Category Archives: Opinion

Wareable examines Project Sansar

"Project Sansar" promotional image via linden Lab

Project Sansar promotional image via Linden Lab

In Virtual worlds reborn: Can Second Life’s second life democratise VR? Sophie Charara, features editor at Wareable, examines Project Sansar, using in part Ebbe’s comments from an on-stage discussion they had, together with Ken Bretschneider of The Void during the December 2015 Web Summit. I’ve embedded the video of that discussion at the end of this article.

While the piece in Wearable doesn’t offer much that’s new to those who have been following the Lab’s conversations to the press and SL users about their hopes for the new platform, the article does offer some interesting insights to what the Lab is doing and some of their thinking behind Sansar.

Sophie Charara

Sophie Charara

Starting out with what we already know – the Lab is pitching the platform as “WordPress for VR”: an environment where people can come in and create virtual environments without the need to be a software engineer, coder, etc. – the article covers a lot of ground, with comparisons to Second Life, references to other pioneers in VR (Chris Milk, Nonny de la Pena and Jeremy Bailenson) and a further look at hoped-for time frames with “Sansar”.

The Lab has, on numerous occasions, indicated that initially, Sansar is being targeted at some very specific verticals where immersive VR has practical application. Education, healthcare, simulation, business, design and architecture have all be very specifically mentioned in this regard. So a point of interest for me was reading the specific example cited by Ebbe as to how Sansar is already been used, albeit on a test basis, by an architect:

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.”

In this instance, the power of virtual realisation is clear, and having a platform which allows companies and individuals easily leverage this kind of visualisation, connect with other and have them shared in such visualisations / experiences / models is clear. In the example above, it is only a short step from Diego witnessing the flaws in his design (and being able to correct them as a result) to him being able to invite his clients into the model, so they can witness first-hand what his company’s vision for the project is. It also potentially allows his company to retain the model as a part of a virtual portfolio of projects they can showcase to future clients.

That the Lab had identified architecture as a suitable environment where Sansar could offer significant value for clients can also be ssen in the fact that the first public demonstration of the new platform took place San Francisco’s month-long Architecture and the City Festival in September 2015.

VR capabilities have a huge potential for various vertical markets, such as architecture and design, and these are markets the Lab have indicated they are targeting (image archvertical.com)

In 2014, Jon Brouchoud demonstrated the potential of architectural visualisation using the Oculus Rift and Unity 3D (image archvertical.com)

Hence why “Sansar” could, potentially, be a very powerful platform with the sectors the Lab has identified, particularly if it really does allow clients the freedom to create environments which can be standalone or interconnected, and / or which can be accessed directly through a closed Intranet, or open to all via direct web portal, according to individual needs.

Picture, for example, a university using Sansar to build a virtual teaching environment, access through its own Intranet and using it’s exiting log-in and authentication process so students and staff can seamlessly move into and out of the virtual space. They could then open a public portal to elements of that space, and / or link-up with other education institutions, enabling students to share in their virtual learning spaces, building-up their own “world” of connected experiences.

Second Life has proven itself and the value of virtual environments in education. "Project Sansar" could present opportunities to significantly build on the foundations laid by SL

Second Life has proven itself and the value of virtual environments in education. “Project Sansar” could present opportunities to significantly build on the foundations laid by SL

Not that Sansar is purely about these niche environments. The potential social power of virtual spaces and virtual opportunities has long been established by Second Life, and the article does make it clear that as things progress, the Lab does see Sansar as potentially being able to replicate a lot of what Second Life can already do and offering it to an audience as a much more accessible medium.

This obviously is something of a worry for those of us deeply rooted in Second Life – much has already been made of the potential for the “cannibalisation effect” Sansar might have on the current Second Life user base. It’s actually a valid concern, and something we should perhaps be prepared for at some point down the road, if Sansar proves to be a success and starts to pull SL users away from this platform. But frankly, it’s not something which should be held up as a reason for the Lab not to press ahead with Project Sansar.

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At what price VR?

Oculus CR-1 with microphone, Oculus Remote and Xbox wireless controller

Oculus CR-1 package (image: Oculus VR)

On Wednesday, January 6th, and as I reported, Oculus VR announced the price of the first generation Oculus Rift VR headset as being US $599 (€699 in Europe and £499 in the UK) + shipping at applicable taxes, with the unit available for pre-order.

The price has caused some consternation around the globe, even though Palmer Luckey had, since September 2015, been indicating the headset would be more than the assumed price of US $350, as my colleague Ben Lang over at The Road to VR quoted Luckey saying at the time.

As it is, the Oculus Rift is apparently heavily subsidised by Facebook; had it not been so, then the price might have been north of the US $1,000 mark . Further, and like it or not, the HTC / Valve Vive is likely to have a price point somewhat more than the Rift – although it will include hand controllers and room sensors, which the Rift does not. In addition, the latest version of the Vive sports a “chaperone system”: a front-mounted camera which allows the user to overlay their VR environment with images of the room around them, making for easier physical movement when using the headset.

