Philosophical frenemies: Altberg and Rosedale

High Fidelity - a composite promotional shot. Credit: High Fidelity (via Wired)
High Fidelity – part of a composite promotional shot. Credit: High Fidelity (via Wired)

Yesterday, a Tweet from Jo Yardley pointed me to an interesting article in Wired by Rowland Manthorpe, entitled Second Life was just the beginning. Philip Rosedale is back and he’s delving into VR. It’s a lengthy, fascinating piece, arising out of a week Manthorpe spent with High Fidelity, while also taking time to poke his head around the door of Linden Lab, offering considerable food for thought – and it kept me cogitating things for a day, on-and-off.

There’s some nice little tidbits of information on both platforms scattered through the piece. For those that have tended to dismiss High Fidelity as a place of “cartoony” avatars, the images provided with the article demonstrate that High Fidelity are walking along the edge of the Uncanny valley; compare the Rosedale-like figure seen the a High Fidelity promo shot within it with a photo of the man himself (below). There’s also further indication that in terms of broader creativity and virtual space, High Fidelity is “closer” to the Second Life model of a virtual world than Sansar will be.

On the Lab’s side of things, we also get confirmation that multiple instances of the same space in Sansar will not be in any way connected (“One school group visiting the Egyptian tomb won’t bump into another – they will be in separate, identical spaces.”). There’s also a hint that Linden Lab may still be looking at Sansar as a “white label” environment.

High Fidelity can still be critiqued by some in SL for it's "cartony" avatar. The reality is however, that for those who wish, avtars in High Fidelity can be extremely life-like, as this picture of what Philip Rosedale might look like in High Fidelity (r) shows when compared to an actual photograph of him. Credits: High Fidelity / Jason Madara
High Fidelity can still be critiqued by some in SL for its “cartoony” avatar. The reality is however, that for those who wish, avatars in High Fidelity can be extremely life-like, as this picture of what Philip Rosedale might look like in High Fidelity (r) shows when compared to an actual photograph of him. Credits: High Fidelity / Jason Madara

But what really makes the piece interesting is the philosophical differences apparent in developing these platforms; each is very much rooted in the nature of the man at the helm of each company.

Rosedale is a dreamer – and that’s not a negative statement. He’s been driven by “dreams” and “visions” throughout most of his post Real Networks career. He also leans heavily into the collaborative, open borders model of development. Both have influenced the working spaces he builds around him. Reading Manthorpe’s piece, the High Fidelity office appears to be run along a similar laissez-faire approach as marked the early years at Linden Lab:  people dabble in what interests them, focused on the technology; there’s a belief that if the company cannot solve a problem (such as practical in-world building using hand controllers), someone “out there” will, and all will be well.

By contrast, Altberg is more consumer / direction oriented with Sansar. Initial market sectors have been identified, work has been broken down into phases. A structured development curve has been set; as we’ve seen from Lab Chat and other sessions, there’s a reasonably clear understanding of what should be tackled first, and what can be pushed further down the development path. The platform itself is closed, controlled, managed.

Sansar Screen Shot, Linden Lab, August 2016, on Flickr Sansar (TM) Screen Shot, Linden Lab, October 2016, on Flickr

In adopting these approaches, and given their somewhat complicated business relationship (Rosedale still have “sizeable” financial holding in Linden Lab; linden Lab was one of the small investors in High Fidelity’s $2.4 million round of seed funding), Rosedale and Altberg describe their relationship as “frenemies”. They are both working towards similar goals, and dealing with the same consumer-facing technology, and are equally sniffy of the other’s product. Rosedale sees Sansar is being potentially too closed, too pigeon-holed in terms of how it will be perceived by consumers; Altberg sees High Fidelity as being to focused on the technology, and perhaps demanding more effort than most on-line consumers in the Facebook pre-packaged content age might be willing to invest.

When looked at from outside, the Rosedale / High Fidelity approach is perhaps more in keeping with the state of VR once all the hyperbole surrounding it is brushed aside:  VR may well be part of our future, but no-one can honestly say at this point just how big a part of our future it will be. The Altberg / Linden Lab approach is rooted business pragmatism: identify your markets and seek to deliver to those markets; build your product to reflect the market as it grows.

