Aech’s garage: a Sansar Ready Player One Experience

Aech's Garage, Sansar; Inara Pey, January 2018, on FlickrSansar: Aech’s Garage – click on any image for full size

Update, January 11th: following my enquiry concerning posting images of Aech’s Garage to the Lab, I received a reply from the Sansar community team, who also posted a  statement to the Sansar Discord channel, which I’m reproducing here, with the relevant comment highlighted for future reference by anyone positing images from Sansar:

We truly appreciate the ongoing support from the community, especially with all the excitement going on this week! We want to clarify that users are not discouraged from posting screenshots from any experience that is open to the public as long as there is no claim to exclusivity, early access, or other potentially misleading statements or claims that are untrue or could be construed as an official statement from Linden Lab or Sansar. We hope you all understand!

With this in mind, I’ve reposted the images in this article

Update: from the comments left by Ryan Schultz following this article, you can see there is something of a kerfuffle over whether or not images from the Aech’s Garage experience can be published. I have contacted Linden Lab on the matter, but have yet to receive a definitive reply one way or the other. To prevent further controversy, and while not having heard of any embargo myself, I have decided to remove the images in the post for the time being. 

Linden Lab recently unveiled two new experiences in Sansar, which I plan to look at in a broader piece on the platform later this week. However, one of them offers a particular attraction as a destination, so I’m leaping in with a look at it here as a part of my Exploring Sansar series.

Aech’s Garage is a joint collaboration between Linden Lab (via their Sansar Studios team), HTC, Intel, and Warner Brothers Entertainment to recreate the film set of Aech’s Garage from the upcoming Amblin Entertainment /  Village Roadshow Pictures film Ready Player One, the motion picture of Ernest Cline’s 2011 best seller.

In the novel and film, Aech (pronounced “H”) is best friend to Wade Watts, the novel’s protagonist – at least within OASIS, the two never having met face-to-face – who operates out of a basement location in the book. For the film, Aech’s base has been moved to a vast garage-cum-warehouse unit, and it is this space that has been recreated in Sansar with the formal title [HTC] Ready Player One – Aech’s Garage.

Aech's Garage, Sansar; Inara Pey, January 2018, on FlickrSansar: Aech’s Garage

For purists, the move might be seen as an annoyance and typical of Hollywood’s tinkering with adaptations for no readily apparent reason. From a visual perspective however – particularly if you are a film buff with a lean towards science fiction – the move is a treasure trove of sights. A long, comparatively narrow building, the garage is partially lit by a low Sun streaming in through the grime layered windows along one wall. This casts a good part of the experience into shadows which I suspect aren’t as quite as intrusive in VR mode as they can be when visiting in Desktop Mode. Klieg lights scattered around the building offer additional pools of light.

Entering via the Sansar Atlas spawns visitors at one of the building’s two ends, and from the start the level of detail is impressive. The lighting is very realistic, while the texturing and finish is superb. There are work bays, metal steps leading up to platforms and elevated work spaces, tools are scattered on work tops, bins, tyres and other detritus of an old working environment fill spaces and rise on tall racks standing against walls and windows. There even a bicycle is leaning against one wall – perhaps to offer someone a quick means to travel up the central aisle space of the building. Good use is also made of Sansar’s recently added audio materials: shoe heels click solidly on the cement floor, but footsteps ring hollowly as heels strike the metal steps when climbing up to or down from the raised platforms.

Aech's Garage, Sansar; Inara Pey, January 2018, on FlickrSansar: Aech’s Garage

But all this is just the apéritif, so to speak. The real feast lies in what can be found within this garage. Depending on which end of the building you spawn, you’ll find yourself either being watched by the Iron Giant from the 1999 film of the same name, or find yourself confronted by ED-209 from 1987’s Robocop – fortunately without its guns focusing on you with an ominous warning that you have 30 seconds to comply. The detail on both is superb, and the Iron Giant really gives a sense of scale. Split into two parts of upper body and head, with legs alongside, it is simply huge.

Nor are these the only models here. Sitting between them, down the sunlit side of the garage are a Mark 2 Viper from Battlestar Galactica (original and re-imagined), suspended from the roof alongside an Earth Defence Directorate fighter from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and a maintenance pod from the United States spacecraft Discovery One, featured in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Aech's Garage, Sansar; Inara Pey, January 2018, on FlickrSansar: Aech’s Garage

Sitting under these, a little incongruously, is the prized 1961 Ferrari GT California Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) persuaded Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) to snag the keys for from his father in the 1986 teen movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While across the central aisle is a mechanoid loader of a similar kind to those seen in the Alien movies, with a model of Eagle 5 from Spaceballs suspended overhead.

