Sansar: recent updates and the Sansar Training Grounds

The revamped Sansar log-in screen shares the same image with the installer and updater, giving a more cohesive look to the product

It’s been a while since I poked my head into Sansar; I’ve been watching the events page to see what is going on and the COMETS – users engaged on the platform – have been doing a sterling job in trying to provide a nucleus of a community and running events among themselves. Product Meetings have been few – two since Wookey took over things, one of which I could attend, and one since then; hopefully more will come along as the Wookey Team settle in to remote working – something that was still being set-up at the meeting I did made.

However, a comment passed at the meeting I did make has come to pass: as of June, Monstercat, the Canadian electronic dance music (EDM) is back to running events in Sansar, with their Call of the Wild events now scheduled on a weekly basis. It’ll be interesting to see how these pick up again; prior to the hiatus, they were (on a, I believe, monthly basis) generating around 1,300-1,500 “interested” responses.

May and June have seen a couple of platform updates – release notes here and here. Both offer continuing support for events, with the most recent also featuring a revamped Nexus and updates to the user on-boarding process. Other updates among the recent pair of of releases include new events-oriented templates creators can use for their own events, ability for world owners to mute all voice users in their environments, additional shaders and bug fixes, but I’ll be focusing here on the Nexus and on-boarding.

The Nexus Reloaded

The Nexus has received a significant overhaul whilst also retaining much of its look and feel. Major changes lay in the removal of Agent Prime and any hint of Sansar Quests (although Agent Forma remains in club Forma (she’ll just politely tell you to bugger off when touched).

The Updated Nexus

The Prime Portal central area remains, again with a new look, while the portal itself is gone, as is the lounge area above it. Replacing the Prime Portal is a new event-focused portal that leads to the currently-promoted major event or, if the event is not currently live, provides the option for people to register their interest in attending and to have it added to their calendar. At the time of my visit, this was promoting the Lost Horizon event Sansar is hosting with Glastonbury Shangri-La (read more about this in Glastonbury comes to Sansar for 2020).

Searchlights swing back and forth from the central portal area to illuminate the four major portals  around the outer walkway. These remain pretty much as before: Monstercat, Sanrio World (Hello Kitty) and a link to open the Popular Places section of the Codex (if you’re a Second Life user, Codex = Destination Guide with added functionality), with the forth offering a teaser for Bootshaus (which might be some kind of virtual tie-in with Bootshaus.tv?).

To further encourage general exploration, the Nexus now features an outer “portal wall”. This features a ring of portals leading to the more popular user-created Sansar Experiences. I’m unclear as to how worlds are selected for these portals – I assume there is a process in place – or how / when the destinations to which they point might be refreshed.

The revamped Nexus offers more portals to user-created worlds

On-Boarding Process

The revamped on-boarding process is stills 4-step affair: download the client, create and account and verify e-mail, select an avatar, get dropped into the Nexus. With a notable exception, the majority of the changes in the latest release appear to be cosmetic: the installer, updater and log-in screen all now share the same graphic that appears to have been largely inspired by the cinematic version of Ready Player One.

That exception is the avatar carousel, which sees a new set of seven avatars for new users. Unsurprisingly, the focus is on human avatars with three male and three female in casual / clubbing garb. They are rounded-out by one non-human (but humanoid) robot. I’ve no idea if these are purely Sansar Studios created avatars or if some have been selected from the work of creators (as has been the case in the past).

Four of the seven new starter avatars. Inall there are three male and three female avatars, plus the humanoid robot seen above

Additionally, it would appear that the “getting started” pop-ups have been overhauled to look a little brighter. These are again minimal; all I’ve encountered is how to move and how to emote (play animations) – which is fine for getting around and bopping on a dance floor – but what about things like text chat for those who don’t have a microphone (the latter is at least intuitive, having its own UI button)?

And how about at least giving new users a clear hint that they have a home space? If nothing else, a pointer to the latter might pique the curiosity of some coming into Sansar for an event and get them to come back and have a look at what it is, and so help kick-start them into wider exploration.

