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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A salient warning about “social VR”?

Will social VR of the kind currently being developed really be what a mass market is looking for? (image via Upload VR)

Balaji Krishnan appears to be a man on a mission: to offer a wake-up call to those engaged in the nascent world of “social VR” that the kind of future they’re chasing might not exist. He’s most notably pursuing this mission in op-ed pieces. In March he put his case Upload VR under the succinct title: In Why Social VR Probably Won’t Work the Way Social VR Developers Think, (subsequently reprinted on May 1st by PSFK.com). In April he followed it up with a more targeted piece for VentureBeat: Sorry, Zuck: AR & VR won’t replace TVs or phones.

In the first article Krishnan – the founder and CEO of Dabkick, which credits itself as developing the first “true Social VR experience“, states his case pretty clearly through the title of the Upload VR article: that social VR may not work the way most “social VR” developers – he notes Valve, High Fidelity, AltSpace VR, Linden Lab and Facebook in particular – expect.

Balaji Krishnan

This is not to say he thinks these will fail; rather than they won’t achieve the kind of mass-market prevalence we’ve seen with the likes of smartphones – the technology VR is often touted against as having the same disruptive potential.

Now, to be fair, I don’t agree with all of his points. In particular, the slow growth in the volumes of shipped headsets to date is not indicative that they won’t grow faster in the future; particularly as the technology finds its footing and the price-point computational power required for high-end systems comes down and overall quality and ergonomics of headsets improves with future generational developments. But – and here’s where I do agree with Krishnan: the hardware and the price-point aren’t the key to getting VR to appeal to a mass market.

Rather, the key to getting VR viral in the manner of smartphones is presenting it as having a convenient relevance to people – whether as a source of entertainment or social engagement or business or gaming or whatever – that’s important. And that’s actually a tough nut to crack.

The pervasiveness of smartphones is in part down to their sheer convenience and in part down to the organic way in which their capabilities have naturally grown to encompass applications and uses outside of voice communication. In trying to find the “killer app” for VR, it feels as if it is being forced down various paths in which it is unlikely to succeed in the same way as the smartphone (image via the BBC)

Take smartphones for example – as Krishnan does.That they have become a central pillar of many people’s social activities, spawning an entire ecosystem of applications and opportunities for sharing and creative experience wasn’t planned or engineered from the outset. It came about because someone realised that just as MP3 players could offer music on the go, then so could a ‘phone. And if you stuck a camera on a ‘phone, people might like to take pictures with it. It was an organic process – one which never lost sight of the ‘phone original intent: a convenient means of communicating, and built on that convenience over time until the smartphone became an indispensable part of our daily lives.

DabKick’s “social VR experience”

However you look at it, VR isn’t anywhere close to the ubiquitous nature of something like a smartphone – nor, really, can it be.  So trying to present or engineering a future where it can be is perhaps shooting wide of the mark. And really, the idea of “social VR” is another way of trying to engineer a future for VR which might not really stand up to the litmus test of what a “mass market” actually wants.

As it is, we’ve had around a decade of organic development and growth of a “digital social ecosystem”; one that offers many, many ways of engagement which are flexible enough to meet our needs wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing.  Krishnan argues that if “social VR” is to succeed, it must feed into this ecosystem, nurture it, support it and add value to it; seeking to simply “revolutionise” it isn’t enough. It must be intuitive enough to be used quickly, easily and conveniently wherever someone is and whatever they might otherwise be doing. if not, then it’s unlikely to spark people’s imaginations enough to buy into it as massively as is hoped.

So where does that leave something like Sansar? On the one hand, and as I’ve oft stated, it is pretty clear that there are markets where VR can have a significant impact. As such, if Linden Lab can hit all the desired nails on the head, then the platform could enjoy considerable success within those markets. On the other, the idea that it could become a broad-based “social” environment, outside of very specific use-cases, perhaps doesn’t stand up so well, for the reasons outlined above. Simply put; people can already undertake wide-ranging social activities through digital means, individually and collectively; simply dangling “VR” in front of them may not necessarily persuade them they need to change how they’re doing so.

