Virtual worlds reborn: Can Second Life's second life democratise VR?

Project Sansar is a truly virtual world, built by you

Project Sansar wants to be not only the iPhone of VR creating, sharing and experiencing but the Facebook and Instagram too.

Right now, making and trying out virtual reality is the equivalent of asking a local painter to do your portrait or finding a photographer with a flash. Like the pre-camera and cameraphone days, we need highly skilled people with the right tools - read, the games industry - to do the job for us.

"You can see what happened when we made it easy for people to create and share photographs; in a very small amount of time it just popped. Now it's in the billions," said Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life and now the VR-friendly virtual world project currently codenamed Sansar, speaking at Web Summit in Dublin. "There has been an explosion in the amount of content. It's similar for video and text and VR will have a similar curve. I'm confident that it's years away, not decades."

Second Life, according to some estimates, still boasts 900,000 active users or Residents a month who socialise, learn and explore hobbies including fashion, bowling and sailing online. Users cashed out $60 million last year from businesses and content made and sold within Second Life.

Slightly down on a peak of 1.1 million users, nevertheless the biggest virtual world in the er, world never went away. Now Linden Lab has 12 years worth of valuable experience around how people interact in virtual spaces.

Life itself

Second Life VR platform Project Sansar

I spoke to Altberg on stage at Web Summit 2015 alongside The Void's Ken Bretschneider, about the potential of both virtual reality and this merging of cutting edge headsets and the next generation of a virtual world that dates back to 2003.

First and foremost, Project Sansar is a social platform, that's been in development for around two years and lets you build and share virtual CG spaces, activities and experiences. Linden Lab are selling it as WordPress for VR. That makes sense as the project aims to both democratise VR and make it much more diverse than if the future of the medium were decided by say, the games industry and Hollywood.

This group of pre-alpha testers will grow in the coming months

"It's difficult to create VR experiences. The people who do it today are sophisticated engineering workers with all sorts of technical skill," he said. "It's also limiting the diversity of the experiences we have and it's not yet a really personal experience, it's not your identity and your space that you're taking part in. Because it's real, it's not just apps and content we consume, it's life itself. It's friendships, it's family, it's real relationships. Identity becomes really important."

Read this: What filmmakers, storytellers and games devs think of VR

We've seen very little of what Project Sansar is capable of, but Linden Lab's CEO did tease one use case. An architect named Diego, who works for a big firm that is completing a major medical centre project, built the entire building in Sansar as an experiment.

"When he experienced it in virtual reality for the first time, he walked into the lobby and said 'Damn, it's too big,'" said Altberg. "It took him one second to realise that something was off and he'd been working on this project for a long time. That had value instantly."

Project Sansar is in pre-alpha right now with a small number of Linden Lab staff and select, invited Second Life 'creators' building virtual reality experiences to test the platform. You can see the only two screenshots shared publicly so far in this story (the main image and the future Golden Gate Bridge below) and a glimpse of a third virtual space in the very last 20 seconds of Altberg's individual Web Summit talk.

This pre-alpha group of VIP testers will grow "in the coming months", according to senior director of communications at Linden Lab, Peter Gray. The final version of Sansar is set to open up to "hundreds" of beta testers in June 2016 and a launch, which is now late 2016/early 2017 on PC, mobile and "as many different VR platforms" as possible.

Altberg namechecked the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony's PlayStation VR when discussing the key players in VR headsets but didn't seem so enamoured with mobile VR from the likes of Samsung, describing it as "an interesting way of watching movies or little 360 degree photos but to truly feel that you're there, you need substantial hardware."

From the hints Gray is able to share at this stage, it sounds like Sansar's first users are taking Second Life/ Minecraft-style building to its logical conclusion in VR.

"For examples of the earliest creations, we've seen some other recreations of places from the physical world e.g. well-known landmarks, large public spaces currently under construction, historical sites," he told us, "as well as places that otherwise exist only in works of fiction and/or the creators' imaginations. These creations range from a single enclosed small room to vast outdoor environments."

Project Sansar pre-alpha creation

A still from a Project Sansar creation of a sci-fi San Francisco

Your brain doesn't know it's not real

Spending time in Project Sansar allows you to live your life (a life) without physical constraints - you can go any place, any time and be anyone. That's a powerful idea - democratising experiences, not just creativity - and it's one that clearly informs the work of Altberg and his teams of engineers and designers.