New User Experience – Digital University

While not an official undertaking by the Sansar team, when it comes to user on-boarding, the Sansar Training Grounds 101, created by experienced Sansar User ZeroCheese for the Digital University, does offer a more rounded opportunity for new users to more fully get to grips with the client.

Available through the Codex and (currently) featured at the Nexus, this experience offers a guided walk-through of core aspects of using Sansar – movement, manipulating objects, sitting, using emotes (animations) – which includes an introduction to the idea of using the Sansar Store, using voice and text chat, and using the UI. True, not absolutely everything is shown – but frankly, it doesn’t need to be; what is there is sufficient to allow a new user to get on in Sansar, with the rest open to being learned / discovered in time.

Sansar Training Grounds 101

This latter aspect of gaining familiarity with a platform over time is something that often gets overlooked in discussions about the “new user experience”. All too often it seems people get too caught-up in believing everything must be laid before the new user – regardless of the fact that it likely took them weeks or months to understand all that they now want to push onto the new user in a single serving. That it might actually make things harder for said user, and add to the belief that a platform has a “steep” initial learning curve, is often overlooked.

As it is, Training Ground does a pretty good job of covering the vital basics whilst also pointing the way for the user to poke at the client UI and discover / learn about it on their own. One or two aspects could perhaps be a little better: the initial walk training seems excessive, whilst the need to land fruit in the basket is required in order for the next lesson to be reached could be better emphasised. However, what is provided is more than enough to allow a novice user to be able to  more fully enjoy Sansar. If only it were more front-and-centre at the Nexus to encourage interested new users to give it a go.

General Observations

The new look Nexus does what it says on the tin – and by offering more in the way of portals to experiences, it appears to have overcome something of the past critique that it was too much of a bottleneck that stopped incoming users filtering through to other locations on the platform. Certainly, during all of my most recent visits over the last few days, the number of avatars within the Nexus have been nowhere near as lose as they were in the back-end of 2019.

The new avatars are, I would suspect, bland when it comes to those familiar with platforms like Second Life. However, they do fulfil the need to offer events-oriented avatars to incoming attendees, and this should be borne in mind. Hopefully, more will be added to the mix; seven is a very small number, and were an event like Lost Horizon to generate a lot of interest and engagement from newcomers, then leaving the choice of avatar to just those seven could lead to such an event looking something like a clone fest.

Overall use of Sansar currently appears to remain somewhat below pre-sales levels with most activity being driven by the COMETS, as noted above. It’ll be interesting to see how much impact on peak levels of activity the renewed Monstercat events have, and what the upcoming Lost Horizon event does for Sansar’s visibility.

Sansar: looking at the new owner – Wookey Projects Inc.

Courtesy of … Wookey Projects Inc (?)

News is buzzing on the Sansar Discord servers about a possible take-over / buy-out of Sansar by Wookey Projects Inc.

There has been no official word from Linden Lab on the matter as yet, however:

  • Sansar was removed from the footer links of Linden Lab properties earlier this week.
  • The Sansar web pages have all bee updated to assign Sansar as “©2020 Wookey” in the footer areas.
  • The Sansar Terms of Service  and Privacy Policy (which broadly remain the same as previous Terms of Service for the platform, have been revised to reference “Wookey Projects Inc (Wookey)”.
The Sansar Terms of Service and Privacy Policy both now refer to Wookey Projects Inc. (Wookey).

There are some hiccups evident in the change-over: when logging-in to Sansar via the web, users may get a log-in pop-up asking them to agree to the new Terms of Service, but I found the link still points to the Lab’s ToS page for Sansar, resulting in a 503 page error. Doubtless, issues like this will be smoothed out in time.

I first noted the absence of Sansar in the footer areas of Linden Lab related web pages (e.g. the SL Dashboard) earlier in the week of March 16th-20th, which first alerted me to possible changes coming in Sansar’s status

Who Are Wookey Projects Inc?

Information is scarce, but in a couple of hours of digging since seeing the Discord speculation, here’s what I’ve (hopefully correctly!) put together:

The address for Wookey Projects Inc is given as:

Wookey
765 Beach Street
San Francisco, California 9410

This puts it remarkably close to the Lab’s own stomping grounds at Battery Street.