Neither approach is necessarily “right” or “wrong”, and there is certainly no reason why both cannot attract their own market share. But I have to admit I find myself leaning more in Altberg’s direction.

This is admittedly partly because a lot of Rosedale’s broader comments about High Fidelity, the Internet, etc., come across as re-treads of things said ten years ago about Second Life and a transformative future never realised. But it’s more particularly because  – as noted above – no-one really knows how pervasive VR will be on a broad level. Other technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) currently lie within the shadow cast by the hyperbole surrounding VR, but have the potential for far greater impact in how we conduct our lives and business. So identifying a market share and aiming for it seems to be the more solid approach insofar as establishing a user base and revenue flow might be concerned*.

Time will obviously tell on this; but one fact is clear: however you regard the philosophies held by Rosedale and Altberg, Manthorpe’s article is a must read. A considered, well presented, in-depth piece, it is sits as a catalyst for considerable thought and potential discussion.

*Edited 25 October 2015, to include this sentence, which was accidentally removed from the initial publication of this piece.

Techcrunch and THE examine Project Sansar

Project Sansar: increasingly in the tech media's media's eye
Project Sansar: increasingly in the tech media’s eye. Credit: Linden Lab

It appears that, in keeping with their word, the Lab is starting to allow journalists into Project Sansar. At the start of July, Ed Baig got a look inside Sansar for USA Today, as I reported here and here (with Ed’s own article here). now it is the turn of Techcrunch and, earlier in the month, Times Higher Education (THE), with pieces appearing in Russian, Polish and Brazilian outlets.

In Second Life creators look to revamp reality once again, this time in VR. Techcrunch’s Lucas Matney steps inside Project Sansar at the invitation of Ebbe Altberg, and his guide is the Lab’s VP of Product Bjorn Laurin (Born Linden). As with most articles we seen of late, nothing intrinsically “new” is added to what has so far been revealed about Sansar in terms of capabilities, approach or screen shots, but  there are some interesting tidbits, all the same. For example, early on he notes:

Traversing the worlds of Sansar and chatting with my guide, Linden Lab VP of Product Bjorn Laurin, was a mostly seamless experience but still an oddly unsettling one. It’s not that anything was particularly creepy about the place I was viewing through an Oculus Rift headset. Sansar is visually placid and often beautiful, but it’s also startlingly scalable and boundless. Scale is something that’s often taken for granted in an age of video game epics like Skyrim and GTAV, but when every horizon you see through your own point-of-view is conquerable, you’re left to either feel very bold or very lost.

Lucas Matney considers Project Sansar for Techcrunch
Lucas Matney considers Project Sansar for Techcrunch

The two things that are interesting here are the comment about the “mostly seamless” experience of moving between “Sansar worlds” (“worlds” here, I assume, means Sansar “scenes” which have been “stitched together”  – to use the Lab’s terminology – to create an “experience”). This appears to imply that whatever mechanism is in place to move avatars between different connected scenes (teleporting?) is pretty smooth and that there may not be too much in the way of any interruption when moving between scenes. It’ll be interesting to discover if / how this might extend to vehicles at some point down the road as Sansar develops.

The second interesting part of the comment is the apparently limitless size Sansar presents to users, suggesting that as with Second Life, Sansar will convey a sense of massive spaces which might reach beyond their physical limits – so will people be looking out onto open “water” as with SL, or will the “land” appear to stretch off into the far horizon – or is it simply that the available Sansar scenes all make use of the upper bounding size (previously reported to be around 4 km / 16 SL regions on a side)? Either way, it may well be that environments in Sansar aren’t quite as “enclosed” – at least visually – as people might be fearing.

A further point of interest in the article takes the form of an astute observation perhaps overlooked when discussing Sansar’s potential for success:

Like Second Life, Project Sansar is not an experience that needs to be perfect at its initial launch or see a certain number of first week user numbers to be a hit. It just has to stay consistent, evolve with the hardware/interface trends of modern VR and steadily push boundaries as it updates.

