Sansar: LOOT Interactive Creator Profile

LOOT Interactive NASA Apollo Museum

Linden Lab published a new Sansar Creator Profile video on Thursday, December 21st. It’s one I had heard about some time agao, and hard started to wonder what had happened to it. Regular readers will understand why my interest had been piqued when I say that the subject of the video is LOOT Interactive, the makers of the NASA Apollo Museum experience, based on the Apollo Saturn Centre at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Centre, and the Sea of Tranquillity experience, commemorating the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

These were two of the first experiences I visited in Sansar, given my interest in space flight and space exploration. As such, I was hoping the video, once available, would delve into the creation of these two experiences and examine the collaborations between LOOT Interactive and NASA and with Linden Lab’s Sansar team which brought the experiences to fruition. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Instead, what is presented is more of a promo reel, in keeping with the other Creator Profile films released in the run-up to Sansar’s Public Beta commencing at the end of July 2017. As such, this video in some ways feels a little out-of-place.

LOOT Interactive NASA Apollo Museum

Which should not be taken to mean the video isn’t worth watching; that promo reel bias notwithstanding, the video does a very good job in underscoring the potential of VR in markets such as education, learning and even – although not directly discussed – virtual tourism. Certainly, it explores the power of something like the NASA Apollo Museum to engage and inspire – and educate – simply by allowing people to experience an environment as personally as if they were there.

Take the Saturn 5 centre-piece for example. Being able to stand under its flank whilst in VR and look along its length brings home not only its gargantuan nature – but the sheer size of the technical and human endeavour that went  into it and the entire Apollo-Saturn programme. For adults and students alike, it, and the entire experience, deeply ingrains the entire voyage of Apollo 11 to and from the Moon in a deeply personal way; one not easily matched by watching archive video footage alone or without actually visiting NASA’s Visitor Centre complex. As the LOOT team note, there is a powerful way in which this immersive engagement translates into retained understanding and knowledge one which could apply to many areas of education and learning, formal and informal.

If you’ve not visited the NASA Apollo Museum experience in Sansar – with or without VR – it is a location I recommend as being a good leaping off point to discover what can be achieved within the place even at this stage of its development. Yes, there are niggles, but these are not enough to detract from the sheer scale and depth of the experience. And if you’re not sure, perhaps this video will also help to persuade you a visit could be worthwhile.

Sansar Profile 6: In the halls of the dwarven king

David Hall’s Dwarven Fortress – a sense of scale can be gained by my avatar, in white, standing on the platform towards the lower left, and visible between the columns – click for full size

The sixth Sansar Creator Profile video arrived on Wednesday, August 9th, featuring creator David Hall. A 3D creator “for the past couple of years”, David describes his work as more of a passion than a vocation – although he admits he’s always wanted to be a builder of worlds. As such, he is perhaps representative of the broader audience that Linden Lab would like to attract: those who are perhaps not so much interested in or invested with the wider aspects of virtual worlds and their multiplicity of opportunities  and interactions, but rather those who want to be able to sculpt and create the environments they wish to build, and then share them purely with the people the know or believe will share their passion.

David’s featured experience in the video is very much a reflection of this: a vast Dwarven Fortress; which could feature as an artistic statement, an immersive meeting place, or eventually a role-play environment or similar. However it is not his only Sansar experience; David has also created Sunrise, which as the name suggests, captures that first early morning period when birds have started their songs and the sun has just risen above distance hills to cast a soft yellow glow over the world. It’s perhaps not as involved as the Dwarven Fortress, but it is no less immersive, and the sensation of walking through the trees to the look-out point, surround by birdsong is delicious.

Hot air balloons over water – Sunrise by David Hall

The Dwarven Fortress itself is impressive, but again – from an experience consumer perspective – illustrates the issue in opening Sansar’s doors to the general public: there is actually very little to do other than wander around / take photos. While some interaction within experiences is  possible (to a greater degree when using VR systems than when operating in Desktop mode), this lack of interactions – whether intentional on the part of the experience creator or as a result of the platform awaiting capabilities – will continue to be a source of negative feedback towards Sansar.