But more particularly, and  going by the corporate logo, Wookey Projects Inc., appears to be either and offshoot of, or new operating name for Wookey Search Technologies (strapline “We removed the search bar from search”).

The latter’s place of address is given as 235 Montgomery Street Suite 912, San Francisco, CA 94104, so its not entirely clear if Wookey Technologies and Wookey Projects will operate as separate entities, or whether the latter’s address might signify a physical move on the part of Wookey Technologies. Certainly, both entities appear to share the same web domain of wookey.com.

Wookey Technologies was founded by Mark Gustavson, who serves as the Chief Financial Officer, with Garnet Chaney serving at the Chief Technology Officer, and Steve Moriya as the Senior VP of Marketing. The web page also gives Jonathan Fried as serving as interim CEO.

The Wookey Technologies Management Team: Mark Gustavson (Founder / CFO; Garnet Chaney (CTO) and interim CEO (r) Jonathan Fried.

Peeking behind the curtain of the company’s website, it appears that they are spreading their wings  and moving into the VR / AR environment, with the About Us page reading:

Wookey started from our own experience. Just like you, we saw the limitations of flat, one-dimensional internet interaction. With each experience, the frustration grew. It’s evident that algorithms are telling me what it wants, not hearing what I need.

What if we could create on-line experiences that were unbiased and arranged by relevance to us, not by advertisers or bias of company? We realized, with the right team and the right investors, we can.Wookey was born.

We endeavour to create a new generation of on-line AR/VR experiences that allows users the power of collaborative interaction through knowledge immersion.

Interestingly, and despite having been around since approximately 2016, the company describes itself as “approaching the beta stage of development”. Quite what this involves is unclear, but I assume it is in relation to their move to focus VR / AR. In this, and given the changes to the Sansar ToS and PP, it would appear likely they are seeking to keep the platform going in some active form, at least for the time being, possibly as a (further?) means of leveraging themselves into the VR space.

If this is correct – and keeping Sansar alive is certainly what Linden Lab have been hoping to achieve – it will be interesting to see if any of those formerly working on Sansar at the Lab might be involved in the shift of Sansar to Wookey, and whether familiar names might yet be seen to return to the Sansar fold. I speculate on this because, at the time it was confirmed the Lab would no longing be developing Sansar, Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg noted that the company was trying to keep former employees engaged in Sansar involved in discussions in the platforms future:

Yes, there were lay-offs today. A truly wonderful group of people. But as you can see Sansar is up and running. We are still in discussion about next steps. Including with the wonderful group of people. More to come.

– Ebbe Altberg, February 12th, 2020 (see: Sansar: lay-offs, rumours, and confusion) – emphasis added

In the meantime, we’re still awaiting official word on things from both Linden Lab and Wookey projects Inc. I hope to have more on this as and when something more official is available.

Lab seeking a “plan B” to secure Sansar’s future

Courtesy of Linden Lab

During the Friday, February 21st live stream of Lab Gab, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg gave what may amount to the first fully public statement on the future of the Lab’s social VR platform, Sansar.

Speaking at the top of the programme, he stated:

Yeah, so as you might have heard, sadly we have decided that we, as Linden Lab, couldn’t continue to sponsor the project financially, so we’re looking for a plan B for Sansar to continue. I can’t say much, but we’re having very interesting conversations with several parties to help that project move forward, which I’m really excited about. But no deal is done yet, so people will just have to be patient and see what happens with it, but yes  it is true that Linden Lab going forward will focus entirely on Second Life and Tilia. I’m still busy making sure that Sansar finds a great home and that the great work that that team has started can continue.

So that’s where things are at. Hopefully, we can be more specific on what’s going on in the next couple of weeks or so. So lots of conversations going on.

The statement confirms belief that, following the recent lay-offs of staff working on the platform, that Linden Lab is looking for a new home / a new means to continue Sansar. Whether this means the Lab is looking to sell the platform entirely, or looking for a company to partner with them in order to allow development of Sansar to continue, was not made clear – although the former appears to be more likely.