As noted, the visual aspects of this experience are superb, in Desktop mode it leaps out at you, and I’ve little doubt that in VR it will look stunning. What is especially interesting about it is that it is a tie to a forthcoming major motion picture, due to be released on March 30th, 2018, and perhaps marks the first attempt to use Sansar in one of the market spaces where it could have some traction: marketing and PR. It demonstrates a potentially low-cost way of generating public interest in films, etc., by allowing people to not only see trailers and teasers from the comfort of their own home via social media and the likes of YouTube, but to also offer them the opportunity to visit locations from blockbuster films ahead of their release.

Aech's Garage, Sansar; Inara Pey, January 2018, on FlickrSansar: Aech’s Garage

In this particular case, it is entirely fitting that a film which might help promote wider interest in VR is gaining some degree of added promotion from VR. I’m curious to see if Linden Lab / Warner Brothers / HTC plan to do more with the experience between now and the US theatrical release of the film at the end of March 2018, particularly given the way the début – through the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, courtesy of Intel – has been presented to the public at large.

Aceh’s Garage is without a doubt a powerful demonstration of Sansar’s potential, and a delight to visit. However, you plan to do so,  I’d perhaps suggest waiting until after CES 2018 closes on Friday, January 12th, 2018, as right now it is the subject Right now Aech’s Garage is tied to ongoing demonstrations of the HTC Vive at the show.While this is good for Sansar, it means that audio-wise there is a lot going on audio-wise within the experience, and it can get distracting with multiple overlapping conversations, even with Voice roll-off over distances. I frequently found myself getting caught between overlapping conversations and manually muting those I didn’t want to hear (including, I’d add, staff talking bugs and users over open microphones!).

Aech's Garage, Sansar; Inara Pey, January 2018, on FlickrSansar: Aech’s Garage

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Hollywood Art Museum to open In Sansar with Star Wars event

Hollywood Art Museum. Credit: Linden Lab

The next instalment of the Star Wars film franchise opens in the United States on Friday, December 15th, 2017, in the form of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. However, on Saturday, December 9th, 2017, Star Wars fans will be able to enjoy a special Star Wars related treat in Sansar, when the virtual Hollywood Art Museum (HWAM) opens its doors to the public.

A joint endeavour between Sansar Studios and renowned director, designer, writer, producer, and practical effects professional, Greg Aronowitz, the Hollywood Art Museum is dedicated to the preservation and education of art used in entertainment.

Mr. Aronowitz – whose credits such as Jurassic Park: Lost World, X-Files, Saving Private Ryan, Contact, Terminator 2, and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – is an avid collector who has amassed an incredible collection of Hollywood production art, from storyboards to costume sketches, concept drawings, models, and more.

Greg Aronowitz

These pieces provide an intimate view into the creative process behind some of the world’s most beloved films, spanning a period from Citizen Kane to Transformers: The last Knight, and present a unique visual history of production art in Hollywood. Until now, his collection has been inaccessible to the general public – that changes with the launch of the Hollywood Art Museum.

The museum’s goal is to help new artists using digital mediums find fresh inspiration in the traditional arts of Hollywood’s past. Exhibits at HWAM will feature high-resolution images of the original drawings and paintings, as well as 3D models of production used sculptures, make-ups, miniatures, and tools.

To mark both the opening of the Museum, and in recognition of the upcoming new film in the Star Wars franchise, Mr Aronowitz will be hosting a private pop-up gallery on Saturday, December 9th, 2017 at one of Los Angeles’s oldest art supply stores. This location also happens to be where George Lucas’s visual effects company, Industrial Light And Magic, acquired many of the supplies used to create visual props and other elements used in the original Star Wars films.

The event will feature original physical art from the franchise, including the very first drawings made for the film franchise and never-before-seen production art from the first trilogy by Lucasfilm alumni Joe Johnston, Ralph McQuarrie, Phil Tippett, Drew Struzan, Colin Cantwell, and more.

In addition, there will be VR stations where attendees at this live event can visit the museum’s presence in Sansar. Then, during the week commencing Monday, December 11th, 2017, Greg Aronowitz will provide daily guided tours of the gallery, and there will be special surprise guests dropping in.

Sansar users will also be able to visit HWAM in Sansar from Saturday, December 9th, and join in with the celebrations, as well as being able to visit the museum any time thereafter.

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Sansar and Second Life in the cloud: LL speaks at AWS Re:Invent

Logos: copyright Linden Lab

It’s been a busy time at Amazon’s AWS Re:Invent conference, which closes in Las Vegas USA on December 1st. At the start of the event, Amazon announced the launch of their VR / AR development / publishing platform Sumerian (see: Sumerian: Amazon’s VR / AR app building platform for more).