Hence why the Lab isn’t trying to cross all the “T”s and dot all the “I”s with Sansar from day one, and why they do repeatedly warn SL users it is not going to necessarily be to their taste when the doors first open. VR is going to take time to mature – not just in terms of user conviction, but the very hardware and software itself. Things will change within the industry, probably quite rapidly (look at the pace of change of other “disruptive” technologies, such as the mobile ‘phone), thus it’s important for Sansar to be in a position to demonstrate it can meet user cases and needs – but also remain flexible and responsive to emerging technology and the new needs / opportunities arising from it.

In a time when we’re perhaps becoming inured (so to speak) with the comparisons to Sansar with the likes of WordPress and YouTube for content creation, it’s perhaps refreshing to have someone put their finger on the button of LL’s monetisation focus for Sansar, with Matney observing the company plans to essentially build “an app store for VR creative properties”. This is not only a neat way to encapsulate Sansar’s approach to monetisation, it also neatly folds back into the idea that “creator” in Sansar encompasses a broader cross-section of users than perhaps we consider to be the case in Second Life – as I mentioned in covering Ed Baig’s USA Today piece.

Alice Bonasio: looking at Sansar and VR for THE
Alice Bonasio: looking at Sansar and VR for THE

One of the several target markets the Lab is looking towards for Sansar is that of education, and it is from this perspective that Alice Bonasio, writing for Times Higher Education, considered Project Sansar back at the start of July 2016.

Starting with a look at the success Second Life has enjoyed within education, Virtual reality really is heading to a university near you more generically considers the role of VR in education, and the manner in which Sansar might be a part of an education revolution – not just in terms of providing immersive teaching environments, but in the ability for universities and colleges, etc., to potentially monetise their environments.

It’s an interesting line to take, but what is perhaps of greater interest, in terms of gaining further understanding as to why Linden Lab felt they needed to push ahead with Project Sansar, is in the vision for education presented through the piece. In this, Alice Bonasio doesn’t just examine the Lab’s hopes for Sansar, she frames them in terms of experiments conducted by Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. These experiments demonstrated some very real benefits of using VR / augmented capabilities can bring to the basic  tutor / student relationship, quite aside from all the deeply immersive potential offer by the technology.

Again, neither article offers anything specifically “new” in terms of how Sansar will look when the door opens or what the baseline capabilities will be when that happens in early 2017. However, they do both provide individual insights into the platform which make them both a worthwhile read, with Techcrunch’s Matney in particular ending with further food for thought, noting that while Sansar might not  require a huge audience from the get-go, it does nevertheless need to succeed in its central aim of providing a platform for “social VR” – and that’s no easy thing, because “social VR” isn’t really an understood medium right now (we can only guess at what it might be like and – equally importantly – how people might react to it). But as he notes in closing:

The early beta shows great promise and while a wide release of its desktop and VR versions is still likely months away, it’s clear that Linden Lab understands the daunting magnitude of both Project Sansar’s challenges and its potential.

USA Today’s further look at Project Sansar and Social VR

Project Sansar promotional image via Linden Lab
Project Sansar promotional image via Linden Lab

On July 4th, I noted USA Today’s video short on Project Sansar and the Lab. At the time, I indicated that there didn’t appear to be a related article to go with the video. However, that’s now changed, and Ed Baig, USA Today’s tech reporter, has indeed written an article to sit alongside the video, which appeared on July 6th under the title Second Life’s creators try for a third — in virtual reality.

“Third”? You may wonder. “What third?” The answer is something of a play on words – Linden Lab’s “first life” is (like the rest of us) firmly rooted in the physical world, where it sits as a corporate entity employing over 200 staff, 75-ish of whom are focused on Project Sansar (the rest doubtless made up of those managing Second Life, running Blocksworld, taking care of the company’s administration and management and (potentially) working with Tilia Inc.). Their “second life” is, obviously, Second Life itself, thus leaving Project Sansar as the company’s nascent “third life”.

Ed Baig: looking further inside Sansar and Social VR for USA Today
Ed Baig: looking further inside Sansar and Social VR for USA Today

As with the video, the article doesn’t reveal much that is new about Project Sansar itself per se, however, it does delve more into the concept of “social VR” – the term that Linden Lab and the likes of High Fidelity,AltSpace VR (both of whom are also mentioned in the article) and Facebook are increasingly using to define their new platforms.