Also in commenting on Sansar, Ebbe also referenced the “heavy hitters” who have returned to Second Life, laying to rest the unfounded rumour that perhaps Philip Rosedale had returned (Philip is still very much engaged with High Fidelity as a company), and instead appeared to pointtowards the long-term Lindens Whirly Fizzle and I have previously pointed to (see: Linden Lab provide statement on SL in the wake of Sansar lay-offs) – for example: Maestro, Monty and Runitai Linden.

You can hear Ebbe’s comments on Sansar’s future in the audio clip below, and in the Lab Gab video, including his remarks vis. the returning “heavy hitters” and his relationship with Philip Rosedale.

In the meantime, Sansar does still remain open for users, community events continue to be added to the events calendar and experiences remain open for people to visit.

Sansar: lay-offs, rumours, and confusion

Courtesy of Linden Lab

Update, February 21st: please also see Lab seeking a “plan B” to secure Sansar’s future.

Update, February 13th: Linden Lab offered a statement on Second Life that references the lay-offs. I’ve posted separately on that with some additional notes on SL. See: An Update About Second Life (Linden Lab) and Linden Lab provide statement on SL in the wake of Sansar lay-offs.

On Tuesday, February 11th, Ryan Schultz reported a claim that Linden Lab had shut down development of Sansar, their Social VR platform, and that there had been a large number of lay-offs (up to 40 of the remaining staff of approximately 60-75 people).

Unsurprisingly, the news gave rise to a lot of speculation on the platform’s status and future. I have a request for information in with the Lab, but due to time differences, I’ve yet to receive a reply (the major reason I had thus far held off on writing about the matter – assuming I do get a reply. But in the interim, here is what has been stated:

  • The Lab is rumoured to have shut down Sansar development.
  • Some 40 staff are rumoured to have been laid off.
  • Some staff are rumoured to have been transferred back to Second Life.

The only official word in response thus far on the matter is a Sansar Discord post by Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg:

So, I’m only going to say this tonight as it’s late. We can pick up the conversation in the following days. Yes, there were lay-offs today. A truly wonderful group of people. But as you can see Sansar is up and running. We are still in discussion about next steps. Including with the wonderful group of people. More to come. Don’t give up yet. Go create and have fun. Not much point in speculating until we can tell you more.

So it would appear the rumour of lay-offs is accurate, if not necessarily the number. There is always a temptation to dig into potential departures, but I would rather not unduly add to speculation on that front until more is known via official sources.

In terms of Sansar staff transferring back to Second Life, it is worth noting that a number actually did so in late 2019 (or at least, some transferred back while some may have resumed splitting their time between Sansar and SL – Monty Linden, for example resumed posting to the SL forums on topics at the end of 2019, while one of the rendering team moved back to SL from Sansar). So, at this point, it is not clear if there may have been further moves from Sasnsar back to SL, or whether the current rumours on on such moves is the result of people picking up on last year’s shifts.

As it is, Sansar currently remains accessible to users (I’m in Sansar as I write this), and events through until the end of March 2020 remain active in the Sansar events page. However, this should not be taken to mean “business as usual”; until the Lab comments further on the matter, nothing can really be taken for granted either in terms of Sansar’s continuance or otherwise.

On a general note, I would hope some form of clarification / statement of intent regarding Sansar is made sooner rather than later. This is because news of lay-offs + rumours and speculation, particularly coming on top of the lay-offs at the start of November 2019 and the shift in emphasis with the platform that occurred at that time, tend to rock confidence for those actively engaged in Sansar (and there are a fair number of creators very active within the platform), and can also easily result in FUD and rumour spreading well beyond the platform, potentially to its detriment.

As further information becomes available I’ll follow-up on this post with either updates or additional articles.

Sansar update: of lay-offs and moves

Sansar load screen

Alongside of the announced shift in emphasis with Sansar, there have been rumours of multiple lay-offs among the Sansar team. Ryan Schultz has led with the story, stating 30 have gone, although the rumour mill has been bouncing between 20 and 30.

Exactly how many have departed is difficult to judge, simply because LL does not comment on departures or cuts, but there are some limited ways in which we can stick a finger in the air and test things. My own knowledge of the Sansar team is limited to around 16 names, but it would appear from my rudimentary yardstick, that four of those names are no longer at the Lab.

