The end of December 2018 brings with it the end of the first full year of public accessibility to Sansar, Linden Lab’s “social VR” platform. It’s been a huge year, with monthly releases that have significantly added to the platform’s capabilities, together with a range of initiative to engage with audiences, improve the new user process flow, and raise the visibility of the platform. The article looks back at some of the Sansar-related events and activities over the past twelve months, and offers a few personal thoughts based on the year’s developments. In a future piece, I plan to look more broadly at Sansar in terms of audiences and potential.
Releases and Updates
Sansar updates and releases progressed at the rate of one a month throughout the year, offering some significant updates and improvements to the platform. Key among these have been:
- Social improvements: the ability to find other people within Sansar, such as through the Atlas, and the ability to create and view profiles. Experience creators were could start promoting events held within their experiences through the Sansar Events pages, and to help them manage said events and keep undesirables at bay, experience owners were also given access / ban controls. Direct messaging between friends was improved, while the ability to teleport to them within a public experience was added; friending others was improved and the People App finally arrived in VR. Also added during the year was the ability to see and type text chat in VR, while overhead typing and speaking indicators were introduced to make it easier to identify who in a group was doing what.
- Avatar: general improvements included emotes (gestures in SL parlance) being extend to desktop mode, with more being added throughout the year. New system avatars were added, together with the ability for creators to upload custom (but non-customisable – unfortunately, the ability to better customise avatars (sliders) didn’t reach release in 2018) avatars, and improvements continued to be made to the avatar IK system. A basic sit capability was added through gestures, which also allowed users to “cheat” and sit on chairs and other objects. The ability for avatar to “grab” objects in their hands (Desktop and VR) and to sit on objects came later in the year. The Look Book was revamped and support for adjusting Marvelous Designer clothing in VR added.
- Performance: a major effort was put into improving Sansar performance throughout the year. This included significant changes such as the removal of custom terrains (due to their negative impact), moving scene editing from the client to a server environment (which will also hopefully allow for collaborative editing of scenes in the future). Texture streaming was added to help with scene loading, and efforts were put into improving the overall load times for the majority of experiences, while the ability to cancel an experience from loading if it was taking too long was finally introduced.
- Edit Mode: as noted above, editing scenes moved from the client to a server environment, work was put into helping creator organise inventory, and a range of diagnostic options added. General object editing was improved with a series of incremental updates.
- Client: the client saw a broad range of improvements, from integration of events (mentioned above), through to full integration of the Sansar Store. To help with the new user experience, the entire client UI was overhauled at the end of the year, with new buttons and tool tips together with a small client tutorial.
The client UI was overhauled with new buttons and menus (l) better presentation of UI elements in VR mode (c) and the addition of tutorial elements for new users (r). Click on any image to view slide show
- Scripting: multiple improvements were made to scripting, including Simple Scripts, designed to allow people unfamiliar with C# to add functionality (turn lights on / off, open / close doors, etc.), to their scenes, and scripters given the ability to update their scripts on the Sansar Store.
- Sansar Store: categories were added to improve finding items of interest, as noted above, the Store was integrated into the client over a couple of releases.
- Permissions System: the permissions system was deployed, allowing creators to set permissions against their products when selling them, opening the door to the supply chain economy desired for Sansar (although there is more work to be done to allow multiple objects to be linked together and resold as a whole).
The above isn’t a full list, but it gives an idea of the progress made with Sansar during the year that has helped move the platform forward.
New User Experience
2018 saw work completed designed to improve the new user experience. A key part of this was the new client UI and tutorial mentioned above, and examined in my overviews of the November and December 2018 releases. This work also included a new Home Space “mini experience”. Introduced in December, this Home Space also forms the initial starting point for users on logging-in to Sansar, rather than them simply facing the Atlas.
This Home Space helps orient new users by providing them with the means to complete the first parts of the user tutorial in private, learn to change their avatar look, and will – in time – be connected to a new “Social Hub” where they can potentially connect with other users.