Whither goes VR?

The Void, via Develop

2016 was the year of virtual hype whereas 2017 is the year of actual realities, in terms of what is achievable from a business sense related to market size, opportunities and potential revenues. Should developers or publishers get involved now? Absolutely but with an intelligent approach and realistic expectations of what these early days sales returns could be.

So considers Sam Watts, director of immersive technologies at Make Real, in a comment quoted by Jem Alexander, in the first part of his series penned for Develop looking at the hype, tech, hope, hang-ups and potentials of Virtual Reality.

Jem Alexander

The piece stands as a reasoned look beyond the hype of VR’s 2016 rebirth, thanks to the arrival of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Cardboard, Daydream, Gear VR and – perhaps most importantly of all, at least in terms of sales – Playstation VR.

Yes, there has been a lot of hype, which the first year of consumer facing VR really hasn’t matched. Some have seen this as cause to deride the VR movement as a whole, relegating it to the role of “fad” – which in itself is perhaps a tad premature.

In writing this two-part series, Jem Alexander avoids both extremes and instead offers a discussion which is reasonably balanced and reasoned – and offers a perspective from many of those at the sharp end of the industry. In the first part, entitled  Where are we now, they offer an honest assessment of the market which is both positive while carrying a solid note of caution for those considering taking the VR plunge, as shown in the quote from Sam Watts, above.

There are several reasons why VR’s first year hasn’t lived up to the hype. For a start, the hardware isn’t exactly off-the-shelf, as those talking to Alexander notes. There’s plenty of room for improvements in the tech and the quality of the experience and offer it at a much lower price-point than today. Thus, taking the first year’s sale figures as being indicative of VR’s future is liable to be misleading.

The approach taken by some of the big manufacturers also didn’t help: when the Vive and Oculus launched their supporting ecosystem of games and applications was comparatively weak. Only Sony really offered a substantive ecosystem for the Playstation – and even this was derided in some sections of the VR media for being “merely” VR ports of existing games.

Sansar a city street scene created by Paul Lapointe Credit: Linden Lab

Another aspect which potentially hasn’t helped VR to date is the “room-sized” versus the “seat” VR experience. As noted above, existing games ported to a VR environment is looked down on by many in the VR media, who have preferred to focus on all the juicy tech of room sensors, motion trackers, and associated gizmos which offer a “truly immersive” experience.

But room-sized VR predicates itself on people having the room to indulge themselves and / or the willingness to spend time setting-up / taking down their wonderful gizmos. And what does all this emphasis on freedom of movement say to those who aren’t gifted with good mobility?  So is room-sized VR really the be-all of VR at home?

Those Alexander speaks to tend to think not, preferring to point to VR needing both. This is something which is picked-up in the second part of the series, Where do we go?, which also brings Sansar into the frame of the discussion.

Unity CEO John Riccitiello

As with the first part of the series, Alexander opens Part 2 with another level-headed analysis of to how fast VR is liable to develop. Unity CEO John Riccitiello, for example, doesn’t see VR really starting to take off until 2018 or 2019.

His view is echoed  by Tim Sweeney, CEO at Epic. He again cites the need for improved hardware, with more favourable price-points  as being essential for the high-end VR market, something he doesn’t see forthcoming for a “couple of generations”. This puts his view in roughly the same 2-3 year time frame as Brendan Iribe at Oculus VR, who has indicated it’ll be around that long before his company will have their next generation hardware on the market.

The core of this part is an examination of two emerging aspects of VR: the “out-of-home” experience and “social VR”.

The former is the idea that rather than perhaps having dedicated space at home in which to experience VR, people will instead head off to the local “VR arcade” or “VR theatre” to enjoy a fully immersive experience of some description. This might sound fanciful, but The Void, a New York and London-based out-of-home VR experience has seen OptiTrack, the company behind much of tech used in the game, see an “explosion” of sales in the technology.

