Martin Bryant, Editor-at-Large at The Next Web caught up with Linden Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, in Dublin at the start of November, where they had both been attending the 2015 Web summit conference.
During a 10-minute audio interview, Mr. Bryant offers a series of questions which, while they may not reveal anything new to those engaged in Second Life or following the unfolding news about “Project Sansar”, nevertheless cover interesting ground and offer food for thought on a number of fronts.
The recording is prefaced with a series of useful bullet points under the title Think Second Life died? It has a higher GDP than some countries, itself is an eye-catching title, which help put some perspective on just what Second Life has actually managed to achieve over 12 years, and sets the stage for the broader discussion.
The interview starts from the position that the media have tended to get Second Life wrong, noting that far from having failed or gone away, it is still operating, still engaged some 900,000 active users every month, just 200,000 a month down from when it hit a peak of around 1.1 million 7+ years ago. Not only do these figures tend to highlight Second Life’s (albeit very niche) ability to attract and hold an audience, they also put oft-repeated claims that people are somehow leaving Second Life en masse into perspective. The outward trickle of active users is there, but it’s hardly a the deluge all too often portrayed. And those who remain are still capable of powering an economy with a GDP of some US $500 million.
From here, the conversations travels by way of the kind of virtual goods on offer inside Second Life to arrive at a question about the “typical” Second Life user, which generates a well-rounded reply.
Well, it’s a huge variety … there’s no typical about it. It’s like asking, “what’s a typical person from Ireland?” There are educators, there are students, there are health professionals, there are patients, there are fashion fashionistas, there’s partiers, gamers, role-players. People just socialise around pretty much anything you can think of. It’s almost as diverse as the physical world we live in.
Further into the conversation, there is a re-emphasis that even with “Project Sansar” coming along, there are no plans on the part of the Lab to discontinue Second Life, with Ebbe again demonstrating a pragmatic view on the amount of investment users of Second Life have made in the platform.
Second Life will continue. We have no plans to shut down Second life or forcibly migrate users from one to the other. So users can ultimate choose where they want to spend their time. And there are probably so users that have spent so much time creating incredible communities around all kinds of interesting subject matter that might just fine it too much effort to do it all over again on a new platform. so they can stay in Second Life, that’s fine.
Obviously, if the vast majority of users in Second Life opt to make a full transition to “Project Sansar”, then it will call into question how long SL can remain a commercially viable platform – but is this likely to happen overnight? Probably not (which is not to say it won’t, at some point happen) over time). The transition is liable to be gradual, simply because it is going to take “Project Sansar” to grow to a level of sophistication offered by SL: as the Lab has made clear throughout 2015, everything isn’t simply going to be in place when the open alpha commences in early 2016 – that’s why they’re calling it an “alpha”.
The more detailed discussion of “Project Sansar” starts with a reiteration that it is being specifically – but not exclusively – developed to operate with coming plethora of VR HMDs and other devices, and that it will be “consumable” (i.e. accessed via) computers (initially PCs) and mobile devices. It is here that mention is made of something that may have been missed in broader discussions about the new platform: there will be no “one-size-fits all” client / viewer.
Instead, client functionality will be determined by client device capability. If you’re on a PC platform, you’ll have access to the full range of capabilities to both “consume” (that is, access, use and participate in) “Project Sansar” experiences and you’ll have access to the tools to enable the creation of those experiences. If you’re using a mobile device, you’ll be able to “consume” experiences, but not the tools to build them. Which makes sense.
In discussing the likely impact of VR, Ebbe takes the pragmatic view that things aren’t going to happen overnight, just because the first generation of high-end headsets are going to appear in a few months; it’s going to take time for the market to grow, and there is still much more to be sorted out.
This is a view I hold myself, so no argument from me. However, where I do perhaps hold a differing view on things is to just how important avatar based virtual experiences are actually going to be outside of some very niche environments.
Even if VR isn’t overhauled by AR in terms of practical ease-of-use, widespread practical applications, convenience, and appeal, I also cannot help but feel consumer-focused VR might offer such incredible opportunities for immersion, entertainment, training, etc., that it will see the use of avatar focused virtual environments remain somewhat marginalised in terms of acceptance with the greater VR community, just as Second Life has been marginalised with the greater on-line social community.