Sansar Creator Beta: personal thoughts

Sansar: Villa Ortli – Sansar Studio

It’s been just over a week since the Sansar Creator Beta opened its doors to the public, allowing anyone who wishes to visit to do so. I’ve been jumping in and out for a while, both as a part of the Creator Preview and during the last week, and have also been following some of the feedback since the doors opened on Monday, July 31st. So, what are my thoughts (whatever worth they might be) on the new platform?

Well, first and foremost – it’s not Second Life.

I’m being neither flippant nor dismissive in saying this. Sansar is a very different beast to Second Life, and is liable to remain so for a good while to come. However, despite all the comment to this effect from the Lab, in blogs like this and elsewhere, there still seems to be a perception that Sansar somehow “is” the “new” / “replacement” Second Life, giving rise, perhaps to certain expectations where Sansar is concerned, as well as fears for SL’s future.

Certainly, and given it is early days for Sansar, which is still being built out with capabilities and features, the time may come when it appeals more to some SL users than SL itself. However, given the Lab intend to continue to develop Second Life for as long as it is a viable product1, it’s equally fair to say that other SL users may find Sansar offers little they don’t already enjoy in Second Life, and thus remain with the lattr as it continues to be enhanced; equally, some may find it attractive to have a foot in both. But overall, it is far too early to be looking at how Sansar is affect SL log-ins or carrying forward fears about SL’s future – particularly given the Lab is looking at a far broader audience for Sansar than the existing SL user base.

One significant area of negative feedback I have witnessed is over the use of the term “beta” in the title of this phase in Sansar’s development, with people decrying it as “not beta software”. However, I’d suggest that doing so is more a case of mistaken context than anything else. “Creator Beta” isn’t a reference to the platform’s software  development status (and thus a reason to dismiss it); rather it is indicative that this is the “second phase” of the development work involving creators – the first having been the closed Creator Preview.

Sansar: City Park night lighting experiment, Lex4Art

Personal Feedback as a User

The following feedback is based on what is currently available in Sansar, rather than what is lacking at present.

Atlas: the Atlas is a mixed bag. The title approach to presentation just doesn’t work for me, particularly given positions of items seem to change based on rating (visits?). Hopefully some form of experience categories / classifications will be added over time.

  • Negatives: finding experiences; lack of search in the version of the Atlas built-in to the client
  • Positives: URL access from web Atlas to experiences; ability to easily copy & share experience URLs; “slide show preview” option (although this is also now getting cumbersome); ability to see  all experiences by a specific creator.

Client Run-time UI: simple, clean, options easy to find and icons reasonably easy to identify. Snapshot capability: basic, but usable, particularly when using the camera in “free flight” or operating in first-person mode.

Movement: the WASD / arrow keys are pretty much standard for games (and should be familiar to all SL users).  The personal teleport option (CTRL and Left-click) can be very handy for “rapid” movement around experiences.

Camera: clunky and uneven.

  • Negatives (Desktop mode): no apparent default “follow avatar” position after orbiting camera (right-click and mouse drag) around avatar centre can initially be confusing when resuming avatar movement; the side-to-side juddering of the camera on small avatar turns left / right using the arrow or A and D keys can be visually unsettling (try pressing and holding the right mouse button and turning by dragging the mouse gently left / right for a smoother experience); “free flight” movement (F4) very basic, with camera movement perhaps a little too fast by default (numeric “-” to slow down / “+” to speed up).
  • Positives: reasonable integration with the mouse at this point; good first-person representation, making this “Mouselook” approach to movement superior to SL – although it would be nice to look down and see one’s own avatar.
Currently, arm movements made using HMD hand controllers can be disconcerting when seen by others

Avatar: basic, but acceptable. The walk is ungainly, but will hopefully be improved alongside things like the return of running, greater customisation, etc.

One strongly disconcerting element with the avatar right now is watching those who are using HMDs and hand controllers. The latter allow the avatars arms to behave most unnaturally (e.g. passing through the avatar’s body, arms sometimes appearing to detach from shoulders or bending weirdly, etc). Avatars being guided with HMDs / controllers also appear to have a really odd-looking arm “at rest” pose (hands held out in front of them as if carrying an invisible box).