Meanwhile, on November 28th, and potential of more interest to Second Life and Sansar users, the event saw Tara Hernandez, Senior Director of Systems and Build Engineering at Linden Lab, give a presentation covering Sansar and touching on plans for Second Life, entitled How Linden Lab Built a Virtual World on the AWS Cloud.

Most of the video delves into the intricacies of building a complex platform like Sansar and how Amazon’s products have empowered the Lab. As such, it does come across as quite a dry listen; however, within it there are some useful areas of focus which are worth noting.

For example, the early part of Tara’s presentation touches on some core truths about Second Life. Such as the fact it is a platform now 14+ years old, which started as an environment engineered almost down to the bare metal, taking advantage of what were, at the time, deep-seated optimisations in graphics and networking capabilities.

Over time, these have not only been layered upon almost organically over the years, but have also become – in Tara’s own words – “kinda ugly” in terms of trying to maintain and enhance. This monolithic, deeply rooted approach to the core elements of the platform is – along with the user-driven expectation than the user-generated content within the platform will not break as a result of changes to the platform – one of the major reasons  why “updating” Second Life isn’t simply a matter of JFDI, as might be thought.

Aspects such as compliance – another issue which is perhaps a lot more complicated than many might appreciate, given the complexities involved in running services like Second Life and Sansar, where the ability to cash out money adds a lot of additional regulatory overheads (visible and invisible from a user’s perspective) over platforms which only allow users to pay-in.

The video also reveals the depth of the relationship between Linden Lab and Amazon, which in the case of Second Life, stretches back to 2008, and which has encompassed the Lab’s other product, Blocksworld. In particular, it touches on Linden Lab using (and sometimes breaking!) Amazon’s more recent offerings, such as their ECS services, as a beta customer. This is something that Amazon has itself highlighted, featuring Linden Lab and Sansar in one of their own ECS use-case studies (see my article “Project Sansar”: an Amazon ECS case study, from January 2016).

ECS in fact drives almost all of the Sansar back-end, from the Atlas through to the store. In particular, the way in which the ECS application layer is used to present the Sansar Atlas, and manage the entire management of the experiences offered by the Atlas and their instancing, utilising Amazon containers (see 27:40-30:58).

How Sansar uses the Amazon ECA application layer to drive the Atlas & managing experience instancing (screen capture). Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

What’s interesting here is not only the way in which Amazon’s services are being used, but in understanding what is going on from the moment a Sansar user clicks the Visit button in the Atlas, and the lessons the Lab are learning even now, as people use Sansar.

This latter point is itself of interest, as it helps to explain why Linden Lab opened Sansar up to wider audience in what seemed to many of us familiar with virtual space – myself included – to be a premature move. Simply put, they needed more of a flow of people moving through experiences to better judge how experiences can be more efficiently / effectively managed within the Amazon environment – spinning them up / down, instancing, optimising server use, etc.

In terms of Second Life, perhaps the most interesting part of the video can be found at 32:14-34:36, with a look at the recently announced attempts to move all of the Second Life service – including (eventually) the simulators, if possible – the cloud. Officially announced as a project in August 2017, but has been discussed at various in-world meetings such as the TPV Developer meetings.

Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

In particular, the presentation touches on one of the major reasons for attempting the move: costs. Right now, Second Life is dependent upon hardware the Lab has to source and operate through a data centre. Updating this hardware, and the underpinning infrastructure  – network, fibre, rack space, etc., – requires continuous and high levels of expenditure (even allowing for re-purposing / write-down of old equipment).

There are also limits, as touched upon in the earlier part of the video, on what can be done within specific areas of Second Life support and maintenance. For example, Tara specifically mentions the core database services (which have been subject to numerous issues over the last year plus). While recovery times for these services has been halved – from three hours to 45 minutes – it is still a considerable outage period from the users’ perspective, and one difficult to bring down further.

Second Life in the cloud – challenges. Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

Thus, an attempt to move Second Life to AWS could resolve a lot of issues for the Lab, and potentially allow them to leverage lessons learned with Sansar together with the capabilities of newer services – like ProxySQL – to further update and improve SL. It might also allow the Lab to move their database operations away from MySQL to more robust products, again following Sansar’s lead.

The shift of a platform from being data centre centric to cloud based is obviously non-trivial, and involves considerable challenges, some of which are outlined by Tara (above). However, from the comments she makes, she is anticipating possibly a dramatic level of progress over the next year. If so, it could be an interesting twelve months.

