Techcrunch and THE examine Project Sansar

Project Sansar: increasingly in the tech media's media's eye
Project Sansar: increasingly in the tech media’s eye. Credit: Linden Lab

It appears that, in keeping with their word, the Lab is starting to allow journalists into Project Sansar. At the start of July, Ed Baig got a look inside Sansar for USA Today, as I reported here and here (with Ed’s own article here). now it is the turn of Techcrunch and, earlier in the month, Times Higher Education (THE), with pieces appearing in Russian, Polish and Brazilian outlets.

In Second Life creators look to revamp reality once again, this time in VR. Techcrunch’s Lucas Matney steps inside Project Sansar at the invitation of Ebbe Altberg, and his guide is the Lab’s VP of Product Bjorn Laurin (Born Linden). As with most articles we seen of late, nothing intrinsically “new” is added to what has so far been revealed about Sansar in terms of capabilities, approach or screen shots, but  there are some interesting tidbits, all the same. For example, early on he notes:

Traversing the worlds of Sansar and chatting with my guide, Linden Lab VP of Product Bjorn Laurin, was a mostly seamless experience but still an oddly unsettling one. It’s not that anything was particularly creepy about the place I was viewing through an Oculus Rift headset. Sansar is visually placid and often beautiful, but it’s also startlingly scalable and boundless. Scale is something that’s often taken for granted in an age of video game epics like Skyrim and GTAV, but when every horizon you see through your own point-of-view is conquerable, you’re left to either feel very bold or very lost.

Lucas Matney considers Project Sansar for Techcrunch
Lucas Matney considers Project Sansar for Techcrunch

The two things that are interesting here are the comment about the “mostly seamless” experience of moving between “Sansar worlds” (“worlds” here, I assume, means Sansar “scenes” which have been “stitched together”  – to use the Lab’s terminology – to create an “experience”). This appears to imply that whatever mechanism is in place to move avatars between different connected scenes (teleporting?) is pretty smooth and that there may not be too much in the way of any interruption when moving between scenes. It’ll be interesting to discover if / how this might extend to vehicles at some point down the road as Sansar develops.

The second interesting part of the comment is the apparently limitless size Sansar presents to users, suggesting that as with Second Life, Sansar will convey a sense of massive spaces which might reach beyond their physical limits – so will people be looking out onto open “water” as with SL, or will the “land” appear to stretch off into the far horizon – or is it simply that the available Sansar scenes all make use of the upper bounding size (previously reported to be around 4 km / 16 SL regions on a side)? Either way, it may well be that environments in Sansar aren’t quite as “enclosed” – at least visually – as people might be fearing.

A further point of interest in the article takes the form of an astute observation perhaps overlooked when discussing Sansar’s potential for success:

Like Second Life, Project Sansar is not an experience that needs to be perfect at its initial launch or see a certain number of first week user numbers to be a hit. It just has to stay consistent, evolve with the hardware/interface trends of modern VR and steadily push boundaries as it updates.

Hence why the Lab isn’t trying to cross all the “T”s and dot all the “I”s with Sansar from day one, and why they do repeatedly warn SL users it is not going to necessarily be to their taste when the doors first open. VR is going to take time to mature – not just in terms of user conviction, but the very hardware and software itself. Things will change within the industry, probably quite rapidly (look at the pace of change of other “disruptive” technologies, such as the mobile ‘phone), thus it’s important for Sansar to be in a position to demonstrate it can meet user cases and needs – but also remain flexible and responsive to emerging technology and the new needs / opportunities arising from it.

In a time when we’re perhaps becoming inured (so to speak) with the comparisons to Sansar with the likes of WordPress and YouTube for content creation, it’s perhaps refreshing to have someone put their finger on the button of LL’s monetisation focus for Sansar, with Matney observing the company plans to essentially build “an app store for VR creative properties”. This is not only a neat way to encapsulate Sansar’s approach to monetisation, it also neatly folds back into the idea that “creator” in Sansar encompasses a broader cross-section of users than perhaps we consider to be the case in Second Life – as I mentioned in covering Ed Baig’s USA Today piece.

Alice Bonasio: looking at Sansar and VR for THE
Alice Bonasio: looking at Sansar and VR for THE

One of the several target markets the Lab is looking towards for Sansar is that of education, and it is from this perspective that Alice Bonasio, writing for Times Higher Education, considered Project Sansar back at the start of July 2016.

Starting with a look at the success Second Life has enjoyed within education, Virtual reality really is heading to a university near you more generically considers the role of VR in education, and the manner in which Sansar might be a part of an education revolution – not just in terms of providing immersive teaching environments, but in the ability for universities and colleges, etc., to potentially monetise their environments.