Images of the new Home Space taken in Sansar’s new “mouse look” view, showing the various areas. Click on any image to view slide show
The new user sign-up process was also revised, with the aim to simplify the process and get new users into Sansar more easily. As a part of this, the avatar selection process was replaced by incoming new users being given a default simple avatar, completely sans looks, and which quickly gained the nickname “greys”. I’m not actually convinced these are an improvement per se, as they are pretty unattractive, and given the tutorial doesn’t directly point people towards lessons in changing their appearance, they may not do much to encourage some newcomers to stick around.
Public Awareness / Sansar Visibility
The Lab saw 2018 as the year in which they would start to switch tracks from purely working on the technical side of the platform towards also trying to build an audience for Sansar. At the start of the year, this was seen in Sansar being front-and-centre at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, courtesy of Intel. This featured both a virtual presentation of the Intel booth at CES and a virtual tour of Intel’s 8th generation CPU core, together with the launch of Sansar’s first major motion picture tie-in, with the presentation of Aech’s Garage from Ready Player One. All of this was of interest because Sansar was promoted at CES by no less than Intel’s CEO, by Brian Krzanich, during his keynote address at the event.
The collaboration with Intel has continued through the year, with Sansar sharing Intel’s presence at events such as the Sundance Film Festival, where the platform was offered as a means of immersive storytelling. The platform also formed a part of Intel’s collaboration with the Smithsonian American Arts Museum (SAAM) to digitise many of the museum’s 157 million objects and present them through the virtual medium as transformative and engaging educational / cultural experiences, with Sansar being used to present No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, an immersive reproduction of a physical exhibit of the same name hosted by SAAM in 2018. Art in Sansar was also given a boost through the opening of the Drew Struzan exhibition.
Sansar has been part of a range of partnerships and collaborations, with Intel (and initially HTC) for the Intel CES booth / Intel 8th generation core and tie-ins like Aech’s Garage (Ready player One). Intel and Sansar also combined to reproduce SAAM’s No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man in Sansar; eSports were headlined with collaborations with OpTic and Fnatic; while Comedy Gladiators took Sansar in a new direction, and the Drew Struzan experience expanded art in Sansar. Click for slideshow
In addition, there were tie-ins with two e-Sports platforms: OpTic (Greenwall VR) and Fnatic, with both hosting experiences inside Sansar. A tie-in with Roddenberry Entertainment brought The Bridge of the USS Enterprise and the Roddenberry Nexus to Sansar, both of which have hosted a number of Start Trek related events through the year and have been promoted by Roddenberry Entertainment. However, potentially the two biggest direct moves to try to encourage other audiences into Sansar came with the mid-year integration of Twitch (including the ability for Twitch users to access Sansar using their Twitch log-in credentials) and the December expansion of Sansar to Steam as an early access programme.
Another form of audience outreach came in December with the hosting of Comedy Gladiators, an event that saw five leading US comedians (Steven Hofstetter, Ben Gleib, Maz Jobrani, Alonzo Bodden, and Mary Lynn Rajskub) take to the virtual stage before multiple audience experience instances. This was something of a landmark event for Sansar, as it heralded the arrival of ticketed (think, pay-to-view) Sansar events, seen as a potential means for revenue generation through the platform. Also quietly rolled-out in December 2018, “for a limited period” was an experience focused on South Korean boy band Wanna One.
Growth and User Numbers
- A set of statistics provided by Sansar user Galen via his Metaverse Machines website. These statistics are gathered via a publicly available API. In particular, Galen records peak and average daily / weekly and Monthly unique visitors to Sansar, as well a providing a live count (updates every 10 minutes).
- The Steam Stats page (there is also another view provided by Steam, more historic in nature).
Galen’s Metaverse Machines stats track fairly well with the concurrency figures available in the Atlas. For example, as this paragraph was being written, the Atlas reported 12 users in 9 experiences, as did Galen’s Metaverse Machines, while earlier checks, performed at roughly 15 minute intervals revealed (users / experiences):
- Atlas: 16/10, 11/11, and 14/10
- Metaverse Machines: 14:10, 11/11 and 14/12.
Checks on Steam’s stats generally placed the user count a little higher by an average of 2 or 3 players, but still pretty close to the data available through the Atlas and Metaverse Machines.
