A Second Life for Windward Mark as Linden Lab’s New Cambridge Outpost Looks to the Sky
If you’ve spent any time in Second Life—or any other virtual world, for that matter—you know that the serious attractions are on the ground, not in the sky. The sky simply isn’t a priority for most virtual world-builders, who usually have their hands full just simulating players’ avatars and their interactions with virtual objects such as buildings and furniture. The synthetic cumulus clouds of Second Life look like raked-over cotton candy, the sunsets are a wan burnt-orange, and there’s nary a thunderhead, rainbow, or sunbeam to be found.
But Second Life’s weather is about to improve. Linden Lab, the company that launched Second Life in 2003, purchased Waltham-based graphics studio Windward Mark Interactive in May, and will soon integrate that firm’s atmospheric rendering software into its 24/7 online simulation, bringing the sky a new level of realism and spectacle. At the same time, Windward Mark‘s five founding programmers—all members of Harvard College’s Class of 2003—are moving into Linden Lab’s new 14th-floor offices at One Broadway, Cambridge.
This Kendall Square location is Linden Lab’s largest major outpost outside its San Francisco office. That means it won’t just be the lead site testing the new weather-modeling system (called WindLight)—it will also be the place where the famed virtual-worlds company explores whether it can, itself, operate virtually. “We see Second Life as a global platform, so we should be a distributed company,” says John Lester, Linden Lab’s Boston operations director and academic programs manager.
I sat down with Lester last week in one of the conference rooms that Linden Lab shares with the dozens of other technology companies renting bays in One Broadway’s busy Cambridge Innovation Center. The view out the windows was of just the sort of breezy, drizzly Boston day that the Windward Mark guys would probably enjoy simulating.
“The sky is never just a static picture,” Lester observes. “The atmosphere is always changing, and causing you to see what’s underneath differently. We want to give our users that kind of control in Second Life. And with WindLight you can change the level of haze, the types of clouds, the rate of the wind. That’s why it was such an effective match to hire these five guys from Windward Mark, who are just brilliant.”
Not long ago, these virtuosos of variation might have been asked to move across the country to work out of the Sansome Street headquarters of Linden Lab—a famously cultish company run by CEO Phillip Rosedale, who frequently proselytizes on the virtues of virtual communities. But Lester, who wears an amulet showing the signature raised-hand Linden Lab logo around his neck, says it’s now time for the company to welcome employees who might prefer to live outside the Bay Area. “We talk the talk about the Metaverse, and being plugged into a global data-space,” says Lester. “Now we want to walk the walk. Instead of all being in the same building in San Francisco, we’ll see the world from more points of view, and we’ll live where we want to live.”
Lester himself is a longtime Bostonian, having joined Linden Lab after a long stint as director of technology for the neurology service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “At MGH I got into how technology could help physicians and patients communicate, particularly patients with chronic incurable illnesses,” Lester recounts. He says he saw the potential for educational and social uses of virtual worlds after watching stroke survivors and people with Asperger’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy begin to flower through their interactions in Second Life. “I decided I saw so much potential for this that I wanted to help make it grow.”
In the Cambridge office, Lester and the Windward Mark programmers will work alongside a representative cross-section of other Linden Lab staffers, including software developers, community managers, business development officers–”the whole nine yards,” in Lester’s words. The weather-simulation experts may even have to get their hands dirty helping to improve the stability of Second Life’s basic simulation software—which, at times, is barely up to the challenge of supporting the tens of thousands of users who are online simultaneously. Just this week, residents have suffered through a series of outages related to a bug in the way Second Life’s simulation servers communicate with the databases that store all information about the world’s contents.
Improvements can’t come too soon for some users, who’d rather have working avatars than beautiful weather. “You need to slow down the development of WindLight, and get some of the people working on that moved onto the problems,” one Second Life user urged last week in a comment on the company’s blog. “Once the asset server does exactly what it’s supposed to 99.99% of the time, then we can talk about pretty skies.”
Like the Cambridge office, the company’s other locations in Seattle, WA, Mountain View, CA, and Brighton, England will have a broad mix of employees working on a range of such challenges—often meeting one another inside the virtual world. “The offices aren’t branches, they are just distributed instances of a single Linden Lab,” says Lester. “Our only central office is Second Life itself.”