Sansar Creator Beta: observations, one year on

LOOT Interactive NASA Apollo Museum: one of the first public experiences I visited in Sansar, and from the start, one of the ones that clearly demonstrations the potential for Sansar’s immersive educational reach when and if VR really gains a foothold in education. It also demonstrate the power of VR to visit physical world events and places that might otherwise be closed to us

July 31st, 2018 marked the first anniversary of Sansar’s public Creator 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.

Hover Derby is one of a number of individual / team games that have arrived on Sansar in the course of the 12 months since the Public Beta launched, and has proven popular enough to spawn its own social area

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.

Voyages Live: Egypt: offers Sansar users the opportunity to visit three Egyptian sites of antiquity, and has been the focus of a tour with Egyptologist and archaeologist Dr. Philippe Martinez, one of the people who helped with the creation of the experiences (and the format of environment and guided tours has recently been replicated in another VR-centric environment!)

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?

From the start, Sansar’s graphics fidelity has been attention-grabbing, allowing creators to offer attractive, photogenic environments to explore; what was missing the early days was the ability to really do anything in them – even sit down

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.

Truth is Beauty, by Marco Cochrane, part of No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man in Sansar, where it forms part of an experience  arising out of linden Lab’s ongoing relationship with Intel, and the latter’s work with the Smithsonian Museum

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, 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.

Sam Distaso at the Sansar display in the Intel Tech Booth at Sundance 2018. Credit: Linden Lab, via Twitter

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…

The Bridge of the USS Enterprise; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrThere 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.

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9 thoughts on “Sansar Creator Beta: observations, one year on

  1. Inara good summary of the last year in Sansar. It almost makes me want to go in and try Sansar again. For the first two months I tried it in both desktop and VR modes before I realized there was nothing there for me. I don’t create either things or experiences rather I create a virtual life for myself and I couldn’t do that in Sansar.

    That big-name media corporations and organizations are interested in Sansar that is encouraging. What is missing though are users. Concurrent users run in the mid-thirty individuals range which is very disappointing after a year in open beta.

    Perhaps it is time for LL to discard the idea a strict separation between Second Life and Sansar. Leveraging the existing user base LL already has in Second Life would be a step in the right direction in my opinion.

    Creating a two-way teleport link between SL and Sansar would be a good first step. This would allow you to live in SL and visit Sansar for the things it is good at then go home. Hopefully then the population of Sansar would grow beyond its current disappointing levels.

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    1. Frankly, for an audience familiar with SL, Sansar is still likely to be perceived as holding little value, as it is still limited in what you can do. Team / individual games, rudimentary combat options – yes; but for those familiar with SL’s rich diversity of interaction, not enough to garner a desire to stay. Another mitigating issue for many with Sansar is its primary interactive medium is voice. If you don’t use voice, then you are pretty much a 2nd class citizen a lot of the time. Some inroads have been made to alleviate this, but again, as VR headsets gain greater traction, the bias is always going to be towards voice, and that’s likely to be always seen by many to be a barrier to entry.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “two way teleporter”. It’s physically impossible for avatars to cross from SL to Sansar – there is simply no commonality between the two avatar skeletons, mesh designs, rigging, etc, leave aside locomotion engines, IK use, physics, etc. If you mean initiate a teleport from SL that shuts down the viewer, launches the Sansar client, logs you in, loads a destination experience, and delivers you into that experience in a Sansar avatar, that’s one heck of a big software engineering issue to solve for which could still have limited appeal, even if the “basics” of shutting down the viewer, loading & launching the Sansar client, cross-verifying log-in credentials between the two platforms, maintaining reasonable security, etc., could be done.

      In terms of uptake, Sansar’s public numbers are low, and as noted, I do feel throwing the doors wide last year was premature. However, there does seem to be something of a strategy to LL’s approach. Remember, it wasn’t the creative opportunities or the social opportunities that sparkled SL’s sudden growth in 2006-7; it was the idea that people could make lots of money in it (Anshe Chung, Business Weekly, et al). As such, it strikes me that perhaps LL are trying to bring about a situation where, as VR does eventually “take off” (for whatever sum of “take off” it might be – I’m still convinced VR will actually ride the coat-tails of AR when it comes to truly widespread adoption outside of its obvious niche uses, but that’s a whole different discussion 🙂 ), they are in a position to offer a “VR platform” and the knowledge by which it can be effectively leveraged to the world at large, be it corporate users, education users, designers, and so on, – or hobbyists, gamers and the simply curious. Time will tell on that.