My yardstick for this measurement is simple, but has been known to be effective in the past. All Lab staff have a Linden account in Second Life. With most of the Sansar team, that account name tends to marry up with their Sansar name (e.g. Ebbe Linden marries up to Ebbe in Sansar; Boho Linden marries up with Boho in Sansar, etc.). So by checking to see which accounts are inactive, it is possible to hazard a guess that the individual is no longer at Linden Lab.

In this respect, my findings tend to concur that of the three very specific names that have been mentioned in reference to the Sansar lay-offs do indeed appear to have departed Linden Lab. However, it also appears (up to the time of writing, at least) that a third high-profile name – that of the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, Landon MacDowell – still appears to be with the Lab, as his SL account is still active.

Granted, this is not a genuinely scientific means of making a judgement. However, it amounts to 1/4 of the names I know in the Sansar team, and if I recall correctly (I confess that in digging back through my notes, I’ve been unable to pin down the specific quote) during a meeting in either Sansar or Second Life, Ebbe Altberg indicated the Sansar team is around the 100+ mark. So, my finger-in-the-air figure would tend to concur with the idea of 20 to 30 people being laid off / transitioned.

In this latter regard, I took time to try to dig around a little further and concluded that it seems likely that at least two of the Sansar team who originally moved to that project from Second Life may have transitioned back to working on SL (in addition to Harley Linden also transitioning from Sansar to SL).

Precisely what this means for Sansar development in the future remains to be seen. I’ve already commented on the move to focus efforts on trying to make Sansar a venue for “live” virtual events (see Sansar changes emphasis: of live events and audience, and it’s something I intend to circle back to in the near future as it seems some of that piece may have been misinterpreted. For now, all I will say in regards to the lay-offs, is that whenever and wherever they happen, no matter how big or how small, they are never pleasant – least of all for those being laid off. So I genuinely hope any who have been let go by the Lab are successful in finding new positions sooner rather than later.

Sansar changes emphasis: of live events and audience

Linden Lab is shifting its development emphasis towards hosting more “live” virtual events to help build an audience

On Friday, November 1st, the Sansar Team held their weekly Product Meeting, which provided to be an event of two parts: an overview of the next Sansar release, which I’ve covered in my usual Sansar Product Meeting summary format, and confirmation that Sansar’s development is undergoing a change in emphasis in a drive to try to establish a much broader audience.

In short, and as noted by Sansar’s Community Manager, Galileo, and the Lab’s Vice President of Business Development and Marketing, Sheri Bryant (aka CowboyNinja in Sansar), who now takes up the role of Sansar’s General Manager¹, the Lab plans to focus a lot more on building-out Sansar’s ability to run “live” events within virtual spaces.

The decision has in part been sparked by the rise in popularity of “live” virtual events in a number of platforms (most notably the Fortnite / Marshmello event and the 11 million attendees it garnered) and the more modest – but significant – successes Sansar has had in hosting electronic dance music (EDM) events through partnerships with Monstercat and Spinnin’ Records.

It’s a decision that was actually presaged in October, when IQ ran an article in which Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg and Sheri Bryant were interviewed about the Lab’s intentions with “live” events in Sansar. As such, I wasn’t actually overly surprised to hear about the shift in emphasis, although others may have missed that piece. Certainly, the announcement has received a negative reaction from some, and has been – wrongly, I would suggest – characterised as akin to High Fidelity’s abrupt change of direction that occurred earlier this year – see: High Fidelity changes direction: the reality of VR worlds today (& tomorrow?) and High Fidelity changes direction (2).

