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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7 thoughts on “Quartz offers a gem on Sansar, VR and Second Life

  1. Just a small point, people seem to forget that the majority of the loss in on-line concurrency (and associated number of users) came about as a result of LL’s change in traffic calculations and the resulting devaluing of camper bots. There was a dramatic drop of thousands over a very short time, but those were not real users. There are still various (and quite reasonable) uses of bots, so even today’s numbers are inflated, I suspect the Lab has a very reasonable guess as to what the true numbers are but they are not saying 🙂

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  2. The total number of active users may be a little misleading to understand the level of the decline. 1 million with 200 active every day and 800 once per month isn’t the same as 50 daily users and 950 once per month, for example (real figures are more complex of course). User concurrency may give a better idea, if you are looking for a populate and alive world. Max concurrency used to reach 80k, now it hardy reaches 50k. Mean concurrency dropped from 60 to about 40k. Traffic dropped as well. SL isn’t crumbled at all, but I can see that people around are noticeably less, compared to years ago.

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  3. While Quartz article is interesting and somewhat researched, there are some points I don’t like so much.

    “the 12-year-old role-playing game […] isn’t a game with a clear objective. There are no bosses to defeat or princesses to rescue. […] Instead, people, playing as virtual representations of themselves, will carry out day-to-day, often fantastical, lives in a made-up world. They’ll explore, socialize, have cybersex, make art, perform, create businesses, build houses, go shopping, pay taxes.”
    I feel the above somewhat deceiving. I never thought of SL as a The Sims-like role-playing game, although you can create RP games inside SL… as well as anything else. Lucky I was one of those curious and wandering users, else, looking at Quartz’s SL description, Second Life won’t be relevant to me (quoting Ebbe in that article). I see SL is a simulator platform, instead, in which you can create and simulate anything you want. It can be a flight or a sailing simulator too. Or it can be used to visualize a Saturn V or a nuclear plant or an ancient monument sized in real scale, and letting you to walk around it. I saw people using it for little conferences and lecture too and to meet virtually from anywhere in the world. Even for spiritual purposes: if you don’t have a temple nearby you can meditate or pray in SL with other people and a RL guide or priest (just beware that someone only pretends to be).
    Perhaps it is the game-like graphic that is somewhat misleading, letting people believe it is just some kind of game at first. If my avatar is a photo-realistic visual copy of myself, moving as I move, talking with my voice, it would be more likely seen as tele-presence instead. Or as a way to communicate and to reach other people.

    So how Quartz pictures SL is just a subset of what SL is. While it’s an ok subset and it is the most popular use, SL is much more than just that (eventually they mention Drax a little at least). On a larger scale, I suspect that it is also a somewhat niche use too.
    So I’m not sure Sansar will become a 100 million users if it keeps to be seen mostly as a MMORPG as SL; rather than a platform where you can experience a virtual tour inside the ISS or to use it as a new communication system. Even the most popular MMORPG, WoW, never hit such numbers; if you get 10 millions with “another MMORPG” you would be lucky.

    Quarts also tells that it “will require a lot of time and investment”. That’s again a MMORPG view.
    At most it’s true that there are complains of the costs of virtual estates, and if you want to start a shop, opening a club, an airport, or any serious activity, you need that level of time and investment… which usually in SL is barely profitable, or isn’t at all. And I can understand those people who eventually thought all that time and effort doesn’t worth it, and left disappointed. If you really want to do this, do it for yourself first. So that you had fun or you did something for yourself at least.
    For everyone else, SL doesn’t require a lot of time and investment at all. You don’t have this kind of pressures, nor you have grinding, or to get the next level, or to kill loads of monster to find your equipment… I can feel a lot of freedom instead. Time is not required, you can spend it time inword if you want, whenever you want and to stay online as long as you want. Money isn’t required as well. You can have a pretty avatar without spending even 1 L$: it’s plenty of freebies and group gifts, lucky boards and so on. You can have some decent vehicle in the same way too. You don’t even really need a place: there are public dressing rooms and public sandboxes. Of course you can buy better quality and more sophisticated products and some may be expensive, you can rent land, from cheap and small ones to expensive full sims, and there you can build stuff and keep them rezzed, but it isn’t required: you can invest time and resources in SL as you want.

    And when they talk about L$, they mention bitcoin as “bitcoin was used to buy illegal drugs on Silk Road”. Yeah, it was, but not just that.

    Sorry for the long comment.

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  4. While Alice certainly did a great job putting some major points and context into this post I’d like to correct something that I think is misleading: at no point did the corporate presence in SL “irk” me. I was not annoyed by the Adidas mall or the Pontiac sim, what I told Alice in our 30 minute conversation was that I found it regrettable that some of the really dumb marketing ideas implemented [presumably for a lot of money] in the hype days of SL unfortunately created some of the backlash when the ROI did not meet executive’s expectations and then the failure was blamed on the SL platform.
    It would been much better to scrutinize one’s own miscalculations: what do residents of SL enjoy, why do they log in, is it really the right plan to treat SL like a 3D billboard for RL goods and services.

    So that was my point and I think when condensed to own soundbite it really gets lost.

    My statement on being skeptical about the growth potential of VWs also was a bit chopped down to bare essentials: I talked at length about the issue of regular folks being so spent from the daily grind that even a very compelling creative environment with a simple and well-designed UI may not beat the success of simplistic passive entertainment that is on any number of screens ALL THE TIME = so any VW has to compete for eyeballs with everything else and that requires so much more than an awesome product IMO: the entire modern work/life balance is a factor that influences entertainment choices all the time!

    There you have it: the loooooong version. Tune into Drax Files next FRIDAY and I will go on for 60 minutes with those points if I get approval by Jo? 🙂

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    1. Yup Got the underpinning message about eyeball time :). That was my points as well: VR could potentially offer so much, the time people might spend “in world” (“in space” or “in scene” just doesn’t have the right ring) is going to be offset against all the other things they might be doing in VR.

      As to sound bites, I think it depends on the reader’s engagement with an article. I think Alice positioned things such that deeper meaner could be understood, particularly given the slightly sceptical tone used in places within the article.

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      1. I am glad Alice structured the piece like this. I am just so focused on that point of corporate marketing strategists and members of the media complicity when it comes to how the origin and ubiquity of the backlash: it must not be forgotten how these cycles happen again and again and again [and may even be brewing as we speak in the new VR hype…deja vu….noooo please nooo…]

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        1. Hype cycles. Gartner are the experts there. although they place VR square;y on the path away from the worst of the cycle and slowly climbing towards its “plateau of productivity” (a point come other pundits seem to have missed in their seemingly recent tripping over the Hype cycle! 🙂 ).

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