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      1. I agree there is little reason for an SL user to be in Sansar. I tried it when the beta was opened out of curiosity but it didn’t take me long to realize there was nothing there for me. What disturbs me is that after a year apparently there still nothing there that interests me. It is too much trouble to set up my VR equipment just to look at some impressive graphics.

        I’ve tried since 2014 to figure what audience Sansar is intended for but I’m still wondering. The almost required use of voice is one reason that Sansar doesn’t grab my interest. Because of an injury I can’t speak clearly. To talk beyond pointing to menu items at restaurants I have to use a Speech Synthesizer. The short while I tried Sansar I kludged together a way to record some canned speech and dump into the viewer but I quickly realized why bother.

        Yes, I agree there are many technical issues in trying to implementing a two-way teleport system between Sansar and SL. It is impossible today but will it have to stay that way?

        I do think it would be worthwhile. While the idea that money could be made was one thing that contributed to the initial growth of SL that is not the only thing that sparked SL’s growth. In my opinion the ability of users to create was probably more important in the long run. But for that you need a larger base of users than Sansar currently has.

        It would be technically difficult to implement a two-way teleport between SL and Sansar but that would increase the user base and increase user creativity and who knows where that would lead. One thing that would be generated is the feeling that there is a Sansar community that users can contribute to. If after making two-way teleporting possible LL set up some residential experiences perhaps users would see that there are advantages to living in Sansar full time as VR improves in the future.

        I doubt LL will accept the challenge of creating a teleport system between SL and Sansar. I do think they should start working on it. Other wise they will just continue pouring SL money into a dying Sansar and having an increasingly but slowly outmoded SL

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        1. TBH, the audiences seem clear to me – perhaps the secret is not to look at Sansar from a purely SL / virtual world perspective. There are markets were VR can have a very clear impact, as I’ve often stated: design, architecture, simulation, training, healthcare, business, which, as a relatively uncomplicated design, publish, use, perspective, Sansar could offer an ideal platform for use. It presents very high fidelity graphics, coupled with VR immersiveness / presence and – if the Lab stick to their guns in terms of early comments made by Ebbe Altberg – the ability for companies / organisations / groups (an =n d their clients / customers) to access their Sansar environments directly through their own authentication processes (and a suitable API) without having to a) go through a generic “Sansar front door” or b) have their spaces visible to the public at large. Thus, there is potential for Sansar to be a platform extensions for those using it: as far as their students / clients / users / customers are concerned, the “VR space” is part and parcel of their corporate / organisational / group web presence / Intranet / etc. Hence why I say it wasn’t by accident that Sansar’s very first public outing was at a 2015 architecture event in San Francisco.

          Add to that the ability for indie gamers to build their games and run them with their own point of access, for hobbyists to do the same, families to build private little virtual spaces to bring members from across the country / around the world together to share personal time, again just with a low-cost web “front door” and no need to feel they are a part of some huge, interlinked “world” where their time might in interrupted by others … and the potential is there for Sansar to carve out a whole series of niches for itself, which collectively could garner more of a total audience than SL.

          Whether it can succeed in that over time remains to be seen – but I wouldn’t call it dying just now.

          “It is impossible today but will it have to stay that way?”

          Well, yes, in terms of direct avatar cross-over; there is simply no commonality (unless LL opt to rip out the guts of the current SL avatar system and rebuild it… and the degree of content breakage that would cause makes it pretty unlikely. As to the other way I mentioned – sure, anything is possible. But is it worth it in terms of ROI? Highly questionable. For the curious with the PC hardware, it’s not that hard to log out of SL and into Sansar – just like you have to log out of SL select another grid and the log back in to go from SL to OpenSim.

          “While the idea that money could be made was one thing that contributed to the initial growth of SL that is not the only thing that sparked SL’s growth.”

          Well, not if you look at the history. SL’s boom period was directly related to the media furore about people able to become “millionaires” in virtual living (as per the aforementioned Anshe Chung situation, with her avatar appearing on the cover of Business Week), which gave birth to a plethora of media articles and a ballooning of hype around the subject that led to a veritable stampede of people and corporations into SL. However, that said, what kept a hardcore nexus of those users engaged in the platform was the discovery that they could create and play and socialise and freely express themselves. The desire to create (together with curiosity) has since helped keep SL’s active user numbers to a point where the decline has, over 15 years, actually been pretty slow, all things considered.