I say “wrongly”, because while this is a change in emphasis, it is not in any way a shuttering / move any from anything within Sansar in the way High Fidelity’s change of direction was. As was noted in the meeting:

  • The intention is to make Sansar the “best possible” destination for virtual events, with an emphasis on both “larger” marquee-style events involving commercial partners and other brands / organisations and on the more creator-driven events we see in Sansar today.
    • Hence why the next release of Sansar – R37, due to be deployed in week #45 (commencing Monday, November 4th, 2019) will incorporate changes to the events system creators have been specifically requesting – including linking events directly to the world used to host them and allowing that originating world to gain the traffic figures of people attending the event version.
  • It will see Linden Lab endeavour to “integrate” user-developed events with major marquee events, so that audiences attending the latter will be made more aware of the former, and encouraged to explore more of Sansar beyond the current event they are attending.
    • So the hope is that if done correctly, provisioning bigger and more frequent “live” events, the Lab can not only achieve spikes in Sansar’s user base, but actually start to convert some of those visiting audiences into engaged users.
    • In this respect, work will be carried out to further improve the overall new user experience to make it more “unforgettable”, and to expand Sansar’s socialisation and communication capabilities to help encourage greater user/user interactions.
  • It also does not mean that other improvements for the platform are in any way being closed or abandoned – although it does mean that some are being re-prioritised and are seeing their possible deployment time-frames pushed back.

This latter point is likely why there has been some negativity around the announcement: for much of 2019 the emphasis has been on developing Sansar’s gaming  / questing capabilities, and these have reached a point where they are being actively and imaginatively being leveraged. Given that push to develop them and get creators excited by them, to apparently make a sudden track switch is bound to leave some feeling a little, “wait – what?”

Similarly, there has been a push to give the Sansar avatar a complete overhaul, with more being promised – particularly full body deformation and custom skin textures. It had been suggested these might appear before the end of 2019 – but they are now timetabled for delivery “in 2020”. So this again is likely to be grating on people. But that said, it is true that, insofar as encouraging people into Sansar to attend events, Avatar 2.0 doesn’t appear to have been any kind of barrier – and it might be argued that it is more important for Sansar to gain a broader and deeper user base than it is to keep iterating on new features and capabilities within the avatar system – particularly if there are relatively few people around to use it.

Even with the emphasis on “live” events in Sansar, the lab intends to keep working on the overall new user experience, including use of things like the Nexus (above) and the Codex

Obviously, there are risks involved in shifting the emphasis towards “live” virtual events as a means to generate an audience from which retained users might be gained. On the one hand, there is that aforementioned Marshmello / Fortnite event and its almost 11 million virtual attendees. However, it’s equally important to remember that Fortnite already had an estimated user base of some 200 million world-wide to draw on to attend that event – they weren’t using it to try to generate new users for the platform.

In this, Sansar has a long way to go to establish itself – and there is absolutely no guarantee that however things are developed or engineered, people attracted to the platform to attend an event by their favourite EDM DJ or comedian or talk show host or whoever aren’t really going to be interested in doing anything else other than attending an event. But again, to flip this over, it is certainly true that certain types of event that could allow audiences to have very unique experiences whilst attending such events. This is something Ebbe Altberg notes in reference to EDM events when talking to IQ:

It’s easier to hook up EDM artists to the system because DJs basically have an electronic output. So they stand there in their VR gear and we give them all kinds of in-game tools – fireballs, lasers, the ability to change the gravity so everyone can jump really high…

There’s also the fact that virtual shows and events do greatly increase the potential audience reach for artists and performers – and present the potential for physical world merchandising (assuming LL put such a capability in place – and they’d perhaps be stupid not to), something I touched on in Sansar: music entertainment with some sundry thoughts. This is something that performers and brands might well find appealing.

So to me, the shift in emphasis perhaps isn’t as upsetting as it appears to have been to others – but then, I’m simply not as invested in Sansar as some, which also should be taken into account. Certainly, and as I’ve previously argued, I don’t think a push to establish a presence in the “virtual events market” given the capabilities Sansar does have is not a bad thing. And, as I’ve noted in Sansar: music entertainment with some sundry thoughts, even if it doesn’t massively drive up the platform’s concurrency on its own, it could nevertheless contribute to doing so; what’s more, it could open the platform up to broader “repeat” audiences from a range of potential sectors and so help the Lab generate revenue from those sectors through a variety of means.

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  1. It is not clear right now, but Sheri may have shifted to focusing solely on Sansar, as Hari Raghavan, formerly the Lab’s Senior Manager, Marketing Communications, was introduced at the meeting as the “new Director of Marketing”.