Sansar: comedy in VR

Image courtesy of Linden Lab

Update, January 31st: the next Comedy Gladitors line-up has now been confirmed as Steven Hofstetter (host), with Josh Wolf, Jamie Kennedy, Zainab Johnson, and Greg Fitzsimmons, as noted below. The event will take place on Monday, February 11th, 2019, commencing at 17:00 PST  (03:00 GMT, Tuesday, February 12th, 2019). Tickets are available for the “early bird” rate of US $4.99 through until Wednesday, February 6th, 2019, thereafter most likely US $9.99 in keeping with the first Gladiators event.

Sansar has recently hosted two comedy events – in fact the first two in a pair of series. The first, Comedy Gladiators, took place in December 2018, and featured Steven Hofstetter together with Ben Gleib, Maz Jobrani, Alonzo Bodden, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. I wasn’t able to attend the event given the US / UK time difference, but did provide some coverage of the event ahead of time.

Four more events in the series are currently planned, all specifically suited to US audiences, set to by held on the following Mondays at 17:00 PST:

  • February 11th, 2019.
  • February 25th, 2019.
  • March 11th, 2019.
  • March 25th, 2019.
Steven Hofstetter (l) and the cast of the first Comedy Gladiators show: Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ben Gleib, Maz Jobrani and Alonzo Bodden

The upcoming shows will include Josh Wolf, Jamie Kennedy, Zainab Johnson, and Greg Fitzsimmons.

The second series of events launched on January 12th, in collaboration with the San Francisco Comedy Festival. This featured comedians David Cross (Mr. Show and Arrested Development fame) and Amy Schumer (MADTv, Insatiable, Shameless), together with openers Irene Tu and Chad Opitz). A further Sketchfest event will take place on Saturday, January 26th, featuring Michael Ian Black and Andy Kindler, supported by Emily Catalano.

All of the events are offered as ticketed activities – attendees pay via the Sansar Store in order to have access to an instance of an event. Starting with the January 26th event, Sansar users on Steam will also be able to pay for tickets via their Steam wallet. But what are these events actually like?

I cannot actually tell you first-hand, as I’ve yet to make one (as noted the Comedy Gladiator event was far too late for me, while 9:00pm UK time on a Saturday evening generally means I’m out-and-about in the physical world. However, Steven Hofstetter recently issues an extract the first Comedy Gladiators event, which helps to illustrate things.

This event saw a far amount of publicity ahead of it, with the Lab issuing a press release about the series launch, which was picked-up by a number of outlets. Steven Hofstetter also promoted it through his YouTube channel (although the promo video has since been removed, given the event has taken place).

From this clip, I got the impression the participants had at least had some experience of using VR ahead of the show, even if certain aspects of their avatar’s reactions to their own movements caught them by surprise.

At the time I wrote about the first of the SF Sketchfest event, I noted that:

Compared to the Comedy Gladiators event hosted in Sansar on December 10th, 2018 (read more here), the SF Sketchfest is receiving fairly low-key and what seems to be very short-notice advertising through social media.

The first SF Sketchfest event advertised David Cross and Amy Schumer, Irene Tu and Chad Opitz

As I couldn’t help but feel the event appeared to be somehow rushed – not that I had any evidence for feeling that way; it was just a gut feeling. However, reader Susan Wilson – who had been looking forward to the Comedy Gladiators event in December 2018, appeared to confirm this nagging doubt I had about the SF Sketchfest, when writing about the event:

Well, that was a waste of money. I heard the first comedy show in Sansar was great so I was looking forward to it but this was awful. Two famous people bumbling around a room, not even telling jokes. The openers were honestly better, at least they stood on the stage and did comedy. I was hoping for a comedy club experience in VR. This was more like watching “comedians” experience VR and not be very funny about it at all. It was nice to finally be able to sit down in Sansar though!

And I have to confess, a video of the session Baz DeSantis pointed me towards last week does tend to back this assessment up. Focusing on David Cross and Arden Myrin (who was not listed in the original line-up) while on stage (or rather, with the audience), it is fair to say that what is shown is less stand-up comedy and more a exploration of VR by a couple of people who have never previously tried it.

However, the flip side to this is that, while the session may not have been the kind of stand-up comedy presentation one might expect, there was also something of a level of interaction within it that one might not expect from a physical world venue of this kind; the hosts / focus of the show moving freely among the audience, chatting with them, exchanging hugs, etc.

The show also took an interesting left-turn a little over half-way through the recording, becoming something of a Q&A session. On the one hand this allowed a degree of insight into the comedians: why they become involved in comedy, but on the other, as it started it did feel forced and almost like a fall-back option should the session didn’t go in an intended direction.