For those curious about content creation with Sansar, and the tools available within the platform for object placement, lighting, atmospherics, etc., the video offers some insights, along with the use of external tools for the physical creation of models – in David’s case, Maya and Substance Painter. He provides a concise thumbnail description of the steps involved in creating a scene, whilst the video footage allows those who have not tried the editing tools within Sansar with a feel for what is currently available.

Working in Sansar’s Edit mode

What I found interesting in this video is David’s sheer passion for his creativity coupled with his ability to turn that passion into almost lyrical comments. In doing so, through this video he both touches on Sansar’s potential as a platform for personal creativity and sharing and on the potential to really spark the imagination in a manner that could become very compelling for many seeking a new creative outlet. The platform is – more so than Second Life and virtual worlds like it – a truly blank 3D canvas without and fixed context of “land”, “water” or “air”, upon which people are almost entirely free to paint their deepest imaginings.

Freed from these larger “world” context, Sansar spaces are, for their creators, potentially far more liberating than any default feeling of a geographical rooting – unless that is what is desired. There is simply no need to consider the context of a wider pre-defined “world environment”. Sansar spaces are simply that – spaces to be filled and utilised howsoever the creator wishes and in any many which bes serves their ultimate intended use.

In the halls of the Dawrven king – David Hall’s Dwarven Fortress in Sansar

Of course, it would be easy to point to the reliance on external tools with which to create; but let’s be honest here. Learning to build well within Second Life, even with prims, is not any easy task – nor is it entirely divorced from requiring tools and skills from outside of the platform (think custom textures here, or materials creation). The skills used in building within SL are acquired and refined over time – which really, other than the broader complexity involved in tools like Maya or Blender, etc., –  is no different to sitting down and acquiring the skills to use those tools.  So the need to harness something like Blender if you wish to make truly unique content for Sansar isn’t necessarily a huge hurdle for those with the desire and passion to be immersively creative.

At just over two minutes in length, this is one of the slightly longer pieces on Sansar, and it packs a lot into it. We’ve still a long way to go before Sansar is offering the kind of environments, capabilities and activities users are accustomed to in SL and elsewhere. But if David is typical of the creators sinking their teeth into the platform, and providing things are built out at a steady rate going forwards and without devastatingly long lead times, it will be interesting to see where Sansar’s growing capabilities might lead people in the coming months.

Sansar profile 5: the potential of marketing

Sansar from Linden Lab

So, in my last look at Sansar’s preview videos, I made mention of a desire to see something of a focus on creators from outside the Second Life catchment.

On Wednesday, July 26th, I got my wish, as the fifth Sansar preview video hit the airwaves with a look at the work of Unit 9, a London-based studio specialising in content creation in a range of mediums – film, digital, games, VR and “experiential”. They have an impressive list of global clients / partners including Google, Yamaha, 20th Century Fox, Samsung, Mercedes-Benz, Save The Children, Sprint, Delta, the UK’s Channel 4 TV, and so on.

Within Sansar, Unit 9 – under the leadership of Anrick, a director specialising in VR and promotional / marketing films working for clients like Saatchi & Saatchi  and Toyota – has built “Monkey Temple”. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is quite possibly one of the most immersive environments I’ve seen thus far in Sansar – and I’m still sans a headset!

In building Monkey Temple, Anrick and his team have attempted to incorporate many of Sansar’s abilities as they are currently available – and it is fair to say they have succeeded. This is a rich environment, beautifully lit with a creative (if tightly looped) sound scape with a lot to see and a few things to do (providing you have the headset and accompanying controllers!).

Monkey Temple, Sansar preview 5

Whether by accident or design (far more likely the former), this piece is pretty much exemplifies the thrust of my thoughts in writing about the fourth preview video: that while leaning towards a Second Life audience as the first four videos in the series have done, Linden Lab needs to look beyond the shores of SL and the cadre of SL creators working in Sansar if they want to reach the markets they’ve indicated as being of interest to them.

