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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Sansar: thoughts around Kotaku’s hands-on

The Sansar Apollo Museum, unveiled LOOT Interactive’s The Art of VR event in New York on June 22nd, allows visitors to virtually explore true-to-scale models of the Saturn V rocket, Command and Service Module, and Lunar Excursion Module used to reach the Moon, then walk the entire mission from launch to re-entry via a Museum-length mission map; and teleport to a recreation of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site. Credit: LOOT Interactive / Linden Lab

While it doesn’t offer any revaluations of epic proportions about Sansar, and is headlined by the somewhat misleading Hands On With Sansar, the New Second Life, Cecilia D’Anastasio’s June 21st, 2017 piece for Kotaku, still makes for an interesting read, offering as it does further looks inside Sansar for those keen to get a look at environments there, and some food for thought.

Cecilia is a journalist I greatly admire, and who has excellently covered Second Life in the past (see A Perspective On Avatars and Identity and Motherboard Looks at Second Life). She got to spend time in Sansar, which appears to be currently on the road, visiting various events (Canada last month, now New York City) in which might be part of the Lab’s efforts in ramping-up public awareness of the platform as they roll towards an “open beta” phase with the platform.

Cecilia D’Anastasio: a hands on and thoughts about Sansar

Along the way, she visited several spaces within Sansar, and while treading the familiar ground of Sansar being the “WordPress of VR”, a “VR first” environment, etc., she also took time to point out the side of the platform which isn’t perhaps pushed quite so hard by the Lab: that it can be access and experienced by anyone using a PC system, regardless as to whether they have a VR headset.

True, the focus of development in Sansar thus far has leant towards the VR end of the scale because the Lab is convinced VR will be a major factor in people’s lives (and as readers know, I’m not so convinced of that argument), and the desktop side of things still needs work. However, that Sansar can be accessed via a PC sans headset, is something that perhaps should be underlined more, simply because sales of PC-based VR headsets really aren’t that stellar right now, and are likely to remain less-than-exciting for the next few years – something I’ll come back to in a moment.

Early in the piece, Cecilia drops a couple of comments which, while interesting, might require reading with care. For example, in one she references Sansar being subscription based. However, given the Lab hasn’t really been that forthcoming about the revenue model for Sansar, it’s impossible to determine what is meant by “subscription” in the article. Does it really mean anyone wishing to use Sansar will have to subscribe first, or is it a reference to that fact things like hosting space for Sansar experiences will have an associated fee?

But rather than nitpick, let’s come back to the “Sansar from a desktop” aspect of the piece. I found this particularly interesting because while the Lab has pointed to Sansar being “PC accessible” without a headset, many of those aware of it still see it only as a VR platform – and this could be a problem for Sansar, at least in the near-term.

Now, to be clear, and as I’ve tended to say in the past, there are vertical markets where VR – and thus, by extension, Sansar –  has exceptional merit and could gain significant traction in the near-term:

  • Gaming
  • Education – both for practical teaching, and for the ability to visit / recreate historical environments and bring them to a broader public. Hence the recreation of an Egyptian tomb created from LiDAR mapping, while the real tomb can only be accessed in the physical world with permission from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities,  and the just unveiled  Apollo Museum and the Harold Lloyd Stereoscopic Museum.
Another look at the Sansar Apollo museum, showing the complete “Eagle” Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) sitting on the Sea of Tranquillity (and with visitors!). Credit:  LOOT Interactive / Linden Lab
  • Architecture and design: allowing companies large and small work in VR to develop immersive models for clients, which can be toured, examined for issues or things like changes clients would like to see, all before any work is undertaken. Hence why (as I’ve previously pointed out), it was no accident that the first public demonstration for Project Sansar came during San Francisco’s month-long 2015 Architecture and the City Festival.
  • Simulation and Training: Sansar could again offer significant benefits to those requiring immersive and flexibility VR-based training and simulation without the need to heavily invest in dedicated work spaces / environments.
  • Healthcare: VR is already demonstrating its value in a wide variety of applications, including helping with post traumatic stress disorder, pain relief for burns victims, cancer care, and more.