The Void is spectacular,” Alexander quotes says Unity’s Riccitiello. “I think we’re going to see hundreds of these dedicated locations for entertainment. Imagine a room four times this big. Here is the bar and there are six different experiences that are available around the room. I would definitely go. Imagine, In 1000 square feet you could have DisneyLand. All of it.”

When you think of the potential for not only immersive, group gaming environments, but things like group training and simulation, out-of-home centres could become a practical part of the entertainment and business landscapes, offering low-cost access to a wide range of VR environments and experiences for the public and clients.

For “social VR”, the emphasis very much turns to Sansar. While he doesn’t directly praise the platform, it’s fairly clear he sees Sansar, with its potential to truly democratise how people can build their own VR spaces as a potential cornerstone of the home VR market. If it can truly replicate SL’s “secret sauce” in giving users genuine creative freedom in bringing truly tailored and personal VR experiences into their homes, free from the filtering of how professional VR developers and studios think people want to have them, then the future potential with the platform could be enormous.

Through both parts of his examination of VR, Alexander offers much to read and consider, particularly for those who have extended doubts about VR and how it might fit the broader scheme of things (at least in terms of entertainment). As such VR Check-In Part 1 and Part 2 are well worth a side-by-side read.

In the press: Sansar, Second Life, and avatar empowerment

Via Linden Lab
Via Linden Lab

There have been a number of press reports on Sansar since the start of the year, some of which I’ve covered in these pages – such as in Road to VR (see here), Upload VR and Tom’s Hardware (see here). However, while I’ve read others, I’ve not made the time to write about them. so, in case you missed them, here’s a quick breakdown of notable coverage of the Lab, Sansar and Second Life.

On January 19th, Réalité Virtuelle, the French on-line publication for virtual and augmented reality carried a piece entitled Sansar: la vraie réalité virtuelle débarque en 2017 (“Sansar: the real virtual reality arrives in 2017″).

Penned by Farid Khedri, the piece covers familiar (to those following Sansar’s development) ground, but offers a very well-rounded overview of the Lab’s new platform – and something of a potted history of Second Life, including a look at French politics.

Farid Khedri
Farid Khedri

A nice touch with the piece is that it starts out with a 5-point summary, noting that Sansar gains the advantage of having the Lab’s long-term exposure to VR environments, thanks to Second Life, that Sansar itself is not “Second Life 2.0” (how many time do we have to emphasise that?), but it is geared towards “social VR” experiences.

The potted history of Second Life is dealt with briefly in the first two paragraphs, which offer a rounded view of the platform circa 2003 through 2007. It’s interesting to note that the platform has not only played something of a role in US politics and presidential elections, as Farid notes:

In France, many candidates in the 2007 presidential election, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, José Bové, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, opened virtual campaign offices in Linden Lab’s metaverse.

Despite the bubble bursting in 2007/8, again as Farid notes, Second Life has – all things considered – been a success in validating the idea of virtual spaces for social networking, and as a means of learning, business and more. This serves to lead into a well-written piece on Sansar and the Lab’s reasoning behind it (including touching on a return to the company’s VR roots with The Rig – although it is not mentioned by name). As such, and whether you opt to read the original piece, or opt to use something like Google Translate, Sansar: la vraie réalité virtuelle débarque en 2017 is worth taking the time to sit down and run through.

Rachel Metz
Rachel Metz

January 27th saw Rachel Metz delve into similar Sansar territory for the MIT Technology Review.

While somewhat misleadingly entitled Second Life Is Back for a Third Life, This Time in Virtual Reality (Second Life is still very much on its first life, and  – as already noted, Sansar isn’t “SL 2.0”, much less some kind of “Second Life Three”), the article offers a further general overview of Sansar and the Lab’s hopes for it.