As a director and creator, Anrick offers precise and clear insight into the sheer power of world-building as enabled by Sansar, – and for professionals like him, there is little doubt that Sansar could be a tool / environment of enormous potential. While Monkey Temple itself might initially come across as little more than a visually impressive place with nice sounds and things to do, it actually goes far beyond this, pointing the way to how studio houses such as Unit 9 could leverage a platform for delivering immersive visual and interactive environments which help their own clients entice and engage their desired audience – all  potentially on a fraction of the budget which might otherwise be required.

Unit 9’s Anrick

In this, marketing and promotion is one of the obvious verticals where VR could – and is starting to – play a noticeable role. We’ve already seen very high-tech VR experiences offered to the public alongside new films, etc. With Sansar and roadshows at events, there is potential for companies to offer captive audiences a VR experience focused on a product, service or entertainment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be all rock’n’roll and high-tech thrills; many promotional opportunities at shows and conferences could be much lower-key and simply involve the expertise of studios like Unit 9, a good Internet connection and a booth-like environment with PCs and headsets supplied.

One could argue that more of this needs to perhaps be explained in the video, but I’d disagree; anyone involved in the sectors Unit 9 operates within would more than likely pick-up the message loud and clear. One might also argue that building in Sansar really isn’t as simple as this (and the other videos) portray; the Sansar marketplace notwithstanding, truly original content requires 3D modelling skills which not everyone has. But again, where this video is concerned, that’s perhaps not the point.

Monkey Temple, Sansar preview 5

Should an organisation want an immersive environment designed and built – be it for marketing, training, or whatever – and they don’t have the requisite design skills in-house, this video sends the message that the expertise they might need is already engaged on the platform, and has a track record of content delivery. In this, everyone is potentially a winner: the client gets what they want, the studio is hired for its expertise and Sansar provides the delivery mechanism, with the revenue from doing so passing to Linden Lab.

Obviously, this isn’t going to happen overnight, or even in the short-term as Sansar opens its doors; but over time, the potential is certainly there.

Sansar: profile 4 and thoughts on a wider reach

Sansar from Linden Lab

The fourth Sansar preview video arrived on Wednesday, July 19th, and is the shortest to date. Focusing on SL creator Blueberry (aka Mishi), the 79 second video takes us into one of the experiences she’s developed in Sansar – Blueberry Town – and gives some further brief glimpses of the platform’s tools – notably the Atlas as seen when using a VR headset.

When viewing this video it’s important to remember that Sansar isn’t primarily intended for the Second Life audience; as such some of the statements made should be treated as such. But that said, given the fact these videos focus on “Second Life creators”, they also tend to come across as speaking directly to the existing Second Life audience, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a positive move.

If nothing else, statements that Sansar presents an environment to do things that are “not even possible anywhere else” are liable to have SL users at least hiking an eyebrow or two, if not rolling their eyes across the floor, given what is being shown in Sansar is more-or-less precisely what SL users have been doing for the last 14 years; just because it cannot offer the same depth of immersion as Sansar will actually doesn’t change this point.

Sansar’s Atlas, seen in a HMD

Some of the promotional videos released to date have already been critiqued on precisely this ground. While there have been some good insights in to Sansar – such as with the preview featuring Maxwell Graf (which I reviewed here), the repeated focus on Second Life creators like this does appear to carry with it the risk of a greater degree of negative feedback about the platform than seems necessary.

At the most basic level, statements that Sansar allows people to do things that “are not even possible anywhere else” may not only cause much eye rolling among SL users, they also run the risk of hyping Sansar well beyond what can actually be achieved within the platform at this point in time. As the Lab has tried to make known: when the doors open, this won’t be a final, finished product – it will take time for capabilities to be added and to mature. Nevertheless, there’s a risk people will see the gap between promotional hype and current capability as a negative to be repeatedly pointed out.  This negative response could be increased by Second Life users when, despite the repeated statements from the Lab that it will be some time before Sansar matches many of the capabilities taken for granted in Second Life, they are confronted by the realities of that fact.

Now, in fairness to the Lab, the lion’s share of applications to the Creator Preview have come from Second Life creators, so a focus on their work is understandable when promoting Sansar (they’re also likely to be the most amenable to being the focus of these videos). But it has also been indicated that applications have come from elsewhere. Further, the Lab has also repeatedly indicated a hope that Sansar will be adopted by those market sectors where there is a clear potential doe VR – education, design, architecture, training, simulation, healthcare. So I’m actually surprised there isn’t more of a visible push to directly engage with these sectors; particularly as some are starting to get excited by Sansar’s potential.

