Star Trek beaming in to Sansar, May 22nd 2018

The Bridge of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701, will be warping into Sansar on May 22nd, 2018, as new social hangout in a partnership between Linden Lab and Roddenberry Entertainment Inc. Credit: Linden Lab, via Roddenberry Entertainment Inc.

Update: the podcast, as uploaded to YouTube, is now appended to the end of this article, with thanks to Wurfi!

It’s no secret that I enjoy and appreciate Star Trek – notably The Original Series, although I’m also partial to The Next Generation (the other incarnations never really resonated with me in the same way). In my late teens and twenties, I helped organise a number of Star Trek conventions in the UK, while in these pages, I’ve written about Loki Eliot’s freebie boxed starship combat game (2013), and in 2016, about Cathy Foil’s stunning, two regions long and avatar-sized USS Enterprise, NCC-1701.

So on May 4th (ironically, given its association with the Star Wars franchise), I was intrigued to see a pair of tweets from @SansarOfficial and Second Life’s own Wurfi:

The Star Trek Tweets

A little more digging revealed the Tweets relate to an interesting Tidbit discovered by Sansar user and creator Gindipple: a weekly live Mission Log podcast by Roddenberry Entertainment. The podcasts, offered as both pre-recorded and “live” events exploring all aspect of Star Trek, from The Original Series through to the current Paramount film series and CBS’s Star Trek Discovery TV series.

This particular podcast, broadcast on May 1st, 2018, featured none other than Sansar’s Jason Gholston, who heads-up Linden Lab’s Sansar Studios team. Starting the 3 minute mark of the video, which I’ve time-stamped the link above, Jason revealed that Sansar Studios and Roddenberry Entertainment will be introducing a new Star Trek Experience to Sansar on May 22nd, 2018.

“Captain’s Log stardate….” – the iconic Captain’s chair on the original TV series starship Enterprise. Credit: Linden Lab, via Roddenberry Entertainment Inc.

The new experience, referred to as a “VR chat room”, is a 3D reproduction of the bridge of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 (“no bloody A, B, C, or D”, and Montgomery Scott famously stated around Stardate 46125.3, in the Next Generation episode Relics), as seen after the original series had been picked-up following the initial two pilot episodes.

I admit to getting goosebumps when watching the brief video clip of the design, and it is evident that a huge amount of care has been poured into this project: everything it presents from Kirk’s centre seat, through the conn and helm stations, to the stations occupied by Spock and Uhura and – when he was on the bridge – Scotty is perfectly reproduced, right down to the changing data displays and blinking lights. While not present in the video, I’ve little doubt the finished article will be enhanced by spatial loops of all the bridge sounds, deepening the overall immersion of the experience.

A look at one of the forward stations on the upper ring of the bridge. Credit: Linden Lab, via Roddenberry Entertainment Inc.

The core rendering for the experience has been produced by OTOY, working in collaboration with Sansar Studios and Roddenberry Entertainment. OTOY is the creator of the OctaneRenderer, and their work is currently featured in the opening title sequence of HBO’s stunning TV series Westworld.

The experience won’t be used to host the Mission Logs podcasts, but will give people the opportunity to hop into Sansar and view them via the main view screen and socially hang out afterwards, and Jason indicates that show hosts Ken Ray and / or John Champion may will be jumping into the experience immediately following the weekly Mission Log Live podcast, which go out every Tuesday at 19:00 Pacific Time / 22:00 Eastern time, USA.

The exchange between Jason and Ken and John is worth listening to beyond the Star Trek / Sansar news as between them, they nicely cover the “why” of Sansar ahead of getting into details of the new hangout itself – and yes, Second Life gets a positive mention, albeit it passing.

This initial exchange also hints that the new hangout is but the first aspect of what appears to be an evolving relationship:

So, we’re kind-of dancing around the big question here, which is what are we going to do? And we’re going to reveal part of that tonight; there’s another part coming somewhere down the road, and that has to do, potentially, with Star Trek Las Vegas …

– John Champion, Mission Log Live 024, May 1st 2018

Star Trek Las Vegas appears to be a reference to the Star Trek convention taking place in Las Vegas at the start of August 2018, and organised by Creation Entertainment. So might the convention include a Sansar presence, together with an expanded Star Trek Experience?

That would certainly be intriguing; not just in terms of what might be presented, but also in terms of how it fits with Linden Lab’s stated goal for 2018 to grow Sansar’s audience (and visibility). As such, I’m certainly going to be trying to keep my ear to the ground on this subject, not only in visiting the new Star Trek bridge experience in Sansar on or just after May 22nd, but also in trying to get a clearer picture on what is being planned and how it fits with this broader idea of trying to expand Sansar’s visibility and audience.

Addendum

Thanks to Wurfi’s work, I can now embed the podcast from YouTube, below – thanks, wurfi! To just directly to the Sansar coverage, click this link.

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With thanks to Wurfi and Gindipple.

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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.