July 31st, 2018 marked the first anniversary of Sansar’s public Beta, Linden Lab having thrown the doors wide to the world at large to come in and have a look, back at the end of July 2017.
The move came with a lot of forewarning that those familiar with the capabilities of a (then) 14-year-old platform such as Second Life would likely find a lot of things lacking in Sansar, but even so, in a lot of quarters Sansar was negatively leapt upon for this very reason. And while some of that criticism may have been and still be valid, it is worth pointing out that Second Life didn’t burst forth on the world in June of 2006 fully formed and ready to go with all the capabilities we take for granted today (and so perhaps expect Sansar to have from “day 1”).
That said, there were – and remain – certain aspects of Sansar which perhaps could have done with more development time before opening the doors to “everyone” (quotes deliberate, given the emphasis of the public Creator Beta was very much on people where a creative / content crafting mindset and abilities, rather than on consumer / creator users). Interaction, for example was almost entirely VR HMD-centric; non-headset users were restricted to walking into / over things and initially had no means to more directly interact with objects. Scripting for object interaction was also somewhat limited. Sansar additionally lacked a permissions system at the time of the public Creator Beta – indeed, a year on, we’ve still yet to see it – although may well be making its first appearance in the coming month.
While not a major drawback in terms of overall commerce (Sansar was always going to take time to build a consumer audience), this has limited areas of creativity – such as working collaboratively. The lack of the permissions / supply chain / licensing system has also limited convenience in selling items between creators, as the ability to sell “multi-part items” is very bound up with it, leaving a creator wishing to sell an object with several components having to sell the various parts individually.
At the time of the opening, I noted that given the Lab had reportedly received more than 10,000 closed Creator Beta applicants, and given the lack of scripting support, avatar customisation (another area of limited capability), lack of permissions / supply chain / licensing system, etc., I did question why they didn’t just extend that programme by, say, another year. In terms of take-up, the outcome would perhaps have been the same. Certainly, in terms of encouraging interest on the part of existing virtual world users, a “launch” of Sansar now, with all the added capabilities from the last year might have resulted in something of a more positive reaction.
Certainly, given that VR itself is going to take a good few years yet to come into its own as a household product, the leeway for the Lab to do more under the hood tinkering with Sansar, get more feedback from their existing pool of creators and partners, etc., and be in a position to offer something of a more rounded product to the public was certainly there. But again, this also brings drawbacks.
Take, for example, the misunderstanding that Sansar was to be a “replacement” for Second Life – an idea that took root and flourished despite Ebbe Altberg stating numerous times in 2016 / 2017 (VWBPE addresses, Lab Chat sessions, and Meet the Linden events) that this wasn’t the case. How might the flames of rumour and “the end” od Second Life been fanned had a more “SL-like” Sansar popped up?
As it is, for the last 12 months, Sansar has been able to plod away, receiving broadly positive responses from the tech media while those of us immersed in Second Life have been able to if not breathe a sigh of relief, then at least accept LL’s word that they are going to continue to invest in and develop Second Life, up to an including the major (and continuing) work to shift that platform to a cloud-based infrastructure.
And Sansar has come a fair way over the course of a year. Yes, there is still much more to be done, make no mistake, but Sansar today is something of a different beast to a year ago. Performance on mid-range desktops has been improved, load times tidied, the Atlas made far more user-friendly, the client has seen a host of improvements, a veritable boatload of new capabilities have been delivered – Desktop interaction, better scripting capabilities, and so on. And thus experiences have started to get more involved and interactive. There are individual / team games like Hover Derby and Paintball; rudimentary combat, as seen in The Secret of Mount Shasta, is possible. Storytelling capabilities have grown, while the platform has demonstrated is ability to be fully capable of presenting art through the virtual medium through the likes of the Hollywood Art Musuem project.
More particularly, Linden Lab has been able to flex its muscle and establish partnerships whilst also building a reputation as a design studio as well. Most visibly this has been done through the likes of the Ready Player One tie-in of Aech’s Garage and Aech’s Basement and which saw LL via Sansar Studios working with the likes of Intel, Amblin Entertainment and Warner Entertainment to recreate scenes from the film in VR.