It’s an interesting line to take, but what is perhaps of greater interest, in terms of gaining further understanding as to why Linden Lab felt they needed to push ahead with Project Sansar, is in the vision for education presented through the piece. In this, Alice Bonasio doesn’t just examine the Lab’s hopes for Sansar, she frames them in terms of experiments conducted by Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. These experiments demonstrated some very real benefits of using VR / augmented capabilities can bring to the basic  tutor / student relationship, quite aside from all the deeply immersive potential offer by the technology.

Again, neither article offers anything specifically “new” in terms of how Sansar will look when the door opens or what the baseline capabilities will be when that happens in early 2017. However, they do both provide individual insights into the platform which make them both a worthwhile read, with Techcrunch’s Matney in particular ending with further food for thought, noting that while Sansar might not  require a huge audience from the get-go, it does nevertheless need to succeed in its central aim of providing a platform for “social VR” – and that’s no easy thing, because “social VR” isn’t really an understood medium right now (we can only guess at what it might be like and – equally importantly – how people might react to it). But as he notes in closing:

The early beta shows great promise and while a wide release of its desktop and VR versions is still likely months away, it’s clear that Linden Lab understands the daunting magnitude of both Project Sansar’s challenges and its potential.

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Preiddeu Annwn: immersive education in Second Life

Preiddeu Annwn: “Three fullnesses of Prydwen / we went on the sea.”

Preiddeu Annwn (or Preiddeu Annwfn, “The Spoils of Annwfn“), is one of the most famous gnomic / philosophical poems to be found in the Middle Welsh Book of Taliesin. In just eight irregularly versed stanzas, it records a journey the poet (possibly intended to be the 6th Century poet Taliesin, although the poem itself dates from around the 14th Century), made with King Arthur to the Otherworld (the Annwfn of the title)  – a place of eternal youth and delights, which is common to Welsh mythology (appearing in, for example, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi).

It is also now the subject of an immersive environment itself entitled Preiddeu Annwn, designed by Hypatia Pickens, a professor of English at the University of Rochester,  New York, and her students. Its function is to provide an interactive means by which the poem and its themes can be explored and better understood, both within itself and with regards to broader medieval Welsh mythology and medieval literature. It is also an extraordinary piece of scholarly art.

Preiddeu Annwn: “The cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn: / what is its fashion? / A dark ridge around its border / and pearls.

The arrival point offers a series of notes to visitors, including how to best experience the environment. It is more that worth the time to read these in order to make sure you enjoy the installation fully. Once you have done so, keep the instruction “follow the white dogs to where the boats are going [and] sit when you are asked to sit”, and then touch the teleport disc.

This delivers you to ground level, where waters ebb and flow over the eight stanzas of the poem beneath a beautiful sky, representing the start of Arthur’s expedition, and far on the horizon stand his three ships, white dogs pointing the way to them. In turn, the ships stand over the entrance to the Otherworld, on which your are to sit.

Preiddeu Annwn: They do not know the brindled ox, / thick his headband. / Seven score links / on his collar.
Preiddeu Annwn: They do not know the brindled ox, / thick his headband. / Seven score links / on his collar.

Doing so will deliver you to the Otherworld, in which the stanzas of the poem are presented through words and vignettes as an endless cycle, requiring considered exploration (the order in which you do so is yours to choose). As well as the poem, broader aspects of Welsh mythology are touched upon, such as the aforementioned Mabinogi. Do make sure you have media enabled (again, via the movie camera icon, top right of the viewer) to enjoy a reading of the poem by  Blake Harriman, set to music and vocals by Hypatia herself.

Eventually, however, you must make your way to Yyns Wair (“Gwair’s Island”, referred to in the poem as Cair Sidi – the Glass Fortress / “Fortress of Four-Peaks” encountered by Arthur and his men -, and believed to be modern-day Lundy in the Bristol Channel), in order to free Gwair / Gwier. This involves passing through the Door of Hell to explore the tower of Gwair’s imprisonment. which in turn gives you the opportunity to collect the poem, hear it recited in the original Middle Welsh by Hypathia herself, and read the thoughts of her students about the use of virtual environments in study.

Preiddeu Annwn: “into the heavy blue/gray chain; / a faithful servant it held”

Preiddeu Annwn has been made possible through the support of the Russell Hope Robbins Library at the University of Rochester. A medieval studies library containing holding in all aspects of medieval literature, history, art and theology, the Library is also represented in Second Life, and can be visited directly, or by “following the waves” once you have reached Yyns Wair within the Preiddeu Annwn installation.

All told, this is an extraordinary demonstration of the power of virtual spaces as a tool for education and the exploration of art, history, mythology and language, with the virtual Russell Hope Robbins Library equally so. I spent in excess of four hours in exploration and contemplation of both; anyone with any interest in medieval literature, Arthurian mythology, Middle Welsh or medieval history in general cannot help but be enthralled by both.

Preiddeu Annwn: “Monks pack together / like young wolves”

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