In the case of Sansar, this “social” element is not just about people together who are already engaged in the virtual domain, but in allowing the creators of the environments hosted by Project Sansar to directly attract their own audiences to the experiences they build.

At this point, it’s probably worth diverting slightly and stating something that by now I would hope would be straight out of the British Guide to Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious, particularly for those who have been following Project Sansar’s development, but is worthwhile repeating just in case.

And it’s this: as with various other aspects of discussing Project Sansar, “creator” actually has a wider context than perhaps it does within Second Life. In the latter, by-and-large, we tend to regard “creators” as the folk 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 and regions in SL and use these goods to create and environment. However, with Project Sansar, it is pretty clear “creator” is intended to encompass both: it applies to both those who can build and model with the tools supported by the platform, and those with the desire to “build” an environment they can share with others, even if “build” refers more to shaping the land and obtaining content designed, made and supplied by others.

Ed Baig was able to explore Mars within Sansar, using one of the Lab's early experience set pieces
Ed Baig was able to explore Mars within Sansar, using one of the Lab’s early experience set pieces

In his article, Ed Baig illustrates this, together with the concept of “social VR” and the ability for experience creators to be able to attract their own audience by quoting the idea of learning the French language:

If you search Google for “I want to learn French” you might find in the search results a virtual reality experience in Sansar where you can actually “go to virtual places in France, meet French people and have French dialogue at the boulangerie,” Altberg says.

This actually brings up another point – and one I really must remember to ask the Lab about next time I have the opportunity to do so. And that’s the idea of Project Sansar as a “white label” environment. This was first mentioned back in early 2015, and hinted at in interviews since. If it is still a central aim for the platform, then it could be a powerful aspect to Project Sansar, allowing experience creatorsattract audiences through gateways they define and in a manner such that the audience isn’t even aware they are entering an environment hosted by Linden Lab or is something of a relative of Second Life.

But I digress; Sansar as a white label platform is a topic for another article (and one long overdue to appear in these pages!). In terms of the USA Today piece, the social aspect is further touched upon with the idea that in the future, people from geographically disparate locations will be able to meet and work together far more easily in virtual spaces than up to now has been possible (thanks largely to the work in facial and body tracking, which allow avatars to be a lot more nuanced and expression in their reactions to others).

Elsewhere, the idea of the potential “cannibalisation” of Second Life by Project Sansar is touched upon.  This has been a controversial statement when raised in the past. However, while it is true that Second life thus far in its history faced serious competition, the times really are now changing, and just because SL hasn’t yet faced a competitor capable of luring its user base away doesn’t mean that at some point in the medium-term future it won’t.  As such, references to the risk of “cannibalisation” shouldn’t be taken as a sign the Lab is in any way willing to “sacrifice” Second Life on the alter of Sansar, but rather that it is a pragmatic acknowledgement that the risk actually now does exist for Second Life to be supplanted in people’s hearts and minds, and thus, for the sake of the Lab’s own survival, better it came from within than from without.

Like the video before it – which is included at the head of the article,  there’s nothing here that’s particularly revelatory about Project Sansar for anyone who has been keeping abreast with developments on that platform. However, the overview of the “social VR” approach is worth a read in and of itself. While for anyone who has not thus far dipped a toe into the waters of Project Sansar, Ed’s piece offers a pretty good starting point in understanding what it is about.

Project Sansar’s video spot with USA Today

Project Sansar promotional image via linden Lab
Project Sansar promotional image via Linden Lab

Update July 6th: Ed Baig  published a follow-up article today on Sansar, the Lab and Social VR. You can read my thoughts on it here.

Wurfi directed me to this short video from USA Today which features Project Sansar and Second Life (perhaps helping to answer the question put to Pete Linden during the SL13B Meet the Lindens series about the risk of promoting Sansar being to the possible detriment of SL).

The video, just under a minute-and-a-half long, doesn’t reveal anything new about Project Sansar, but it does offer a little bit of a tease.

Ed Baig: looking inside Sansar for USA Today
Ed Baig: looking inside Sansar for USA Today

At the 0:30 mark in the video, journalist Ed Baig states, “Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg won’t show much, but he did treat me to an early demo…”

His comments are followed by tantalising footage of Ed with Oculus Rift headset and controllers, stating he got to visit Mars and an ancient Egyptian tomb (both of which have been revealed in video from the Lab, as I reported by in May) “among other places” – but the camera remained focused on Ed as he waved the Oculus Touch controllers around, rather than showing anything of Sansar itself.

