Quartz offers a gem on Sansar, VR and Second Life

“come with me!” – in , Could the Oculus Rift help give Second Life a second life? Alice Truoung examines the promise of avatar-based virtual spaces

There has been another recent spate of articles on Linden Lab, Project Sansar, Second Life and the potential for avatar-based virtual spaces with the upcoming advent of VR. Even Moviepilot, whom I took to task in 2014, has been busy looking at what’s going on, while Gamasutra rushed out what is essentially a nutshell version of Eric Johnson’s excellent Re/code article examining the question of the metaverse, which I looked at here.

However, the pick of the latest crop has to be Alice Truong’s article published in Quartz: Could the Oculus Rift help give Second Life a second life?  While the title might sound Second-Life centric and suggestive of a piece looking at how it will faire under the Rift (“not very well”), it is anything but.

What is actually presented is a well-rounded piece on the future of avatar-based virtual spaces which uses Second Life as the measure of their mark and launchpad for their future. Within it, Second Life is examined from a number of angles and Sansar is explored, together with a nodding look towards High Fidelity.

Alic Troung: thought on virtual spaces and avatars in Quartz (image credit: Quartz.com)
Alice Truong: thought on virtual spaces and avatars in Quartz (image credit: Quartz.com)

As with most of the pieces which had appeared over the last month or so, little real news on Sansar (or SL’s development for that matter) is given out. This is hardly surprising, as the Lab does like to hold its cards close to its chest – the relative newness (and thus the difficulty in highlighting specific tablets-of-stone facts) of Sansar notwithstanding.

What makes this article a joy, is that it provides a solid framing for the subject of the Lab and virtual worlds, reaching back to 1999 and the original efforts with The Rig. This is nicely packaged and offers a solid foundation from which Ms. Truong expertly weave her piece. Some of the path she takes will be familiar, particularly where SL and Sansar is concerned. We get to hear about SL’s growth, revenue, the US $60 million collectively cashed-out of the platform by many of its users, etc.

We also get fair mention of the decline in the number of active users on the platform, but again, this is properly framed. At its peak, SL had around 1.1 million active users; eight-ish years later, that number stands at around 900,000. A decline, yes. but as Ebbe Altberg points out hardly any kind of “mass exodus”; and certainly nowhere near the dire haemorrhaging of users we tend to hear proclaimed to be happening every time the Lab makes what is perceived as an irksome decision.

For Sansar, similarly familiar ground is covered – the revenue model (and the comparison with SL’s model and its weakness), the promise of VR, the opportunity to grow a platform for “tens, if not hundreds” of millions of users, the aspect of much broader “discoverabiilty” / ease of access for Sansar in order to help generate more appeal, and so on.

Mention is made of the Lab planning to “commercially release” Sansar by the end of 2016. Given what has been said by the Lab to date concerning time frames for future work, and allowing for Ebbe’s comments of perhaps having something worthy of a “version 1.0” label by the close of 2016, I’m taking the comment to be more of a misunderstanding on Ms. Truong’s part than any revelation as to Sansar’s roadmap.

Hunter Walk (l), the Lab's former
Hunter Walk (l), the Lab’s former “Director of Everything Non-Engineering” as well as a founder of the company, and now a VC in his own right, and Bernard Drax, aka Draxtor Despres (r) offer thoughts on Sansar

Another enjoyable element of this article is that Ms. Truong casts her net wide for input; thus she captures both Hunter Walk and Draxtor Despres. Their comments serve to both offer the means by which ideas can be further explored in the piece, and serve to offer a measure of counterpoint to the assumed mass appeal spaces like Sansar and High Fidelity will have.

Hunter Walk, for example, underlines the most critical problem in growing users Second Life has faced throughout its lifetime – that of accessibility and use. As he states, “ultimately, the work you had to put in was, for most people, more than the fun you got out.”  Not only does this underline the essential truth about SL’s longest-running issue (it’s as true today for many as 2003/4), it lays the foundation for an exploration of some of Sansar’s fundamental differences to SL later in the article.