While these big movie tie-ins may not have grown the Sansar audience per se, it would be a mistake to write them off> If nothing else, they demonstrate how, as VR does gain more acceptance in people’s homes, there could be a means for studios big and small to entice people into seeing their latest blockbuster by offering them to step inside sets and settings from a film, from the comfort of their own home. Of course, whether studios would, in time go to a small company like LL to achieve this is perhaps debatable – but right now, Sansar seems to be the only platform making the attempt to reach this potential market, and LL are showing via Sansar Studios that they have the chops to co-develop and deliver experiences alongside of specialist developers.
Intel in particular seem to be taken by Sansar’s potential. They partnered with Linden Lab to produce their CES 2018 booth within Sansar, as well as building a tour on their 8th generation CPU core – a nice play on the words “Intel” and “inside”, the corporation’s long-time slogan. They featured Sansar at their CES 2018 keynote address and then took Sansar on the road to places like the Sundance Film Festival under the hashtag of
#FutureofStorytelling#FutureofStorytelling, which has been strongly associated with VR. Most recently, and as I reported in July 2018, Intel have utilised Sansar as a means to realised part of their VR partnership with the Smithsonian Museum to life, via No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, a direct tie-in with a physical world exhibition taking place at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.
It is this kind of “behind the scenes” work that LL / Sansar Studios might be engaged in – and which we might only get to see should it be given a public debut (as with the Smithsonian work) – that intrigues me. The Lab has made no secret of the fact they want Sansar to be a platform those verticals – healthcare, design, architecture, education, training, simulation – that have a need for VR solutions would potential turn to and use. So what else might be going on away from prying eyes?
I’ve no idea on this score, but it is interesting to note that back in September 2017, Linden Lab snapped up the services of Sam Distaso, formerly of Altspace VR, as their Manager, Strategic Business Development. With an emphasis on Sansar, his role is largely about identifying strategic partnership opportunities within difference sectors for Sansar, and for coordinating the work to bring projects arising from those partnerships to fruition. All of which sounds as if the Lab is looking to develop opportunities that may sit “outside” of what we’ve thus far seen with the platform.
And this is the nub of the matter when it comes to assessing just how “well” Sansar is performing: while we can see a lot via the Atlas; there may well be a lot more going on that we simply don’t know about, so it might well be a mistake to simply judge Sansar on what can be seen.
That said, it is fair to say that in terms of the public take-up of Sansar, things remain relatively slow. Concurrency is not too far above what might have been seen with the closed Creator Beta, and unsurprisingly given its overall state, the platform doesn’t appear to have grown its audience much beyond the core creative pool from that programme. In fact, it has at times seemed as if the Lab themselves have been a little uncertain as to the direction they should be taking with the platform, and I personally remain unconvinced that trying to grow an audience at this point in time is something they should be attempting.
While it is true that much about Sansar that have dramatically changed in the course of the past year (just look how friendly the Atlas has become, for example, without the need to dive in and try more recent experiences directly), the fact remains that for a consumer / creator style of audience, the platform still has a good way to go in many areas – such as simply being able to sit in a chair when one is presented…
There have been some efforts made this year to try to grow the Sansar public audience, such as through the tie-in with Roddenberry Entertainment and their Star Trek Mission Podcasts, which resulted in The Bridge of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 in Sansar; but I’m not convinced the platform yet has the capabilities and / or general ease-of-use required to really garner an audience of its own
One thing that has struck me over the course of the last year and seeing the updates and enhancements is just how smoothly, by-and-large, they’ve gone. While some content has at times been broken as a result of specific changes, on the whole, Sansar has – to me at least – appeared to have had a fairly smooth time of upgrades and improvements. More recently feathers have been ruffled over things like the changes to the Store listing guidelines and the introduction of Sansar dollar bundles at what are seen as inflated prices (in comparison to the SandeX cost of S$); but for those who have dipped more than a toe into Sansar and spent time creating there and forging friendships, etc., optimism with the platform seems to remain high and enthusiasm remains largely unabated.
It’s still not a place, frankly, where I’d want to spend all my virtual time; but there is a lot within Sansar I have appreciated seeing and I confess to looking forward to where the next year might take it. In the meantime, I’ll keep hoping over to it every so often and seeing what’s there by way of experiences to explore and art to appreciate, and I’ll endeavour to keep an eye on technical updates, etc.