On July 22nd, for example, Steve Bambury, writing in his VirtualiTeach blog waxed lyrical about Sansar’s potential in education (and as an aside, it prompted one SL blogger to have the realisation Sansar isn’t “about SL users”). So putting together promotional information on how those in education could practically leverage Sansar – as well as some of the other markets the Lab has pointed at – would seem to be in order.

Of course, this might be happening under the covers, or it might be that the technical wherewithal of Sansar at this point in time causes the Lab to be wary of promising more than can be delivered when the doors open, or it might simply be that those partners from these specific market sectors don’t want their experiments in Sansar highlighted. But this doesn’t stop the Lab crafting suitable messages.

Take their collaborations in using LiDAR mappings of an Egyptian tomb to recreate the entrance of the the tomb in Sansar, and in building a model of the Villa Ortli excavation in the Crimea, or the LOOT Interactive Sansar Apollo Museum. All of these could form the bedrock for helping to visually promote Sansar’s potential through video whilst helping to reach beyond what can appear to be a Second Life audience focus.

The Sansar Apollo Museum, unveiled at Loot Interactive’s The Art of VR event in New York on June 22nd, allows visitors to virtually explore true-to-scale models of the Saturn V rocket, Command Module, and Lunar Module, then walk the entire mission from launch to re-entry via a Museum-length mission map; and teleport to a recreation of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site

It may yet come that we see these videos cast their net a little wider; I’d just like to see it happen a little sooner than later, and see more meat put on the plate of Sansar’s potential.

Sansar profile 3: a broader perspective?

(courtesy of Linden Lab)

The third Sansar preview – and the second in a week – almost slipped by me, as I’ve been otherwise engaged in numerous things. And that would have been a shame had I missed it, as it offers a perspective on Sansar from none other than Maxwell Graf.

I’m bound to be biased here, as I’ve known Max for a long time – almost back as far as my earliest days in SL (he joined between my first and current stints in-world). However, he is worth listening to, because he knows his eggs. Max is behind one of the most well-respected content brands in SL: Rustica, he’s designed regions, work on Blue Mars and Cloud Party, has a finger on the pulse of High Fidelity and has been in Sansar from the initial phases of the current Creator Preview.

Maxwell Graf working in Sansar via keyboard and trackball

For this piece – running to one minute and 46 seconds, Max has a lot to say – and wisely, Drax lets him get on and say it uninterrupted.  Of course, there are descriptions of the experiences Max has been building – one of which, unsurprisingly, is very Rustica. However, what is interesting is not what he’s building, but what he has been observing about Sansar.

One of the major critiques (from SL users) towards Sansar is the lack of contiguous space – even though, as I’ve pointed out, an experience can be four kilometres on a side (the equivalent of 16 SL regions on a side). That still may not be as big as a Mainland continent in Second Life, but Max puts it better perspective when it comes to something like period role-play (a popular pursuit in SL):

The really interesting thing about something that is on that scale is that from a role-play perspective, it does not have to be confined to a small village any more. You can exist on each side of the mountains and never even see each other because it takes three hours to walks across.

Rustica in Sansar’s Edit mode

When couched like that, in an environment where flying could be disallowed, teleporting strictly controlled, etc., the span of role-play and role-play encounters could be far more involved than anything witnessed in Second Life – if and when Sansar has built up a mass of interested users. It also raises the potential for very real-time training and simulation uses for the platform.

Max also touches  – admittedly lightly – on what is bound to be something of a struggle for balance on the part of Sansar content creators: pitching their goods and services at a price which reflects the effort put into creating / building them, and which users are willing to pay. In some respects, this is where Sansar could be initially hamstrung if its initial core user demographic is drawn from Second Life users, who will likely have certain expectations on the cost of goods and items because of their time in SL.

