Ebbe Altberg: “The Future of VR is User-Created” (a look at SL + Sansar from the VR perspective)

Now into its second year, the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Conference opened on Monday, May 18th. Among the presentations and panel discussions that marked the day’s events was a 20 minute piece by Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, intriguingly entitled The Future of VR is User Created.

Ebbe Altberg: address the 2015 SVVR audience on May 18th, 2015
Ebbe Altberg: address the 2015 SVVR audience on May 18th, 2015

The presentation can be found in this official SVVR video, starting at the 39:00 mark. It was also recorded by Ruthalas Menovich, whose video I have taken the liberty of embedding below. Timestamps in the summary that follows in this article refer to Ruthalas’ video.

Those who may have been hoping to gain more of an insight into the Lab’s Next Generation Platform (aka Project SANSAR) will perhaps be disappointed by this presentation. As the title suggests, it isn’t so much focused on the Lab’s NGP, but rather on user generated content (UGC).

Thus, it forms something of an exploration of the potential of UGC within VR environments, as seen through the focusing lens of Second Life, and what Second Life has taught the Lab about some of the potential constraints posed by both supporting UGC and Second Life itself, which the Lab are now seeking to address. In doing so, it also touches upon some of the broader challenges facing platform providers as well, particularly in areas such as the state of VR technology itself, issues of monetisation for users, etc.

I’ll likely have some comments of my own on SANSAR in an upcoming article. For now however, I’m restricting this piece to a summary of Mr. Altberg’s presentation, with timestamps to the relevant points in Ruthalas’ video for those wishing to listen to them in full.

00:31 – 02:28: Democratising Content

The premise here is that the power of VR will be in democratising content – making VR such that those who wish to can create and share content among friends and audiences; not just necessarily in having it fed to consumers by high-end organisations with considerable technical skills.

As a demonstration of this, he quotes Mark Zuckerberg, and points to the idea that just as self-expression is a natural part of our physical lives – how we decorate our homes, the clothes we wear, the interests we pursue – so too is it important for VR to allow us similar levels of self expression, such as through the freedom to create the environments we enjoy. In support of this view, he also points to the enormous popularity of sites on the Internet which today enable us to express ourselves through the content we crate, be it video, photography, the written word, or other mediums.

Mark Zuckerberg on VR's potential, quoted by Ebbe Altberg at SVVR
Mark Zuckerberg on VR’s potential, quoted by Ebbe Altberg at SVVR

02:28 – 14:30: UGC in Second Life and the challenges within SL

The focus moves on to Second Life and the challenges faced by anyone looking to enter the immersive VR environment with UGC.

Here he covers the rich diversity of user-generated content, which not only covers a huge range of interests and activities – social, educational, training, healthcare, business, entertainment, etc., and fulfils a massive variety of needs – homes, fashion, hobbies, landscaping, and so on -, but which is extraordinarily successful for both the company operating the platform and those providing the in-world content and services. In this he again cites the fact that in 2014, creators and providers redeemed some US $60 million from Second Life. The varying business models and their limitations – such as land – are mentioned.

The Lab’s work on making SL compatible with the Oculus Rift headset is touched upon, and a fair caveat is given on the aspect of performance. Ebbe notes that the work has to date really been more a useful tool for demonstrating to creators the difference between witnessing their creations on-screen and being immersed within them.

The InSilico RPG was mentioned to help illustrate the wide variety of SL content
The InSilico RPG was mentioned to help illustrate the wide variety of SL UGC

The limiting factors of Second Life are also discussed. Again, the land revenue model and its limitations (including scalability) are mentioned, as are the limits of region concurrency numbers and the challenges of trying to hold really large-scale gatherings in-world. The fact that user-generated content can itself be a problem is also mentioned; that users don’t necessarily know how to properly optimise their content to be efficient in terms of rendering and running, so the Lab will need to find a way to optimise that content.

Broader challenges in presenting an environment which allows everything that Second Life already does are also touched upon – such as issues of compliance and control given what are collectively vary large amounts of money flowing through the platform (with a GDP of half a billion US $ a year) supported through a floating exchange used to convert real-world currency into game tokens and back again, in order to ensure money laundering, etc., isn’t an issue.

Ease of use is also touch upon; not just in terms of SL’s own notorious learning curve, but also in the fact that VR itself is still very much a fluid environment in terms of technology and the devices which might be used within it – controllers, headsets, peripherals, etc – It simply isn’t clear (outside of head mounted displayed themselves) as to exactly what will come into commonplace use and what, out of all that is being suggested, developed, trialled or hyped, will fall by the wayside.

14:31 – 18:34: SANSAR and Challenges

A promotional image for Project SANSAR
A promotional image for Project SANSAR

The third part of the presentation moves more towards SANSAR, but really doesn’t give much more away about the platform than has already been revealed by the Lab in statements made about it to date: that it is in development, that it will be running in a closed alpha from summer 2015, and so on.

In the context of facing that challenges of providing a platform specifically aimed at supporting UGC,  some of the things which are foremost in the Lab’s thinking are touched upon: providing good technical capabilities (scripting, lighting, physics) and addressing issues of discovery, usability, scalability and monetisation (both for users and for the Lab). But little of anything new is really provided, nor are any of these issues delved into in any way.

Doubtless, part of this was down to the time constraint of the session as much as the broader discussion of UGC Mr. Altberg wanted to address. But I’ve also little doubt that part of it was because the Lab do – understandably – want to play their cards close to their chest given the entire VR environment is so fluid and evolving, and they’re obviously not the only folk thinking about how truly immersive environments can be made to have mass appeal.

Self-expression is viewed as a motiving reason behind UGC in virtual spaces - hence the huge success of virtual fashions in SL
Self-expression is viewed as a motiving reason behind UGC in virtual spaces – hence the huge success of virtual fashions in SL

18:47 – : Audience Questions

Such were the general terms used when discussing issues the Lab are looking to address with SANSAR, that the first question (of two that Ebbe was allowed to take) is a request to provide more of a summary of what it actually is. And here I’ll turn to quoting him.

[19:14] We’re building a virtual experience platform from the ground-up. Everything we’re building is new. Right now we’ve done the basics of networking, we’ve got physics and lighting and the fundamentals of scripting and a lot of the components that we need to do in an extremely modern, highly-scalable platform in the spirit of Second Life but, like I mentioned, some fairly significant differences in areas of ease-of-use, performance, quality, scale, and also ultimately cost for users.

So people should be able to create experiences that are way, way bigger, higher concurrency, and make even more money. Our goal is to make that US $60 million that creators made last year seem like a puny number by enabling people from all over the world to create fantastic experiences, that can attract more people into those experiences as well.

Today, people create great experiences, but they’re sort-of hidden inside this walled garden called “Second Life”, and with this next platform, we want to make it easier for people to bring traffic and customers directly into their experiences from the outside world.

The second question was simply, why not call it “Second Life 2”?

[20:48] We do not call it “Second life 2.0”, it would probably make too many assumptions about how similar, or how linear the progression from Second Life to this next platform would be. So we’ve refrained from calling it “Second Life 2.0”, and … we’ve just announced the code-name right now is Project SANSAR, final name is TBD, but it’s not going to be “Second Life 2.0”.

And also because Second Life is an extremely healthy, highly-functional platform, and users are on that platform, and these two platforms will be side-by-side for a long time. It would create a lot of confusion if there were 1.0 and 2.0 side-by-side for a period of time.

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