the virtual world is approaching 1 million monthly active users, according to a Linden Lab spokesperson.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the platform saw a significant growth spurt and people spending more time at home, especially in its virtual economy. The spokesperson told ZDNet that the platform has an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $650 million and that more than $80 million was paid to Residents in 2020 for a variety of virtual goods and services. Overall, the virtual space saw about a 30-40% increase in GDP and about a 20% increase in concurrency since the pandemic's start.

While the metaverse itself is nothing new and was coined by the author by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, the metaverse has seen a recent resurgence. In particular, Big Tech companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) are proposing the metaverse to be a place where people virtually interact with each other using VR and augmented reality (AR) tools.

However, what's different about Second Life compared to the "new" metaverse Meta is trying to create is that it uses a 3D browsing software called SL Viewer rather than only requiring a VR headset. Rosedale told CNET that he does not see Second Life moving solely onto a headset until better hardware arrives and that the virtual world serves much better as a "VR-optional" platform. 

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