With thanks to Dassni – The Mesh Cloud for the Twitter pointer to the video.

Sansar’s Creator Academy: Hall of Materials launches

Creator Academy: Hall of Materials

Linden Lab has launched its Creator Academy: Hall of Materials experience. It is intended to help creators explore and better understand the materials capabilities of Sansar, learn about the various shaders and physics materials using interactive kiosks, and how texture values interact and impact one another.

The hall comprises two sections; the first covers media surfaces, stereoscopic media, UV animation materials, emissive materials, standard materials, and metals. Overhead, spheres float as a physics demonstration. The second, rotunda-like section, provides insight into audio materials and materials layering.

Creator Academy: Hall of Materials

Kiosks provide overviews of specifics aspects of using mateirals, and some of these are are interactive. In the rotunda for example, walk across the different surface types (sand, water, ceramic, glass, carpet, etc) – to trigger the corresponding sound. With other, proximity might trigger a level of interaction.

However, it has to be said that some of the interactive elements appear to be more geared towards those in VR mode – as indicated in the introductory video. Some kiosks, for example, use panels of buttons which are currently largely inaccessible to those in Desktop mode. While this may well change as Desktop mode interactivity improves, it nevertheless limits the effectiveness of Hall of Materials as learning experience right now.

Creator Academy: Hall of Materials

Also, while I favour tutorials, it has to be said that Sansar’s very nature perhaps limits the effectiveness of experiences like this. Unless you tweak the client or have multiple accounts, you can’t visit the experience and simultaneously try things out directly for yourself in Sansar’s Edit mode, and fix concepts in your head by doing so. As such, I did wonder if the effort in building the experience might not have been better served in producing a series of short videos on the subject matter, perhaps in the manner of Torley’s famous SL TuTORials.

Given these points, Hall of Materials should perhaps be viewed as an experiment in teaching / learning more than anything else, and it’ll be interesting to see where the concept goes and how it develops. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the introductory video, which provides a basic overview of the experience, in its own somewhat “novel” approach.

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Sansar events list launched on web Atlas

The new Sansar events section on the web Atlas Home tab

Following the recent deployment of the Friends release for Sansar (see my overview for more), the promised Events update has now been deployed to the web Atlas, as the first iteration of an events notification capability that the Lab intends to grow over the coming months.

For this initial deployment, the feature is – as noted – limited to the web Atlas, where it appears on the Home tab for the Atlas, located between the banner list of experiences and the Recommended Experiences (aka “Featured” experiences, as referenced in the client Atlas, and more generally by the Lab). Note that if there are no events listed, the section will not be visible in the Atlas.

The capability is currently limited to just three events at a time being displayed, as shown in the banner image at the top of this article, and below. Each is displayed with an image of the experience hosting the event, the event title,the time (PST) / day (and presumably date, if the event us further out than “tomorrow”) it is being held. Beneath this is a short description of the event, which can be expanded by clicking on the More… option, as shown below.

Details of an event can be expanded (to a degree) by clicking on its associated More… option

Clicking on either the image or the title for an event will display a pop-up message, again repeating the day / time of the event, and which also give the URL for the host experience, allowing users to visit it via the experience’s web page & then launching the client.

Clicking on the image / title of an event will display a pop-up which includes a link to the hosting experience’s Atlas page, allowing people the visit the experience

Currently, the events are limited to those run by Linden Lab – simply because these are the major form of event in Sansar – such as the daily Community meet-ups and the weekly Product Meetings, as listed.

However, in the future, as the capability grows, users will be able to e-mail the Lab with details of their own experiences for inclusion. I’ll blog on this / update this article once the e-mail address and requirements for submitting an event have been made available.

The Events feature itself will, as noted, be expanded over time to allow more events to be included, although exactly what form it will take (additional tab in the Atlas?) is, I gather, still TBD at the Lab.  Again, I’ll cover further updates as they appear.


A judge’s look at Sansar’s Scariest and a Win 10 MR hint

The Diner

As I recently reported, the winners for the two recent Sansar contests – Top Props and the Halloween themed Sansar’s Scariest  – were officially announced on Monday, October 30th.

For the latter competition, in which users were asked to create a spooky / scary experience in the spirit of Halloween (although not necessarily limited to the theme of Halloween), and the final decision on the overall Grand Prize winner and honourable mention were decided upon by journalist and VR consultant Alice Bonasio.

In issuing the official announcement, the Lab included some feedback from Alice on her decisions, and on Wednesday, November 1st, Alice offered an expansion on her thoughts around the entries and on Sansar in a piece written for VR Scout.