Would I have come away from the event feeling happy? I’m not really sure; as a “stand up comedy event” the SF Sketchfest session to me falls very wide of the mark, and I’d like agree with Susan Wilson’s assessment. But as an opportunity to meet and chat with a couple of comedians in an informal, “unplanned” situation, it is an interesting experiment and I did find the latter half of the video somewhat engaging (I confess to previously being utterly unaware of either David Cross or Arden Myrin, so have no idea of their comedy styles).

But that said, if these kind of event are to succeed in drawing an audience, the SF Sketchfest does suggest that Linden Lab perhaps need to give more thought either into how the events are presented, or in preparing the participants in advance for what they are getting into if this type of event and Sansar are to be seen as a platform for stand-up comedy that can reach a very different audience.

I’ll leave you with the video of the Sketchfest event of January 11th (do note the language can be a little raw). Should any of you attend the January 26th event, I’d be interested in reading your feedback in the comments.

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Sansar at the end of 2018 – a personal perspective

Sitting and thinking in my Sansar Home Space

The end of December 2018 brings with it the end of the first full year of public accessibility to Sansar, Linden Lab’s “social VR” platform. It’s been a huge year, with monthly releases that have significantly added to the platform’s capabilities, together with a range of initiative to engage with audiences, improve the new user process flow, and raise the visibility of the platform. The article looks back at some of the Sansar-related events and activities over the past twelve months, and offers a few personal thoughts based on the year’s developments. In a future piece, I plan to look more broadly at Sansar in terms of audiences and potential.

Releases and Updates

Sansar updates and releases progressed at the rate of one a month throughout the year, offering some significant updates and improvements to the platform. Key among these have been:

  • Social improvements: the ability to find other people within Sansar, such as through the Atlas, and the ability to create and view profiles. Experience creators were could start promoting events held within their experiences through the Sansar Events pages, and to help them manage said events and keep undesirables at bay, experience owners were also given access / ban controls. Direct messaging between friends was improved, while the ability to teleport to them within a public experience was added; friending others was improved and the People App finally arrived in VR. Also added during the year was the ability to see and type text chat in VR, while overhead typing and speaking indicators were introduced to make it easier to identify who in a group was doing what.
  • Avatar: general improvements included emotes (gestures in SL parlance) being extend to desktop mode,  with more being added throughout the year. New system avatars were added, together with the ability for creators to upload custom (but non-customisable – unfortunately, the ability to better customise avatars (sliders) didn’t reach release in 2018) avatars, and improvements continued to be made to the avatar IK system. A basic sit capability was added through gestures, which also allowed users to “cheat” and sit on chairs and other objects. The ability for avatar to “grab” objects in their hands (Desktop and VR) and to sit on objects came later in the year. The Look Book was revamped and support for adjusting Marvelous Designer clothing in VR added.
  • Performance: a major effort was put into improving Sansar performance throughout the year. This included significant changes such as the removal of custom terrains (due to their negative impact), moving scene editing from the client to a server environment (which will also hopefully allow for collaborative editing of scenes in the future). Texture streaming was added to help with scene loading, and efforts were put into improving the overall load times for the majority of experiences, while the ability to cancel an experience from loading if it was taking too long was finally introduced.
  • Edit Mode: as noted above, editing scenes moved from the client to a server environment, work was put into helping creator organise inventory, and a range of diagnostic options added. General object editing was improved with a series of incremental updates.
  • Client: the client saw a broad range of improvements, from integration of events (mentioned above), through to full integration of the Sansar Store. To help with the new user experience, the entire client UI was overhauled at the end of the year, with new buttons and tool tips together with a small client tutorial.

The client UI was overhauled with new buttons and menus (l) better presentation of UI elements in VR mode (c) and the addition of tutorial elements for new users (r). Click on any image to view slide show

  • Scripting: multiple improvements were made to scripting, including Simple Scripts, designed to allow people unfamiliar with C# to add functionality (turn lights on / off, open / close doors, etc.), to their scenes, and scripters given the ability to update their scripts on the Sansar Store.
  • Sansar Store: categories were added to improve finding items of interest, as noted above, the Store was integrated into the client over a couple of releases.
  • Permissions System: the permissions system was deployed, allowing creators to set permissions against their products when selling them, opening the door to the supply chain economy desired for Sansar (although there is more work to be done to allow multiple objects to be linked together and resold as a whole).
The permissions system, allowing was deployed in October 2018. Credit: Linden Lab

The above isn’t a full list, but it gives an idea of the progress made with Sansar during the year that has helped move the platform forward.

New User Experience

2018 saw work completed designed to improve the new user experience. A key part of this was the new client UI and tutorial mentioned above, and examined in my overviews of the November and December 2018 releases. This work also included a new Home Space “mini experience”. Introduced in December, this Home Space also forms the initial starting point for users on logging-in to Sansar, rather than them simply facing the Atlas.