Elsewhere, there has been speculation about the possible price of Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR), particularly after Forbes reported Amazon Canada had it listed at CAN $1,125 (roughly US $800). The listing price was later removed, with Sony stating it was an error and that the final price of the PSVR has yet to be determined – but it has left people wondering.

And while the Oculus Rift price may seem steep, it might be worth pointing out that the Vuzix iWear, an OSVR-based headset initially aimed at the immersive film experience, but capable of supporting VR games and applications, is currently available for pre-order at US $499, and comes with a specification somewhat below that of the Rift.

Sony PSVR - Amazon Canada quoted a price of US $800, quickly countered by Sony - but some speculate it might be accurate

Sony PSVR – Amazon Canada quoted a price of US $800, quickly countered by Sony – but some speculate it might be accurate or at least close to the truth (image: Sony Computer Entertainment)

So does this mean the US $599 price tag for the Oculus Rift is justified? Given that the first pre-order batch apparently sold-out within minutes, one might be tempted to say “yes”. However, the initial rush could be deceptive; while there are undoubtedly a lot of early adopters out there willing to pay a premium for the hardware, they aren’t likely to be in the majority.

And here is where consumer-focused VR could end-up being hoist by its own petard, and in a number of ways, some of which are pointed to by Chris Kohler, writing at Wired.

The first is that VR as a term is already being badly abused.Much is made of 360-degree video (already a thing through Google Cardboard systems), but it really isn’t VR as many would accept it.

The second is there is already a rising tide of headsets offering “VR experiences”. Most of these are (again) Cardboard-based and utilised a mobile ‘phone. The problem here is that inevitably, the quality of the experience isn’t all it could be. What’s more, it often hooks back into the idea that VR is pretty much stuff like 360-degree video.

Samsung's Gear VR sits at the top of the mobile VR pyramid, and could be said to be indicative of where Oculus VR would like to go: a self-contained, lightweight system which doesn't necessarily tether the user to their computer

Samsung’s Gear VR sits at the top of the mobile VR pyramid, and could be said to be indicative of where Oculus VR would like to go: a self-contained, lightweight system which doesn’t necessarily tether the user to their computer (image: Samsung)

The issue here is that despite these factors, these low-end headsets and units such as Samsung’s Gear VR, are presenting VR as something that’s easily affordable (given most people are liable to have a suitable ‘phone to use with them). The experience may not be terribly clever when compared to the Rift or the Vive – but it is there, and it is coupled with a possible perception that VR is about 360 film / sports experiences.

Thus, unless the Rift and the Vive et al can convince the greater populace they offer a truly unique, high-end, head-and shoulders-above-the-rest type of VR experience that instantly compels people to shell out the readies for them, there is a risk that they could be seen a “just another headset”, and passed by in favour of the cheaper albeit less capable headsets, at least until the price point is seen to come down – and that could put something of a pin in the side of the VR bubble, if only in the short-term.

“Project Sansar”: an Amazon ECS case study

Most of us are curious as to how “Project Sansar” will / won’t / might / might not work (with some already going to far as to pretty much write it off before even seeing it, which to me seems a tad premature).

In her own digging around, reader Persephone came across an interesting piece of information, and was kind enough to pass me a link to a case study from Amazon concerning the Lab’s use of Amazon’s EC2 Container Service (ECS) and Docker technology within Project Sansar.

Amazon’s ECS is a “scalable, high-performance container management service that provides cluster management and container orchestration”, which Linden Lab uses to run “the containerized web applications and back-end services of Project Sansar.

Docker is an open-source technology that allows a developer (e.g. Linden Lab)to build, test, deploy and run distributed applications –  all the code, runtime elements, system tools and libraries, etc, – within a “container”, a method of operating system virtualisation. The upshot being it allows an application to be presented as a standardised package for rapid and consistent deployment, regardless of the environment in which it is to be used.

Precisely what “back-end” services for “Project Sansar” are being deployed in this manner isn’t clear; I’m certainly no technical expert and so am open to correction / other ideas.

However, we do know that a key element of “Sansar” is the ability for customers to build and deploy their own gateways (e.g. websites / web portals) to draw their own audiences into the experiences. So, is the use of ECS a means of achieving this? Presenting customers with a packaged environment in which they can build and deploy their own “Sansar” gateways? Or might it be the mechanism the Lab are looking to use to handle the management and scaling of support systems such as the chat, asset and other services  – many of which do appear to be of monolithic design with Second Life, and which sometimes don’t scale particularly well.

The Lab's diagram for using Amazon ECS for instancing

The Lab’s diagram for using Amazon ECS (images Linden Lab / Amazon) – click for full size

Could it be that the mechanism might actually be for more than just “back-end” services – such as the actual packaging and presentation of “Sansar” experiences themselves? We know that the Lab are wrestling with the issue of optimising “Sansar” experiences and their content so that they present a performant experience across a range of client platforms.  We also know the Lab intend to provide a means by which experiences can be rapidly deployed when needed (e.g. the WordPress  / You Tube analogy of build and then push a button to deploy) or rapidly scaled via instancing to meet the demands of large audience numbers.