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          1. Inara, As I was cooking lunch I realized part of the problem is my use of the word teleport. I don’t mean it in the SL sense where you physically transfer the avatar. That would be extremely complex but transfer the person behind the avatar back and forth between Sansar and SL.

            As you mentioned you actually do that now by manually logging out of SL then logging in Sansar then doing the opposite when you want to go home. What I am talking about is just a more efficient way to do it without all the manual steps. In general people don’t like to have to go through all those steps. It would mean not having to “rip out the guts of the current SL avatar” since they would stay separate that avoids the mesh breakage problems. It would also add a number of users to Sansar. That would be a big positive in trying to sell Sansar to a number of the businesses types you mentioned.

            From when I first began to hear Sansar talked about in 2014 I’ve wondered why LL didn’t take advantage of having that huge base of SL users. No one else had that resource at that time to me it has never made a lot of sense to ignore it.

            I’m more pessimistic that you. Even with time I don’t see LL making significant inroads into the user groups you mentioned as being the target of Sansar. It also doesn’t make sense to ignore such a large base of protentional users as SL people.

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            1. 🙂

              Hence why I commented “If you mean initiate a teleport from SL that shuts down the viewer, launches the Sansar client, logs you in, loads a destination experience, and delivers you into that experience in a Sansar avatar” rather than just leaving it as a direct means of “teleporting”. But that’s still a huge undertaking, as I noted. It requires some sort of intermediary look-up, to align SL user name with Sansar user name, for example. Then there’s security issues (if your SL account is compromised, then so it your Sansar account). How do you deal with alts? If you’re on an alt account and you SL account is aligned with your Sansar account, you’ll still have to log out of SL, log in with your main, THEN go through the link motions – or, LL have to further add to the complexity by having a potentially many-to-one look up (or one-to-many or many to many) to cover all the contingencies people might expect to be met in being able to simply “hop” (via a change in client) from one to the other.

              Or if you just mean add a toggle that when selected shuts down the SL viewer and launches the Sansar client to the log-in screen, that could probably be done – but again, the advantage is really pretty minimal, and frankly unlikely to be the persuader for someone from SL wanting to give Sansar a try.

              And just as a point of clarification – the “business types” I’m referring to actually mostly (with the exception of a nucleus from the Edu sector) aren’t “in” SL; so in that respect, any kind of “bridge” would be (to them) redundant and unused.

              In terms of the general SL user base, I reallydon’t think LL are “ignoring” them. Around 80% of the growing Sansar Discord community comprises SL users. However, it’s not unfair to say that the weight of SL users likely don’t have the interest in Sansar, and offering an “easier” way to hop from SL into Sansar isn’t going to change that. People have always been too tightly wedded to things like their SL inventories – and until Sansar really starts to offer the same kind of capabilities as we take for granted in SL on a daily basis, that’s likely the way it will stay. BUT, that said, those who want to try it out can. They can sign up, create an account, hop into Sansar – and thereafter hop in whenever the mood takes them. Some might well find some form of client auto-launch capability more convenient – but if they’re of a mind to try Sansar or go back and take another look out of curiosity, I really don’t think not having that convenience will stop them from doing so. Nor, come the day (if it does) will not having usch a bridge stop people hopping over when they do see Sansar getting to a point of technical “parity” with SL.

              So yes, I guess LL could fiddle around with various viewer / client launchers and this and that to get you to a log-in screen more quickly – but I remain unconvinced the effort would be worth it in terms of user interest.

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              1. Interesting response Inara. Yes, there are security details to work out. It’s interesting that you seem to think I should solve so many protentional problems in less than a day while LL has taken four years with multiple people to do the work it’s done with Sansar.

                Looking in my crystal ball I believe it is necessary for SL to have an easier access to Sansar and it will make a difference in the future. Or in a dozen years Sansar will be down the road to obscurity while SL will be bought by another company that can afford to spend the time and money needed to update SL and possibly even make it open source. Maybe it could be a precursor to “Ready Player One’s” Oasis.

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                1. Not expecting you to solve anything. Simply pointing out the potential hurdles involved in such an idea My real point is that, at the end of the day, not having a means to go “directly” from SL to Sansar isn’t actually stopping people who *want* to go to Sansar from doing so, in exactly the same way as having to log out of the viewer, select a grid, log back in isn’t stopping those who *want* to use both SL and OpenSim isn’t stopping them from doing so.As such, your idea, to me, seems like a solution looking for a problem…

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                2. Or maybe it is an attempt to lift Sansar out of it’s doldrums. Time will tell check back in ten years to see if Sansar exists.

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