This Home Space helps orient new users by providing them with the means to complete the first parts of the user tutorial in private, learn to change their avatar look, and will – in time – be connected to a new “Social Hub” where they can potentially connect with other users.

Images of the new Home Space taken in Sansar’s new “mouse look” view, showing the various areas. Click on any image to view slide show

Continue reading “Sansar at the end of 2018 – a personal perspective”

Sansar Creator Beta: observations, one year on

LOOT Interactive NASA Apollo Museum: one of the first public experiences I visited in Sansar, and from the start, one of the ones that clearly demonstrations the potential for Sansar’s immersive educational reach when and if VR really gains a foothold in education. It also demonstrate the power of VR to visit physical world events and places that might otherwise be closed to us

July 31st, 2018 marked the first anniversary of Sansar’s public Creator Beta, Linden Lab having thrown the doors wide to the world at large to come in and have a look, back at the end of July 2017.

The move came with a lot of forewarning that those familiar with the capabilities of a (then) 14-year-old platform such as Second Life would likely find a lot of things lacking in Sansar, but even so, in a lot of quarters Sansar was negatively leapt upon for this very reason. And while some of that criticism may have been and still be valid, it is worth pointing out that Second Life didn’t burst forth on the world in June of 2006 fully formed and ready to go with all the capabilities we take for granted today (and so perhaps expect Sansar to have from “day 1”).

That said, there were  – and remain – certain aspects of Sansar which perhaps could have done with more development time before opening the doors to “everyone” (quotes deliberate, given the emphasis of the public Creator Beta was very much on people where a creative / content crafting mindset and abilities, rather than on consumer / creator users). Interaction, for example was almost entirely VR HMD-centric; non-headset users were restricted to walking into / over things and initially had no means to more directly interact with objects. Scripting for object interaction was also somewhat limited. Sansar additionally lacked a permissions system at the time of the public Creator Beta – indeed, a year on, we’ve still yet to see it – although may well be making its first appearance in the coming month.

Hover Derby is one of a number of individual / team games that have arrived on Sansar in the course of the 12 months since the Public Beta launched, and has proven popular enough to spawn its own social area

While not a major drawback in terms of overall commerce (Sansar was always going to take time to build a consumer audience), this has limited areas of creativity – such as working collaboratively. The lack of the permissions / supply chain / licensing system has also limited convenience in selling items between creators, as the ability to sell “multi-part items” is very bound up with it, leaving a creator wishing to sell an object with several components having to sell the various parts individually.

At the time of the opening, I noted that given the Lab had reportedly received more than 10,000 closed Creator Beta applicants, and given the lack of scripting support, avatar  customisation (another area of limited capability), lack of permissions / supply chain / licensing system, etc.,  I did question why they didn’t just extend that programme by, say, another year. In terms of take-up, the outcome would perhaps have been the same. Certainly, in terms of encouraging interest on the part of existing virtual world users, a “launch” of Sansar now, with all the added capabilities from the last year might have resulted in something of a more positive reaction.

Voyages Live: Egypt: offers Sansar users the opportunity to visit three Egyptian sites of antiquity, and has been the focus of a tour with Egyptologist and archaeologist Dr. Philippe Martinez, one of the people who helped with the creation of the experiences (and the format of environment and guided tours has recently been replicated in another VR-centric environment!)

Certainly, given that VR itself is going to take a good few years yet to come into its own as a household product, the leeway for the Lab to do more under the hood tinkering with Sansar, get more feedback from their existing pool of creators and partners, etc., and be in a position to offer something of a more rounded product to the public was certainly there. But again, this also brings drawbacks.

Take, for example, the misunderstanding that Sansar was to be a “replacement” for Second Life – an idea that took root and flourished despite Ebbe Altberg stating numerous times in 2016 / 2017 (VWBPE addresses, Lab Chat sessions, and Meet the Linden events) that this wasn’t the case. How might the flames of rumour and “the end” od Second Life been fanned had a more “SL-like” Sansar popped up?

From the start, Sansar’s graphics fidelity has been attention-grabbing, allowing creators to offer attractive, photogenic environments to explore; what was missing the early days was the ability to really do anything in them – even sit down

As it is, for the last 12 months, Sansar has been able to plod away, receiving broadly positive responses from the tech media while those of us immersed in Second Life have been able to if not breathe a sigh of relief, then at least accept LL’s word that they are going to continue to invest in and develop Second Life, up to an including the major (and continuing) work to shift that platform to a cloud-based infrastructure.