BUT, the fact is that many of these sectors work just as effectively sans a VR headset. OK, so the depth of immersion would be lost, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be practically used. Thus, by pushing the VR-centric aspect of the platform so aggressively, the Lab could risk turning those institutions, companies, etc., that might be interested in exploring Sansar away from the platform, simply because they are unwilling to make the investment in VR systems, but are waiting to see how the market growth and what products appear.

No, it’s not a home in Second Life, it’s a home in Sansar. Credit: Linden Lab, via Kotaku

Within the mass market of home users, this focus on VR hardware could impact Sansar’s reach even further. Simply put, the “humble” PC with its “barriers” (as Philip Rosedale from High Fidelity would call them) of the mouse and keyboard, still has a far, far greater reach into people’s homes than VR is likely to achieve for several years at least. So again, putting the heavy emphasis on Sansar “being about the VR” could so easily turn people away from trying it, simply because they are also unwilling to put money into headsets and associated hardware, and won’t be until they see prices come down to the level of “affordability”.

Of course, the Lab state they are in Sansar for the long haul – pointing towards Second Life’s longevity; and as noted above, there are market sectors where VR perhaps is starting to gain traction and which Sansar could comfortably leverage. Even so and as Cecilia suggests, a more open approach to how Sasnar can be used with or without VR headsets and hardware, could broaden the new platform’s appeal even as VR goes through its own growing pains.

Sansar via Road to VR: opening “first half” of 2017, monetisation and sundry thoughts

The new Sansar logo (courtesy of Linden Lab)
Sansar. Image courtesy of Linden Lab

In ‘Sansar’ Will Open to All in First Half of 2017 with a New Approach to Virtual Worlds (January 15th, 2017), Ben Lang of Road to VR becomes the latest tech journalist to sit down with Linden Lab to try out and discuss Sansar.  While he covers a lot of what has come to the for in other, similar recent articles, he also provides some further confirmatory / interesting tidbits, some of which allow for a little speculative thinking.

The biggest piece of information is perhaps right up there in the title: Sansar will open in the first half of 2017 (my emphasis). This actually comes as no surprise, as Sansar is a new project, and time frames for new projects of any description tend to slip a little as the work progress. Further, and as I noted in discussing Dean Takahashi’s recent look at Sansar, a degree of slippage appeared to be on the cards when he referred to Sansar opening to the public in “early” 2017, rather than the “Q1 2017” the Lab had previously indicated might be the case.

Ben Lang, Road to VR
Ben Lang, Road to VR

At the top of the article, Lang touches on the aspect of Sansar being focused on “creators” rather than “consumers”.  Again, as I’ve previously mentioned, defining “creator” here is perhaps important.

By and large, “creator” in SL tends  to be used in reference to those who design and make the goods we use to dress our avatars and furnish our land. Outside of lip service, it’s perhaps not a term closely linked with those who obtain land in SL and create environments using the goods they have purchased, rather than building and scripting everything themselves. With Sansar, however, it is pretty clear “creator” is intended to encompass both, and thus perhaps encompasses a broader cross-section of users than might be seen as the case with Second Life.

The focus on “creators” shouldn’t be taken to mean Sansar is “only” for “creatives”. Spaces hosted on the platform will obviously require an audience, be it the public at large or drawn from specific, more niche audiences. It simply means that from a technical standpoint (and most likely outside of the UI), Sansar’s focus is tipped towards those wishing to build environments within it. As an aside to this whole “creator” thing, it’s also worthwhile noting that where previous articles had pointed to around 600 creators being involved in Sansar’s Creator Preview, Lang mentions the number might be around 1,000.

Further into the article, Lang references moving between Sansar spaces, specifically noting “hopping” from one to another via web pages. This is unlikely to be music to the ears of many in SL; however, it’s important to note that this approach is not necessarily the only means to move between experiences.