Browsing the Sansar marketplace via smartphone

However, it is in his comments around Sansar’s potential for public reach which are perhaps the most interesting, coupled with the manner in which he is using Sansar:

What Sansar is going to offer the public is an opportunity to get an understand of what an open virtual platform really is about. And that’s going to make a difference, because from here on out, we’re going to be looking at the beginnings of what will become a true metaverse.

Just how likely this is going to be is open to question; will people really see VR and virtual spaces as important to their social engagement, for example. But the important element here is that Sansar’s potential success has been judged on the basis of its lean towards VR, and the fact that (thus far) VR hasn’t really grabbed what could be called a broad market; however; as Max demonstrates in this video is that Sansar can be practically used and enjoyed sans VR paraphernalia.

This is important because, like it or not broader-based user catchment and retention is going to be an issue for Sansar as much as it has been for Second Life, if for no other reason that many of the platform capabilities are going to take time to mature. If it is seen purely as being “all about the VR”, then that catchment is liable to be considerably narrowed, simply because people aren’t buying into VR in a big way as it stands right now (although as the hardware and costs improve, this could well change). Therefore, emphasising the wider potential for the platform to operate without all the expense of HMDs, etc., could boost the level of interest among “the public” (UI allowing). It’s just a pity this point is somewhat undermined by the (somewhat jarring) interjection of HMD use into Max’s narrative.

That said, this is still a further interesting video in a maturing series, and another step along the way to giving further insights into the platform as we move ever closer to Sansar’s public opening.

Sansar: new Creator Profile video as preview invites ramp-up

(courtesy of Linden Lab)

On Thursday, July 6th, Linden Lab released a further Sansar preview video focusing on the work of a content creator – Ria, which I’ve embedded at the end of this article

Given we’re now not that far away from the doors to Sansar opening to a wider audience in the “creator beta” (or whatever the Lab finally calls it), the video can be seen as a further ratcheting of things  – alongside recent media articles – ready for the opening. At the same time, the past week has seen a further batch of invited into the Creator Preview find their way to those who have applied to access Sansar.

Further invites to join Sansar have been issued in the last week by the Lab

At 99 seconds in length, the video is an engaging enough piece, Ria’s experience from both within and without, which takes the form of an immersive story involving a little girl and her toys, utilising three locations linked by teleports. Kudos to Drax for presenting a means of suggesting the potential of VR immersion by overlaying images from within the game with shots of Ria looking around her creation while using a HMD. It may not be as immersive as “the real thing”, but it’s a lot better that intercut views of heads with HMDs strapped to them bobbing and weaving in front of computer screens we’ve seen in the past.

Those looking for details on Sansar are going to be disappointed however – this is a promotional video after all. That said, there are some interesting shots of the edit environment and what appears to be the fully realised run-time space. Again, given it is a promo video, reading too much into what “is” or “isn’t” said would be a mistake.

Some have found a couple of statements in the video objectionable. The first is the idea that “there is nothing even remotely like Sansar out there” – and I admit to finding it questionable myself.While it may not be as deeply immersive as a “true” VR experience, the fact remains that SL offers pretty much everything Sansar promises, and has done for a good while now. And just because it doesn’t support headsets doesn’t change that. And in terms of VR, there is High Fidelity to consider as well…

The second is that Sansar will achieve “broad appeal” when launched. This has been pooh-poohed on the basis that VR itself has yet to achieve a significant market share. However, “broad appeal” needn’t necessarily mean “mass market” – and the two seem to be getting conflated.

Inside Ria’s Sansar Experience

I personally don’t think VR (and by extension Sansar) will be “mass market”. However, as I’ve oft said, there are markets were VR could have a significant role, and Sansar could be ideally positioned to leverage them. Design, architecture, training, simulation, education, healthcare, for example; plus, as friend and content creator Dassni pointed out to me in a lengthy conversation, it might even appeal to indie game / game modding enthusiasts.  Taken together, these could facilitate the kind of “broad appeal” for Sansar to generate a comfortable level of revenue for the Lab – in time.

How much time? Well, therein lies the rub. Sansar itself is going to need a lot more development work once the gates open to a wider audience, and even among the markets already looking at VR, the preference might be to wait until headsets have improved in capability and looks and come down in price – something which could be around 2-3 years away.