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.
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.
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.
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.
- Could the Oculus Rift help give Second Life a second life? – Eric Johnson, Quartz, August 6th