Hunter also passes comment on the idea of these spaces finding many millions of users, pointing out that “tens of millions” was always an unrealised dream at the Lab for Second Life; perhaps a cautionary warning about focusing on user numbers. He also seems to offer something of a warning on investment returns in such ventures as well, again referencing Second Life, although if intended as a warning, it is more relevant to High Fidelity (which has received around US $16.5 million in investment to date).

Draxtor similarly questions whether user numbers should necessarily be the focus / rationale for building these kind of virtual spaces. Like him, I’m far from convinced Sansar will have the kind of broad-ranging reach to draw in “hundreds of millions” (or, if I’m honest, even more than  the low tens of millions). I’ve explained some of the reason why I think in my review of Eric Johnson’s piece linked to towards the top of this article, so I won’t repeat them here.

Could the promise of 2mixed reality
Could the promise of 2mixed reality” technologies which combine VR, AR and physical world activities yet serve to keep avatar-based virtual spaces a niche endeavour? (image: Magic Leap, via the New York Times)

If I’m honest, my only regret is that while Ms Truong’s tone is (rightly) sceptical in places, there is no outright challenge to the idea that people will embrace avatar-based interactions on a massive scale just because VR is on our doorstep.

Right now, there is a lot going on in the world of technology: VR, AR, the potential to fuse the two; faster communications capabilities, much better mobile connectivity, and so on. All of these could serve to dramatically marginalise any need to persistently engage in avatar-based interactions outside of very defined areas. As such, the inescapable whiff of “will we build it, they will use it” (to utterly mangle an already oft-misquoted line from a certain film) which seems to pervade the talk of high Fidelity and Sansar does perhaps deserve a degree of challenge.

Perhaps I should drop a line to Peter Gray suggesting an interview on those lines…

In the meantime – go read Alice Truong.

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BURN2: A Carnival of Mirrors coming to Second Life

Inside the Temple: BURN2, 2014
Inside the Temple: BURN2, 2014

BURN2 2015 will be opening its gates on Saturday 17th October, and will run through until Sunday 25th October 2015, culminating in the burning of the Man on Saturday, October 24th and the burning of the Temple on Sunday, October 25th.

The official press release describers the theme as being:

About mirrors and masks, mazes and merger. It will be a kind of magic show that takes the form of an old­ fashioned carnival. This Carnival of Mirrors asks three essential question:  within our media­ saturated world, where products and people, consumption and communion morph into an endlessly diverting spectacle, who is the trickster and who is being tricked, and how might we discover who we really are?

Classic carnivals, as theatres of illusion, upheld a very strict dividing line that separated  carnies, cast as showmen, from members of a naïve public who were labelled chumps and  suckers, marks and rubes. Our carnival, however, will perform an even more subversive trick  — its motto is Include the Rube. The wall dividing the observer from observed will disappear,  as by an act of magic; through the alchemy of interaction, everyone at once can be the carny  and the fool.

BURN2 2014: The Man
BURN2 2014: The Man

The plot sale is now open, as is the Plot Lottery and Juried Art Applications. You can purchase a plot for BURN2 directly from the kiosks on the playa, with parcels priced as follows:

  • 512 sq m / 117 LI – L$2,500
  • 1024 sq m / 234 LI – L$5,000
  • 208 sq m / 468 LI – L$10,000
  • 4096 sq m / 936 LI – L$10,000

Please ensure you read all the information on an application forms, and that you also read the
Builder Guidelines and Ten Principles before you submit your application. Aesthetics mirroring the Black Rock Desert are in effect for this event.

In addition, the BURN2 organisers have opened a sim name survey, and are asking BURN2 supporters to indicate their five favourite region names from past BURN2 events. The five most popular names will then be used for the 5 additional regions for the Carnival of Mirrors. The deadline for the completion of the survey is 20:00 SLT, Thursday, August 20th, 2015.

About BURN2

BURN2 is an extension of the Burning Man festival and community into the world of Second Life. It is an officially sanctioned Burning Man regional event, and the only virtual world event out of more than 100 real world Regional groups and the only regional event allowed to burn the man.

The BURN2 Team operates events year around, culminating in an annual major festival of community, art and fire in the fall – a virtual echo of Burning Man itself.

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