Identification: for those from SL used to seeing avatar tags, this is perhaps the hardest element to get used to in Sansar – it’s simply not possible to readily identify who is who in a large group of people. The reason for the lack of tags is given as “spoiling the VR immersion”. Fair enough; however, right now, the avatars are far, far too generic to allow for easy visual recognition – so much so that people have already resorted to their own means of “tagging” themselves with their names in mesh placed above them or by wearing badges with their names on them.

Chat: text chat works well, as does direct messaging in text (IMs). It’s useful to remember the former can be seen throughout the current instance of the experience – there is no range limit as with SL. Voice chat is similarly unimpeded by range and can, frankly, be a pain right now.

While audio may well be spatial, when operating in groups, overlapping conversations can become confusing – as can quickly identifying just who is talking. People also have an annoying habit of leaving their microphones open when not speaking, leading to extraneous noises spilling “in-world”. While this is not a specific issue for Sansar per se, the controls for muting are currently limited, and the inability to  disable voice entirely (so one can focus purely on audio from videos, etc., within an experience) can be irritating.

Interactions: basic, but developing. HMD / controllers currently give far more in the way of interactive abilities (“holding” things, throwing things, etc), but Desktop mode allows some interaction with objects – notably teleport disks, doors and portals.

Sansar: Tierra de Gigantes, Luis Sotillos

Premature?

A lot of SL users have seen the Creator Beta as “premature” on the basis of a lack of expected capabilities. I’d agree that opening the doors to a general audience does feel premature – but not strictly because of any lack of capabilities per se. Rather, given this is intended to be a further step in developing the platform from a creator’s perspective of the platform, why throw the doors wide now? As it is, it has been indicated to the media that the Creator Preview attracted 10,000-12,000 applicants, of which some 2,000 were invited into the platform, so why not simply keep rolling that process forward for another few months?

If nothing else, it would have achieved two potential goals: allow further integration of more of the social tools and abilities which the Lab have indicated are part of the raison d’etre for Sansar, and it would have likely reduced the volume of negative feedback by offering general users more “things to do” when visiting experiences.

A Broader Perspective

All of that said, the Creator Beta undoubtedly gives a glimpse of the potential for the platform to reach into a range of markets, should those markets continue to invest in and grow their use of this new era of VR as a medium. This is an important point to repeat, because Sansar really isn’t about building another virtual world a-la Second Life, nor is it – strictly speaking – about appealing to the wants and needs of Second Life users. The Lab is casting Sansar’s net far wider, as has repeatedly been said throughout the development process, and which was repeated during the Creator Beta launch.

When one visits experiences such as LOOT Interactive’s Apollo Museum, or Sansar Studio’s Villa Ortli or any of the experiences being built by Mencius Watts, aka John Fillwalk from the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA – a division within Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning that explores the intersection of digital and physical design) the huge potential of Sansar in the realms of architectural design, historical recreation, and education and learning via immersive environments, becomes abundantly clear.

Sansar: Newton’s Cenotaph (Work In Progress), Mencius Watts

Other emerging experiences equally point the way towards Sansar offering unique opportunities for entertainment and games. Teager’s Secrets of the WorldWhale, for example, offers a glimpse of adventure / explorations type environments which could be built complete with interactions, and Maxwell Graf clearly shows that role-play could be well suited to the platform.

In this, it’s perhaps important to note that the response to Sansar from beyond Second Life has, it’s fair to say, been positive. The press has been good, and (I understand) it has led to an uptick in interest from agencies beyond the SL catchment. What will be interesting to see is how this interest  / involvement grows as Sansar continues to be built-out, and just how effective the Lab is working both directly and through partners to enhance Sansar’s visibility among the markets they’d like to reach, the expansion in use of VR within those markets allowing, as time continues forward.

  1. I hope to be able to write more on this in a future article.
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