Second Life is represented in the video. At the start, we’re treated with a short burst from one of the Lab’s own promotional videos of Second Life, while at the end, Ed notes that while Sansar is just starting the process of opening up through the Creator Preview, “Second Life will remain”.

Along with familiar images of Sansar, there’s a soundbite from Ebbe Altberg which encapsulates the core thrust for the platform.

Sadly, there’s no follow-up article within USA Today online, just the video itself; but then at this point, there’s not actually a lot to write about that perhaps hasn’t already be seen vis Sansar. However, that will change in the near future. Alongside of opening Sansar to more creators between now and the end of the year, Linden Lab has also indicated that they’ll gradually start revealing more about the platform as the rest of the year passes and as they move towards “V1” access, probably in early 2017.

In the meantime, here’s Ed’s video.

Ebbe Altberg talks Sansar at Augmented World

Ebbe Altberg discusses Project Sansar Mark Piszczor of Occipital at AWE, June 2nd
Ebbe Altberg discusses Project Sansar Mark Piszczor of Occipital at AWE, June 2nd

June 1st-2nd saw the 7th annual Augmented World Expo take place in Santa Clara, California. Billed as “the largest event dedicated to AR, VR and Wearable Technology”. Among the 200 speakers appearing at the event was one Ebbe Altberg, who sat down with Mark Piszczor of Occipital to chat about Project Sansar.

The interview, embedded below, doesn’t touch on anything significantly new for those of us who have been following the Sansar news. Time frames remain unchanged since the last Lab Chat event. The creator preview will open its doors to applicants in August; there have been “thousands” of applicants (and I’m still itching to know the ratio of Second life creator / users to non-SL creator / users in that number); public access so start around the end of 2016 / early 2017, etc. That said there were various points of interest for me.

Early on, we get a somewhat familiar discussion on the “social” approach being taken with Sansar, and the drive to (initially at least) address various markets where there is liable to be a real take-up in the use of VR. In this case, education and training are specifically mentioned at relative length.

At the 6;55 mark, while discussing Ready Player One, Ebbe touches on how Sansar is a platform on which many experiences put together by many different organisations, companies, groups and individuals can be hosted, some of which may be interconnected. This again got me wondering as to how much Sansar will be a white label environment for clients to use, and whether it is still planned to let those who wish use their own user authentication processes to control access to their Sansar experiences is still on the cards. This was initially mentioned way back in the 2015 VWBPE Q&A session with Ebbe, but hasn’t been remarked upon since.

Also in terms of interconnecting different experiences, it was interesting to hear the term “teleport amongst” experiences being used (07:12), rather than the more customary reference to experiences being “stitched together”. Whether this is indicative of whether movement between connected Sansar experiences might be somewhat analogous to moving between separate private islands in SL, or whether it was a slip of the tongue isn’t clear – so it will be interesting to see if “teleport” is used elsewhere when discussing Sansar.

From 08:30 onwards, there is a discussion of where Sansar might be in a year’s time. This again is interesting, as Ebbe’s reply suggests that while the Lab may well have a development roadmap for the platform, they are very open to building upon the feedback and lessons gained from their core users (or quite possibly “content partners”), rather than simply ploughing ahead with their own plans. Quite how this works in practice will have to be seen, but having an ear to users’ wants and needs is no bad thing.

All told, an interesting interview and well worth the 10 minutes required to watch it.

An actual look inside Project Sansar

Project Sansar image via Linden Lab
Project Sansar image via Linden Lab

The end of April was a busy time for the Lab, with Ebbe Altberg leading a team to both the  Collision 2016 tech conference (billed as the “anti-CES”) in New Orleans, which ran from April 26th through 28th, quickly followed by the 2016 Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) conference, which took place at the San Jose, California, conference centre between April 27th and 29th.

At both events, Ebbe Altberg gave a presentation which included further images and some video shots from within Sansar, and Collision 2016 has now made these available for viewing within a recording of Ebbe’s presentation which can be found on YouTube, and is embedded below.