Linden Lab's CEO refers to Chris Milk and Nonny de la Pena's work with building empathy by placing viewers directly into scenes with VR and he cites Stanford University's Jeremy Bailenson who has shown that our brains cannot distinguish between memories created in the real world and in virtual worlds.

"You can do things that are impossible like take a group of kids on a time travelling school trip to the Colosseum in Ancient Rome or to the Moon to see the Moon Landing or inside the human body for an anatomy class. Bailenson took a group of second graders deep into the ocean in VR and weeks later, half of them had false memories of visiting an aquarium. They had no idea that memory was from a virtual experience.

"And in Second Life, people build yachts and compete in a lot of sailing races, which for most people would be completely impractical in the 'real world' or physical space. They come away from it having had just as much fun as if they had done the real, physical thing."

Physical movement is a challenge but in her virtual life, Fran is extremely active

There's a neat fit here with what Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey has planned for a future in which wealth is no longer a barrier to (virtual) travel, leisure and education. A Sansar, Facebook and Oculus partnership would be, frankly, mindblowing. It's not just financial and geographical challenges that can be overcome, either.

Read this: How VR will stop astronauts getting lonely on the way to Mars

Altberg shared the story of Fran, an 88 year-old Parkinson's sufferer, at Web Summit. Even before VR is considered, virtual worlds can have an impact on the real world and the quality of life of all sorts of people from anyone in a wheelchair to the elderly.

"Physical movement is quite a challenge for Fran but in her virtual life, she's extremely active," said Altberg. "She goes dancing, she goes swimming, she socialises with friends and family and has a full, active life. She has also found that this activity in virtual space is actually improving her ability to move about in the physical space. So there is something that is happening to her brain when she is performing these activities in the virtual space that has improved her mental and physical health."

That said, aside from physical ailments personal brands are king in a world full of Instagram uploads and avatars. Linden Lab wants to take tracking as far as it can go to make friends feel that they are occupying the same place:

"We are working a lot on facial tracking to make it very natural; mouth and lip syncing so that it's a very natural feeling when you interact with other people. By tracking your environment, you can do gestures and move about and really get that feeling of being there, even though you can do it from your couch."

Altberg has the VR technology he needs for his vision of a truly virtual world. Indeed, the idea of taking Second Life into VR was scrapped partly because the graphics and framerates wouldn't work on an Oculus Rift.

All he needs now is for the public to make its mind up on which VR headsets and platforms will win in 2016 and some industry standards wouldn't hurt either.

"There's huge investment from the biggest players whether it's Facebook with Oculus, Microsoft, Sony, Google," he said. "They are all pushing in this direction of taking what we experience on the web as not just the flat thing we have on a screen today but a virtual space we can all interact in. It's a question of getting the technology to the right place and making it easy for people to create and share."


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  • Prokofy·

    I don't see how this author is pulling the concept of "democratizing" out of the new Project Sansar. If anything, it's about an increasingly narrow set of elite technologists and designers controlling the world.

    Second Life as it is now is in fact more democracy and its success has been in spite of the techies who originally designed it because amateurs prevailed, not only using the inworld building tools, but finding ways to use the platform that the original makers didn't intend or like, i.e. rental land businesses and themed communities.

    Sansar's creators have to use Maya or Blender or C++ outside of the platform to create, and that means only the most skilled elites -- how you can call this "democracy" is beyond me. Perhaps you mean that, oh, in addition to the very tiny set of skilled 3D engineers at Disney or Pixar or something, we'll now have a tiny number more of amateurs who got skilled on Blender for SL?  What else could you possibly mean?!

    The fact that only a tiny set of those skilled and close to the devs are in the beta lets you know just how *un* democratic this world is.

    The analogy with WordPress couldn't be more fake. I use both Second Life and Word Press. I can use Word Press without being a designer and coder because coders and designers set up pre-set modules for me to just point and click into place. A lot of work is done behind the scenes to make Word Press "for dummies" so that you can just follow an intuitive panel of options. SL as it is, is nothing like this, nor will Sansar be. I can't just point and click on modules in Sansar -- I will be just a gawker at the mercy of whatever content creators and the platform providers inflict on me -- I can't edit things or build myself -- which at least I can do in the legacy Second Life.

