Since its initial release in 2003, Second Life has become an infinitely customizable virtual reality world where anything goes. Well, anything within reason, and within the technological scope of its graphics engine. Its creators, Linden Lab, still see Second Life as a vibrant virtual universe, but in the last few years they’ve been quietly constructing a true virtual reality successor, which they’ve been calling Project Sansar.
While Linden Lab is doing a massive graphics upgrade from Second Life to Project Sansar, the team sees it as something much bigger—a true VR platform. As Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg tells The Creators Project, he wants Sansar to signal the democratization of VR as a creative medium. Unlike its predecessor, Sansar is optimized for VR head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but also accessible via PCs and ultimately mobile devices as well.
“Today, if you want to create and distribute a social VR experience, it’s a costly and difficult endeavor; it’s basically limited to organizations with engineering teams,” Altberg says. “Project Sansar will change that and make it so that all of us can participate in social VR. It will empower people to easily create, share, and ultimately monetize their own interactive social experiences that can be enjoyed in VR with head-mounted displays.”
Altberg stresses that Linden Lab doesn’t create Sansar’s content—users do. They are empowered to create, share and benefit from the virtual experiences they create. In that sense, it will be less of a cohesive singular “world” like Second Life.
Linden Lab has been working on Sansar for two-and-a-half years. The earliest stages of its build process involved just a few engineers at Linden Lab, who worked to architect some of the low level tech.
One of the first things Altberg did when he joined Linden Lab was to refocus the company’s efforts to make Sansar a priority. To that end, they recruited a team with experience working on projects like massively multiplayer online game (MMO) and AAA games. They also invested heavily in people with experience creating visual effects and animation for blockbuster films, as well as those who have helped build social networks. This amalgam of talents has influenced the depth and character of Sansar.
While Second Life is what Altberg calls a bit of a “walled garden,” with users entering through a singular “front door,” new Sansar users will have various starting points. Experiences created within Sansar will be more easily discovered and shared on the web, with every experience being its own starting point. And Sansar creators won’t be reliant on Linden Lab to direct an audience of new users to their experiences. Instead, they will be able to attract their own audiences directly, which is probably where the platform’s social media capabilities will come in handy.
While Second Life’s technology only supported about 50 avatars before performance suffered, Sansar will be able to support hundreds.
“Experiences created with Sansar will be able to support many more avatars (hundreds),” says Altberg. “Through 'instancing'—a technique commonly used in MMO games—we’ll be able to spin up a new copy of an experience when the first instance of it hits a certain threshold, effectively allowing it to be enjoyed by an infinite audience. This also allows makes it possible for creators to sell or rent entire experiences, rather than just content and virtual goods.”
Sansar has much higher quality visual fidelity, and Altberg says that it delivers much better performance, including the high frame-rates required for optimal VR experiences. Second Life avatars are known for being rather unexpressive, given the graphics technology behind it, but Sansar will have more expressive avatars—ones that will more closely mimic human interaction in the platform’s “social virtual” environments. Linden Lab is also enabling real-time syncing of head and hand movement, facial expression, 3D spatial audio, and the ability to manipulate and create with Vive and Oculus Touch hand controllers.
As for the monetization experiences in Sansar, Linden Lab will collect most of their revenues from taking a percentage of transactions from the user-to-user economy rather than charging users to rent "land" as in Second Life.
“With Sansar, we want to dramatically lower the barrier to entry for creators, enable them to reach new heights of success, and participate in their successes,” Altberg explains. “So, we plan to make it as inexpensive as possible for them to begin creating and sharing high-quality social VR experiences, and then take a reasonable percentage of user-to-user transactions.”
Altberg says Sansar will be publically available toward the end of 2016. Right now a small group of creators testing the platform, and through its Creator Preview (which just opened applications), Linden Lab aims to bring in additional creators with 3D design experience to begin building a wider range of virtual experiences later this summer.
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