Both of these requirement would seem – to my untutored eyes at least – to fit with the model being presented, although both would tend to suggest the use of ECS beyond the support of “back-end” services.

As it is, we do know the Lab already use Amazon’s services for presenting some of their SL-related services – so developing an existing relationship with the company for the benefit of “Project Sansar” would appear to make sense. At the very least, the case study offers the potential for further “Sansar” questions to be asked at the next Lab Chat.

Ebbe and Eric discuss the future of VR with Bloomberg

Emily Chang from Bloomberg Business discusses the future of VR with Ebbe Altberg and AltspaceVR CEO Eric Romo

Emily Chang from Bloomberg Business discusses the future of VR with Ebbe Altberg and AltspaceVR CEO Eric Romo (via Bloomberg Business)

On Monday, December 7th, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg appeared alongside AltspaceVR’s CEO and founder, Eric Romo  on Bloomberg Business with Emily Chang, to discuss How to Find Realistic Timeline for Virtual Reality. In the interview, which lasts just under 5 minutes, the three discussed the potential of VR including.

The foundation for the interview is a report by TrendForce which proclaims the VR market will be worth around US $70 billion by 2020, with some US $20 billion coming from hardware purchases and US $50 billion from software and applications. It’s the latest in a bullish series of predictions on the future of the technology, many of which have gone unchallenged – and even then, TrendForce believe their prediction is an “understatement”. But how likely is it?

The Trend Force prediction for VR growth (via Bloomberg Business)

The Trend Force prediction for VR growth (via Bloomberg Business)

US $70 billion represents a tenfold increase in market worth for an industry slated to generate around US $6.7 billion in 2016. However you look at it, that’s a pretty steep growth curve. Both Ebbe and Eric see it as “reasonable”, with the latter citing the idea that a lot of companies which might not be considered as “VR companies” seeing a value proposition in the technology and leveraging it within their business model. In particular, he refers to the expected upsurge in VR as a paradigm shift comparable to that witnessed with the smartphone revolution.

Others are more cautious, as is the case with Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe, who is shown commenting:

We definitely believe the mass market … there’s going to be a lot of adopters, early adopters, of VR. but if you’re looking at the kind of smartphone scale, you know, billions of users out there, that’s going to take a long time.

While not nay-saying the potential of VR, other analysts view the TrendForce report as being unhelpful. When approached by Tweak Town, for example, Moor Insights & Strategy’s VR Analyst Anshel Sag, had this to say:

$70 billion by 2020 is more than extremely ambitious, $70 billion assumes that VR is a mature and mainstream market. There is no way that VR will explode into such a mature market within effectively 4 years. While I am extremely optimistic about the future of VR, such projections do nothing but hurt the future of VR by setting unrealistic expectations. There are no players in any part of the market that could turn this industry into a $70 billion industry in 4 years.

During the Bloomberg discussion, there is an acceptance that VR needs to overcome certain technical hurdles to gain more of a mass-market appeal. Certainly, these issues – cost, reliance on high-end supporting technology, etc. – are real, and doubtless will be overcome. But they aren’t the single issue facing VR in terms of its adoption.

Like it or not, VR is actually an isolating experience. Sure, you can in theory see anything, go anywhere, etc., while using it. But you do so at the expense of pretty much cutting you off from the rest of the world around you. It curtails your ability to properly interact with the things around you, to multi-task, etc. For many people and situations, even those seen as potential VR use-cases, that could curb the appeal.

There’s something else as well to be considered when discussing VR and its potential; what might be called the elephant in the room: augmented reality.

While AR is off to a slower start that VR, it is fair to say that it has the potential to reach into many of those markets and use-cases as seen to be ideal for VR, and offer a more attractive option in doing so. Initial AR systems are far more self-contained and portable; those on the horizon promise a wealth of capabilities (up to and including VR). More to the point, they do not isolate users from the world around them, something which could make AR far more practical and appealing for everyday use in the house, at work, on the street, etc.

By the time VR is really in a position to offer low-cost, lightweight systems freed from requiring high-end computing power, it could be facing stiff competition from AR for many of the markets seen as "ideal" for its use

By the time VR is really in a position to offer low-cost, lightweight systems freed from requiring high-end computing power, it could be facing stiff competition from AR for many of the markets seen as “ideal” for its use (image via CastAR)

So, it could be said that AR appears to be a far more natural proposition for widespread adoption and use, becoming a far more natural evolution from (and with) mobile and smartphone technologies. Hence why some put AR’s market worth as being in excess for US $100 billion by 2020.

Which is not to say that VR doesn’t have a place in the future. There are very niche and compelling cases where it will gain momentum. But whether it will ever reach the level of adoption comparable to the smartphone, as is so often cited, is questionable. There is no reason why, that for many of those potentially uses of VR outside of entertainment and gaming, AR might not offer a far better value proposition for take-up when compared to VR, leading to the latter being subsumed by it well before it has the opportunity to reach the scale of growth predicted for it.

You can catch the Bloomberg video by flowing the link towards the top of this piece, or you can catch the audio below.