In the past, Ebbe Altberg has mentioned the potential for “portals” between environments which might be see as “linked” (although it is by no means certain this idea is still be pursued). More particularly, in June 2016, when talking to Mark Piszczor of Occipital about Sansar, he referenced the idea of “teleporting” between Sansar spaces, and more recently we’ve had a glimpse of a Destination Guide style capability in Sansar (apparently called “Atlas”) for moving between different spaces.  So the web page approach might simply be one of several means to get from space to space in Sanar. Time will tell on that.

Inside Sansar. Credit: Linden Lab, via Road to VR
Inside Sansar. Credit: Linden Lab, via Road to VR

When referencing creators being able to monetise their creations, Lang touches on the previously noted ideas of selling virtual goods and creations (up to and including entire experiences) through the Sansar marketplace, and the potential for creators to charge people an entry fee to their experience if they wish. However, beyond this, Lang indicates some of the broader brainstorming going on at the Lab – such as the ability for consumers to pay money to a virtual object which would hold the money and pay it out to its owner at regular intervals.

As Lang points out, this opens the doors to a whole range of potential items – pay-to-play pool tables, vending machines (think broader than the gacha machines we see in SL), rides, etc. So –  and slipping into the realm of pure speculation for a moment – might this allow experiences creators to “rent out” their experiences – say an events venue – to others, and receive a fee each time it is used / instanced anywhere in Sansar, rather than simply selling them for a one-off fee on each copy purchased? The could be an intriguing route to take, if at all possible.

Might Sansar offer the means for experience creators to "rent out" their spaces as a means to monetise them?
Might Sansar offer the means for experience creators to “rent out” their spaces as a means to monetise them? Credit: The O2 Arena

But to come back to Lang’s Road to VR article. He notes that in terms of capabilities, Sansar’s graphics are “actually quite good”, although the physics are lacking. The former is perhaps something of a step down from verdicts passed by other journos, while the latter is promised to be improved in a forthcoming update. He also underlines the “style agnostic” approach to Sansar, which again is a potential differentiator to SL in that creators of experiences in Sansar are likely to have far greater freedom in how they visualise the spaces then build than can be achieved in Second Life.

Overall, ‘Sansar’ Will Open to All in First Half of 2017 with a New Approach to Virtual Worlds, makes for a further interesting read on Sansar, offering some apparent insights that help build the picture of what the world at large might expect once allowed in the platform. Definitely worth a read – as are the comments which follow it.

Engadget and VentureBeat visit Sansar

The new Sansar logo (courtesy of Linden Lab)
The new Sansar logo (courtesy of Linden Lab)

There have been a couple of articles on Sansar in December, each of which touch upon Second Life. While both retread ground already familiar to those of us who have been following Sansar’s development. However, hidden within them are some interesting little nuggets.

Appearing in the December 17th edition of VentureBeat, Dean Takahashi’s Linden Lab’s Sansar will take virtual worlds far beyond Second Life, caused umbrage with at least one pundit, leading as it did with the statement “Second Life is by far the most successful virtual world ever created”, resulting in some kind of kindergarten like comparison of “who has the most”.

Dean Takahashi, lead writer, GamesBeat
Dean Takahashi, lead writer for VentureBeat’s, GamesBeat

Yes, there are other virtual / game environments out their with a larger cache of active users; but then, do any of them present the kinds of opportunity  for revenue generation on a scale achieved by Second Life? Does it really matter which has the most of what?

No, not really. Of far more interest to me is what Takahashi has to say about Second Life – the fact that it is still going strong – and about Sansar.

Foremost in this – although easily unnoticed – is the reference the Sansar opening its gates to the public at large in “early” 2017.

Over the last few months the Lab has talked in terms of “Q1 2017” as the time frame for Sansar’s opening out. It’s a precise time frame, indicating a period between the start of January and the end of March. “Early 2017” is somewhat less precise, and while Takahashi may be using the phrase as a different means of stating “Q1 2017”, it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps his wording is indicative that the Lab is now looking a little beyond Q1 2017 for opening Sansar to the public.

If so, it wouldn’t be surprising. Slippages happen with big projects, and shouldn’t be unexpected or seen as sign that something is “wrong”; it’s simply the nature of the beast. And we have already seen it at least once with Sansar, when the opening of the Creator Preview slipped from the target of June 2016 to August 2016.