  • Meh1·

    Linden Lies

    Collective bunch of scam artists trying to sell air to the general public.

  • Nalates·

    As it is now people will be building for most VR worlds with Unity, Unreal, Cry Engine, and other similar platforms. People build for those using the tools Maya, 3D Max, and Blender. The same tools are used for Second Life now and will eventually be used for Sansar.

    Ebbe Altberg says they will make a VR world engine that is more along the lines of WordPress. True, at first one will have to be pretty tech savvy to build for Sansar. But, Linden Lab is promising in-world building tools as time goes on.

    If Sanar is to VR what WordPress is to building web sites, then it will democratize VR. Prokofy seems to be confusing democratizing with control.

  • RebProudhon·

    Prok, I am guessing the "democratizing,"  means LL's  desire for Sansar to become the future of social media.  The initial content creation with Maya etc. is just a prelimnary step for it's potential content.  Second Life should/could have been the Social Media champion, but instead these dumbed down apps, Facebook Twitter, instagram etc became popular.  SL is too hard and combersome for dumb people without powerful computers.  They must be using the word democratizing to mean dumbed down enough for the masses of low-tech people to all be in VR together on phones and tablets without full computers.

  • raydragon·

    The original SL was/is a wonderful place to build and create. At its peak (many, many years ago), SL was even a great place to socialize. Unfortunately, Linden catered to a core of creators that they particularly liked, leaving the "real" users out (as Prokofy so well is aware; hi Prokofy!), and when people are left out, they often choose to just leave. And leave they did; seeing Prokofy's name is the first time I have seen an "old-timer's" name in YEARS!

    Linden have made many mistakes as they affect SL; free accounts, cutting back to "volunteer" customer support, catering to private islands (forsaking the Mainland users who supported SL in the early days), getting rid of any incentive (Dwell) users who provided "open" areas had to keep them open; I could go on and on. My point here is, no matter how amazing this new world may be, Linden will ruin it, just like they did with SL. Sad, really.

    Disclaimer: I have been a Resident of SL since the week after it opened from the Closed Beta; I pay for Premium membership, and between my partner and I we sink over $200/monthly providing a very under appreciated (by LL) space for all to enjoy.

  • Lina_Pussycat·

    Well ray i'm not really sure what you mean there by catering. Was SL to remain woefully stagnant on things forever? Mesh was a necessary evolution as was sculpted prims. Yes it is harder for some people to learn, but those that can't adapt to newer things often do get left by the wayside that is life in a nutshell. You can adapt or basically fall into irrelevance like many have done both before and after mesh. 

    I hate this outlook that LL somehow pandered to a certain crowd by actually advancing the tools able to be utilized in Second Life. So someone can show up a sculpted prim or prim builder now because they have skills in a 3d modeling program. You know when people got better at photoshop a LOT of the old skin and clothing makers died out simply because they didn't have the skill set to keep up.

    You don't remain stagnant just to please a certain set of people that are way too uppity about things to begin with. I'm an old timer as well and while prok has a year on me I've been around. I've seen the failures, I've seen the rises, and I've seen people that were great even during the time they were able to be great just fall by the wayside because of many variables and most of the time it wasn't a lack of skill at the time, but rather a lack of any sort of commitment to what they were doing at that point. 

    The point of the matter is that Linden Labs has done the right thing in trying to advance the Second Life platform. While they have made some questionable decisions in UI design in their own viewers, and how they handle support, and dismantling the mentor program letting the technologies in world stagnate to please old timers only was never going to be a good idea either. 

  • tsarpf·

    Since it's going to be "like WordPress", will it be open source?

  • MsGothika·

    If by 'demoncratise' you mean LindenLab will continue with the same dictatorship 'theme' of financial oppression that they worked so hard to create for SL (favoring the wealthy - oh, and their own kids, of course) then yes, I'm sure they'll be very successful. The majority of rich always join forces to quash the poor at every opportunity and that is, after all, what SL and Sansar are all about.

    However, if you mean their sloppy, disorganized, imbalanced, 'fluff' management style of inequality will somehow make Sansar so much better than SL, then you'll have to discover the reality for yourself - and I wish you good luck with that.

    The gods help everyone if it's going to be open source again simply because LL are too tight to hire proper programmers. Sigh. Some people enjoy making the same mistakes repeatedly and then qq'ing about how they just don't understand why they failed.