As the Collision event is more general tech than VR specific, the first part of the video is more about the potential of VR and the possible VR / AR marketplace in the future. A lot that is familiar to SL users is mentioned, such as the use of immersive spaces for social activities and the potential VR has in areas such as education, design, business, healthcare (the use of Second Life in helping PTSD sufferers is touched upon, something I covered back in June 2014).

For those wishing to cut to the chase, the Project Sansar discussion starts at the 8:18 point in the Collision video.

[05:52] The Sorbonne University and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities worked with Insight Digital to produce a 3D model of an ancient tomb based on digital photography and laser scanners. The initial 50 million polygon model, which the Lab were able to publish through Sansar as an optimised 40,000 polygon model visitors to the experience could visit and interact with and within
[09:52] The Sorbonne University and Insight Digital supplied a 50 million polygon model of an ancient Egyptian tomb created as a part of a project for the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. This was optimised as a 40,000 model in Project Sansar people can enter and explore
In brief, this part of the presentation:

  • Reveals the Lab is now employing around 75 people in RD on Project Sansar (High Fidelity, as a simple comparison, has around 25-30 staff)
  • Indicates the broad base of creators and “content partners” invited into the initial platform testing which started in August 2015 is revealed – such as the Sorbonne University / Insight Digital (see above)
  • We get to see both the editing environment and the runtime environment elements of Project Sansar (remembering that the actual editing / layout mode of Sansar is quite separate from the runtime environment where users actually engage with one another once experiences have been “published” to it)
Jason manipulates assets using the HTC Vive hand controllers within Sansar's edit mode whilst building the Mars scene seen in previous Sansat promotional shots
[11:17] Jason manipulates assets using the HTC Vive hand controllers within Sansar’s edit mode whilst building the Mars scene seen in previous Sansar promotional shots
  • Reiterates that in using the term “creator”, the Lab isn’t necessarily just referring to content creators as might be the case within SL. Rather the term also encompasses those who purchase original content within the platform and use it to create their scenes and spaces. It is ease-of-use for this broader class of creator that the Lab is currently addressing when it comes to ease-of-use within the platform.

I’m actually curious to know more about the edit mode / runtime split. For example, can an experience still be accessed by others while it is being edited, in the same way a WordPress (to use the Lab’s analogy) page can still be viewed and read by others? If so, what happens when an update for an experience is published?

The video show Project Sansar’s runtime environment commences at the 12:38 mark.

In particular, this reveals a number of locations – including the Mars scene, the Golden Gate seen previously in Project Sansar promo shots, and a camera trip into the ancient Egyptian tomb mentioned above.

The Sansar clips open with a reasonable-looking avatar walking across the office / excavation space
The Sansar clips open with a reasonable-looking avatar walking across a complex built around the Villa Ortli excavation in the Crimea – a model selected from on-line, or another joint project?

My own observations from these video clips are that:

  • Project Sansar potentially has a higher level of polish within the runtime environment than High Fidelity has thus far shown
  • In there appearance, Project Sansar avatars are at least as good as the more advanced avatars currently found within High Fidelity and certainly more immersively attractive than the more recent iterations of the Altspace VR avatars
  • It will be interesting to see how dynamic things like day / night cycles and weather are / will be handled be Project Sansar.
The UI icons in the video clips
The UI icons in the video clips

The video includes some hints at the client UI – remember it is still very much a work-in-progress, so there are likely to be many changes.

As it stands, the buttons are ranged against the right side of the screen, in two groups of four, top and bottom, and shown on the right.

Some of these appear reasonably obvious: the landform / terraform tool and Avatar tool at the bottom of the first group of icons, and microphone, help and exit  / log-off options in the second group of four.

Doubtless the range of buttons and options available will increase  / grow more sophisticated as the UI continues to develop. The current set would appear to simply address the current level of capabilities within the platform at present.

The Lab is apparently still considering whether or not to make the video footage of Sansar more generally available. I’m tending to assume given the overall tone and presentation of the runtime footage, complete with music, that it was put together as a potential promo piece, rather than just a video to show at presentations. So hopefully it will make a broader appearance when the Lab judge the time to be right.