Elsewhere in his piece, Takahashi pulls out the WordPress analogy. This is something we’re all probably tired of hearing, given it’s been raised in just about every interview / report on Sansar during the course of 2016. However, that doesn’t make it any the less important, because it is one of the central reasons why Sansar could reach a much, much broader audience than Second Life has managed to achieve, and Takahashi observes:

Rather than one continuous world, Sansar is a set of virtual spaces that will be a lot more accessible than Second Life. You could, for instance, share the link to your virtual space on social media and invite people to visit it that way. With Second Life, you typically visit the site, download the client, create your avatar, and then join it.

Second Life users looking unfavourably on Sansar has made much of this lack of it being a “continuous world”. but while we, as Second Life users are undoubtedly conditioned by the presence of the map, the same isn’t automatically true for a broader audience of the kind Sansar is being aimed towards. They’re liable to be far more interested in finding and accessing the experiences they want to enjoy and then having the means to possibly jump to other points of interest, regardless of whether or not they are in any way “geographically defined” one to another – perhaps via teleporting, something Ebbe Altberg hinted might be the case when talking to Occipital’s Mark Piszczor back in June.

Nick Summers, associate editor, Engagdet UK
Nick Summers, associate editor, Engagdet UK

In writing Second Life’s creator is building a ‘WordPress for social VR’ for Endgadget on December 21st,  Nick Summers also examines how people will move between Sansar experiences, referencing the use of an “Atlas” search directory (something we’ve also previously seen demonstrated). This appears to be akin to the SL Destination Guide, presenting a means for Sansar users to hop between connected experiences much as we hop around Second Life.

A further point of interest between the two pieces – which cover a lot of common ground in terms of what the reports are shown within Sanasar – is the manner in which the one article raises a question and the other answers it.

Take object manipulation. Up until now, the vast majority of object manipulation in Sansar has been sown in the Edit Mode, although it has been indicated that some basic manipulation will be possible in the run-time environment (and we’ll certainly need to interact with objects in the run-time environment if we are to sit on them, drive them, fly them, etc). However, Takahashi refers to moving a palm tree around and bouncing rubber balls about. So is object manipulation not more accessible in the run-time space?

Summers’ article suggests not, noting that manipulation in the run-time environment is still “limited”, and referencing the edit more more directly when discussing moving and placing things.  Both offer interesting tidbits which perhaps also help people who may not quite see the “point” or “audience” for Sansar.

Ebbe Altberg moving virtual furniture around in Sansar, demonstrating some of the platform's capabilities at the WSJ.D Live conference, October 24th-26th
So far, object manipulation in Sansar has only been shown in the platform’s edit mode, such as when being demonstrated at events like the WSJ.D Live conference, October 24th-26th. How much of this might be possible in the runtime environment? How will personal object manipulation be handled within spaces you don’t necessarily own, such as a role-play environment where you are a “player”?

Takahashi, for example, references Altberg’s comments that Sansar offers the kind of defined, manageable environment in which a school or architectural might comfortably develop (and have hosted) an immersive educational or design experience without the need to necessarily being in external design talent or partake of an entire MMO / virtual world experience.

Elsewhere, Summers shines a little bit more light on the potential for revenue generation through Sansar for both the Lab and content creators:

It’s unclear how much Sansar will cost for people who want to design their own VR world. Linden Lab envisions a low, monthly fee that will grant creators access to a virtual plot of land. They can build whatever they want on top, and then choose whether to charge an entry fee for visitors. Designers will, of course, also have the option to sell their individual items on the in-game marketplace. Sansar is therefore like a canvas. Linden Lab will provide some basic paintbrushes, but the hope is that artists will bring their own. They’ll pay the company to store and display their work — similar to an art gallery — and then earn some cash when someone requests a viewing or permission to rework it as part of something new.

Taken together, both of these articles complement one another nicely. Yes, they do re-tread familiar ground, but they also – possibly – give us a few new pointers and insights into Sansar which raise the interest level a notch or two.