As the longer running “third-party” stats page, Metaverse Machines shows that throughout most of 2018, average user count has remained pretty much steady (9-10 users per hour day), but has shown a very slow increase through October / November, with an average of 19 users per hour per day. In drilling down to weekly stats for December, they further show a strong daily growth in average users (and even stronger peak daily use) on and around both the Steam launch and through until immediately after the December 10th Comedy Gladiators event, before reverting to around the daily average seen by the end of November 2018.
These stats suggest that, overall, despite Sansar’s arrival on Steam, and the Lab’s initial attempts to boost interest in the platform, Sansar currently isn’t really garnering interest beyond the audience it has already captured. Which is not to say it is beyond hope; rather, it would tend to indicate that Sansar is still “ahead of its time”, in that – like the public beta launch – it has pushed its way into Steam too early and while lacking the capabilities that might otherwise help to give it better audience traction.
An example of this is that capabilities such as being able to use weapons systems decently in Sansar (project Pew! Pew!), didn’t launch until after Sansar made its Steam début, eliminating the opportunity for content creators to develop games and experiences that might otherwise appeal to the “typical” Steam gamer. Also, the expansion to Steam came at pretty short notice to creators, again limiting their ability to develop alternative games and experiences that also might have helped increase Sansar’s traction among Steam users.
In this, I cannot help but wonder why a greater lead time could not have been provided with the Steam launch, to allow creators to better prepare for it, and have something to offer, rather than having to play catch-up once the post-launch update was made available. That said, exactly how this might have “hurt” Sansar on Steam is hard to tell; currently, the majority of the reviews left on the Sansar Steam page are not overly uncomfortable to read, and it has perhaps faired better in this regard than High Fidelity managed when it appeared on Steam.
Just how Sansar is doing revenue-wise is next to impossible to say. User-to-user transactions are obviously small, but with the arrival of the permissions system, this could show modest growth as the remaining tools are put in place to allow the sale of more complex goods. In this the platform is still somewhat hamstrung as driveable vehicles, etc., aren’t really possible. Also, a consumer market is required for goods to sell, and as noted above, that currently isn’t really happening to an appreciable degree.
However, all that said, I found it interesting to note that Jason Gholston, who until recently was a Director of Product for Sansar, and the man responsible for establishing Sansar Studios, the Lab’s content and experience building team for Sansar, indicated through his LinkedIn page that he initiated and negotiated unique partnerships and content commissions between Linden Lab and partners, valued at over US $2 million – so it is possible that Sansar is managing to generate revenue through channels not obvious to the user base / those looking in.
Things like low average daily use, lack of capabilities, etc., have caused some in Second Life to dismiss Sansar as a “failure”. I think the jury has yet to convene on that matter, as the platform – as with VR – still has a long way to go before judgement can truly be passed. Also, while Sansar has generated a degree of bad feeling among some SL users, it’s not as if Sansar is in any way hindering Second life (there’s absolutely no evidence to support the idea that SL development would proceed any faster were Sansar not around – the two development teams are entirely separate, and there is no guarantee a lack of Sansar would have led the Lab to recruit more resources into SL).
Even so, the cost of Sansar is likely to have been a burden on Linden Lab’s bottom line – hence, perhaps, the push to get it out in front of people before many of us (myself included) believe it to be ready. This is perhaps the biggest risk to the platform, as it does risk alienating audiences. Whether it does or not might be something we’ll learn for Steam in a few months’ time.
For 2019, the Lab plan to continue Sansar’s development, which includes some overdue features (e.g. better options for customising avatars). Hopefully, things like driveable vehicles (land, sea, air) will also become possible, further increasing the platform’s appeal, and work will be put into ensuring full parity of capabilities between VR and Desktop modes (the latter is currently lagging somewhat behind the former).
There are a few things I’d really like to see come out of 2019. One of these is the long-promised replacement of ZenDesk for managing Sansar’s web presence with something far more suitable and visually enticing and encouraging. I would also like to see the long-promised wb API delivered, so that people can start building websites in support of their Sansar experiences, so they can start reaching out directly to their own audiences and bringing them into the platform (including funnelling them through an official sign-up process).
In the meantime, I’ll keep on reporting from Sansar product Meetings, providing overviews of Sansar updates and visiting those Sansar experiences I find engaging.