The Diner – faces at the window!

Of the grand prize winner, The Diner by C3erb3rus, Alice comments:

Even by Sansar standards, the lighting and textures in this experiences were amazing, incredibly nuanced. From the giant flying saucer spinning away to the MGM lion roaring from the drive-in movie screen in the distance, every element felt well-executed and real. Which is probably why it produced the best—spoiler alert—“jump out of your skin” moment of any of the experiences I tried.

Having spent time exploring the experience, I can only agree. The Diner is fabulously atmospheric, a wonderful throwback to the horror B-moves of the 1950s, complete with spooky diner, things that jump up in the night, flying saucers and more. There’s even a B-movie feature – the British black-and-white 1958 movie, Fiend Without a Face – playing at the drive-in alongside the titular diner. Careful exploration is recommended indoors and outdoors, as there is much to be discovered in the diner, down at Area 51 and even at the drive-in.

Paranormal Investigation

The Honourable Mention for the contest was Paranormal Investigation by Abramelin Wolfe, an experience I visited just after it opened, but have yet to write about. In it visitors take on the role of the paranormal investigator in a haunted house. A more traditional kind of Halloween build, but one that is fun nonetheless. It’s a dim, occasionally hard to explore setting when in Desktop mode, but one that’s worth taking the time to explore, as you might discover that the bumps in the night you might occasionally hear in the attic might not necessarily be caused by things trying to spook you. Commenting on the experience, Alice said:

This felt like something I would have paid for if it was a console game. Carefully crafted visuals, well-timed and well-judged sound effects, this is an experience that has something for everybody, including Ghostbusters fans like myself, who will delight in having the library books floating off the shelves all around them. Definitely not the most original in terms of theme and composition, but absolutely beautiful to look at and a pleasure to explore.

Paranormal Investigation

Alice also lists a number of other experiences she enjoyed – one in particular of which still stands as one of my favourite experiences in Sansar, in terms of both presentation and potential. This is Tyler Scarborough’s Stasis Interrupted – Chapter 1, which I’ve reviewed here. This is really a superb setting for the opening of a story, and Alice nails the description:

It’s like Alien, but with Zombies.” If you’re a fan of either genre (or, like me, preferably both) you will probably like this experience quite a lot. The creators got the slick look and foreboding mood of Ridley Scott’s original masterpiece just right, something that can be surprisingly challenging … This is all about building up suspense and atmosphere, and even during my relatively short test-drive it managed to do that.

Stasis Interrupted – Chapter 1

Alice goes on to mention Miner Difficulties by Through The Waterfall (Jasmine and Galen), which I’ve also reviewed, together with Joyride by Alex, and several more experiences were mentioned in the official blog post about the competition.

Alice Bonasio: Sansar’s Scariest special judge

The fact that so many were singled out beyond the grand prize winner and honourable mention underlines a point raised about contests like this:  a single large cash prize doesn’t really reflect the amount of effort put into entries, and might even dissuade people from entering future competitions. The Lab has indicated that they’re aware of this, and are looking to possibly revise the prize pool in future contests.

In commenting more generally on the contest, Alice doesn’t shy away from pointing out that Sansar does have some problem which need to be ironed-out, particularly around the area of processing power (I’d also raise a question on performance; while my PC may no longer be top-of-the-line specs-wise, it is still an i4 system with 16Gb RAM and a GTx 970 4Mb GPU, and there is still at least one experience in Sansar I cannot load).

True, she raises the issue more around the VR aspect of the platform and the current high cost of entry into VR (something not exactly Linden Lab’s fault), but performance issues are there within the platform, and can limit access in Desktop mode – which is important, given the relatively slow take-up of VR, if Linden Lab wishes to reach a broader audience with Sansar until such time as (or even if) VR gains more of a broad-based market footing.

In drawing attention to performance, Alice appears to look to the new Windows 10 Mixed Reality headsets as a possible solution, securing an answer to a question I recently asked at a Sansar Product Meeting, without gaining a definitive answer: would Sansar be supporting these headsets in the future? Alice has more success than I, quoting Bjørn Laurin, the Lab’s VP of Product as saying, “We’ve been experimenting with some of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and do plan to make it possible to use Sansar with them in the future.”

It’ll be interesting to see whether the new headsets increase people’s interest in VR / AR – right now the price differential between the higher-end versions of the headsets and the Oculus Rift isn’t that great, which might limit the appeal of at least some of them. I’m also curious as to how quickly the Lab’s experiments with the new headset might product user-visible support. In the meantime, Alice’s VRScout article makes for interesting reading alongside the Lab’s own competition blog post.