And Sansar has come a fair way over the course of a year. Yes, there is still much more to be done, make no mistake, but Sansar today is something of a different beast to a year ago. Performance on mid-range desktops has been improved, load times tidied, the Atlas made far more user-friendly, the client has seen a host of improvements, a veritable boatload of new capabilities have been delivered  – Desktop interaction, better scripting capabilities, and so on. And thus experiences have started to get more involved and interactive. There are individual / team games like Hover Derby and Paintball; rudimentary combat, as seen in The Secret of Mount Shasta, is possible. Storytelling capabilities have grown, while the platform has demonstrated is ability to be fully capable of presenting art through the virtual medium through the likes of the Hollywood Art Musuem project.

More particularly, Linden Lab has been able to flex its muscle and establish partnerships whilst also building a reputation as a design studio as well. Most visibly this has been done through the likes of the Ready Player One tie-in of Aech’s Garage and Aech’s Basement and which saw LL via Sansar Studios working with the likes of Intel, Amblin Entertainment and Warner Entertainment to recreate scenes from the film in VR.

Truth is Beauty, by Marco Cochrane, part of No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man in Sansar, where it forms part of an experience  arising out of linden Lab’s ongoing relationship with Intel, and the latter’s work with the Smithsonian Museum

Continue reading “Sansar Creator Beta: observations, one year on”

Sansar: experience counts increased for creators

Courtesy of Linden Lab

In something of a (to me, at least) surprising move, Linden Lab has announced across-the-board increases in the number of experiences each subscription level of users can have published.

The new limits come into immediate effect and are as follows:

  • Free users: Increased from 3 to 20 experiences.
  • Creator (US $9.99 per month): Increased from 5 to 25 experiences.
  • Super-Creator (US $29.99 per month): Increased from 10 to 30 experiences.
  • Professional ($99.99 per month): Increased from 20 to 40 experiences.

The major surprise in the announcement is its sheer scale, with free accounts seeing the limit on the number of allowed experiences increase almost 600% – huge by any standard (the others being 400%, 200% and 100% respectively).

Give the scale of the increases, during the July 20th, 2018 Sansar Product Meeting, questions were asked about whether the Lab was looking to increase transaction fees off the back or these changes, and what will be done to maintain the attractiveness of the paid subscription levels, given the 20 experiences available with free accounts will likely meet the needs of most active creators.

In addressing the fees issue, Landon from the Sansar Product team indicated that it is not the intent to make any alternations to other fees being charged by the Lab as a result of these changes, although he could rule out future possible changes as Sansar continues to develop. Eliot, the Sansar Community Manager also made it clear the increases to allowed experiences are not part of any bigger plan to increase fees or anything else.

In terms of maintaining the value of Sansar paid subscription options, Landon indicated the plan will most likely be to make them more attractive by adding further practical benefits and perks in addition to the current Marvelous Designer free trial and subscription discounts.

The initial response to the announcement among those actively engaged in Sansar has been positive. However, and from more of an “outsiders” perspective, I found myself considering both the strengths and the possible weaknesses of the move.

The Secret Of Mount Shasta; Inara Pey, July 2018, on FlickrQuality experiences within Sansar – such as The Secret Of Mount Shasta – are a major means of encouraging engagement in the platform. The increased limited on published experiences could encourage a new push in experiences – perhaps more multi-part / linked experiences for games or learning

On the strength side, it could well – and the Lab hopes – up the ante for creativity in Sansar. More experiences means the opportunity to be more creative – and potentially more adventurous. How about something like a true multi-chapter (experience) quest or adventure (capabilities and functionality, of course, allowing).

On the minus side the Atlas – still the main gateway into Sansar experiences –  is dogged by the fact that of the 1,000+ experiences within it, only a couple of dozen might be regarded as actually engaging to an audience. Also, with just the first 8 or 10 in the list tending to show people in them, scrolling through the Atlas tends to suggest that Sansar is actually a very empty / lonely place. Simply having people add more experiences to the list  – especially things like testing environments, sandboxes, etc., could actually both further “hide” then worthwhile experiences and increase the feeling that Sansar is “empty” when browsing the Atlas.

1,017 public experiences with just 8 apparently having visitors  – if the increase in published experiences causes a further upswing in the total count of experiences in the Atlas, it could make Sansar appear even “emptier”

But, growing something like Sansar is difficult, particularly when many core capabilities  – a permissions system that would enable commence on the platform, for example – seem no closer today than they did when the Public Creator Beta launched a year ago. But while such observations might reinforce the case for Sansar perhaps having been launched prematurely, the fact is it is here, and efforts need to be made to try to grow the level of interest in the platform – and offering a greater range of experiences might be one way to do this.

However, even if it doesn’t encourage people to come take a look at Sansar (and my feeling is that any growth in platform usage requires a far more concerted campaign on the part of Linden Lab), offering more experiences to creators is meeting a long-standing request. As such, it’ll be interesting to see how people opt to make use of the increase in the coming weeks / months.