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

Project Sansar is a truly virtual world, built by you
Sansar: Second Life's second life
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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."