Although there is nothing particularly “new” in the piece vis-à-vis Sansar, what I do like about it is that rather than being gung-ho about VR’s future, Rachel offers a measure of caution about how and where the brave new (VR) world might actually go:

Consumer virtual reality is still in its infancy—over two million headsets were shipped worldwide in 2016, according to an estimate from market researcher Canalys. That’s tiny compared to the several hundred million smartphones that ship each quarter, and we’re still figuring out what the heck to do with virtual reality.

And therein lies the rub. As I’ve stated elsewhere, while I believe VR definitely has a future – we just need the technology to mature in ease-of-use (size) and cost – I remain sceptical that it will be as all-pervasive as VR evangelists state – particularly when AR and MR would seem to have much broader practical applications which can impact our daily lives. Thus, Sansar is something of a gamble for the Lab, although Second Life is a long way down the road in demonstrating that if done right, and allowing for the potential for Sansar to fit a lot of suitable use-cases far more easily and affordably than SL has managed, the Lab’s new platform could have a comfortable future.

Going back to earlier in January – but offering a nice pivot away from Sansar and to Second Life, on January 8th, 2017, Alex Burnham examined how Virtual reality opens new doors in education for Florida State University (FSU) News. In particular, he looked at how the university has  successfully leveraged Second Life in undergraduate programmes.

Alex Burnham discussing FSU's use of Second Life for education
Alex Burnham discussing FSU’s use of Second Life for education

The work involving Second Life has been spearheaded by professors William Landing and Stephanie Dillon. Working with Chant Newall Development Group, CNDG,  they have developed  environments within Second Life to help students studying environmental science (under Prof. Landing) and chemistry (under Prof. Dillon).

The article highlights some of the challenges of virtual teaching, as noted by undergraduate student Chris Ortiz, but it also underlines the broad range of opportunities that virtual environments offer for achieving goals and allowing greater understand of, and involvement with, the subjects being taught – something I have little doubt will increase as the likes of Sansar come on stream and which also – equally importantly – demonstrates that far from being a thing of the past, as some pundits would have people believe, education is still a source of involvement and experimentation within Second Life.

Nadika Nadja
Nadika Nadja

In Gender Binary: Second Life, First Loves (January 30th), we are presented within an exploration of gender and identity – two topics which have been much explored in the past through Second Life.

Here, the discussion and exploration – which also in passing touches on archaeological and historical recreation – is presented in a very personal form: the thoughts of Nadika Nadja. It’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece, one of a series written for GenderIT.org, poignant for their outright honesty and directness.

Given all that is going on in the world today, with so many fundamental human rights under threat and with so many living in the world who are unable to give expression to their inner selves, Nadika’s article is a powerful reminder of the freedoms inherent in spaces like Second Life we can personally experience – and how they can help us to grow and better understand ourselves and those around us.

This is an article I was tempted to write at length about – but anything I have to say is actually superfluous; Nadika’s own words need no filter; they are beautifully honest and open, and should be read directly.  Instead, I’ll leave you with her closing comment – one which, I think it fair to say, will resonate in all of use who are engaged in Second Life, no matter what our backgrounds, beliefs, feelings or desires.

In turn, Second Life took all my love and gave me something else in return: a community I could depend on, a world I could belong to, an identity I could own.

The final article I’m turning to is Samantha Cole’s piece in Motherboard, Second Life Users Are Protesting With Their Avatars (February 4th, and later picked up by Glixel), a piece looking at Avatars Against Trump moment, established by Strawberry Singh and Cajsa Lilliehook in the wake of the increasingly divisive and negative Trump regime in the United States, and which also reference’s the Lab’s own statement on Trump’s immigration policy (which I reported here).

As noted earlier, politics are not uncommon in Second Life – we are, after all, all flesh and blood behind the screens, so it is only natural the line between physical and virtual worlds is naturally blurred. But as explored within the Motherboard article, Second Life offers a unique ability for people from all backgrounds, religious, geographic, political, social, etc., to come together in a virtual melting pot and – for the most part explore views, understand positions and even form bonds. And which it is required, the platform can also be as much a voice of social conscience as any other medium or activity.

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