Jump back to 2007 and pick up some of the print publications you could probably still find laying around, and you'd find the likes of The Washington Post and Popular Science mentioning the 3D virtual world Second Life in the context of "virtual reality." It was never really such in the headset-and-trippable-wires sense we know now: confined to the desktop screen, it shares more in common with World of Warcraft than the visions that greet us today on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Today, though, technology is granting Second Life creator Linden Lab a chance to squeeze a second life out of the concept. Linden calls its new project Sansar, drawing inspiration from a Sanskrit word evoking both the expansiveness of the world and the wandering of it. It's been kicking around the idea for a while, but at the end of August it invited 200 developers to tinker with it and now it's at last taking on a life of its own.
When I spoke to Linden CEO Ebbe Altberg in a phone call Thursday regarding his ultimate vision for Sansar, he spoke of virtual world with spaces for home and family and spaces where we go to work and conduct meetings. Headset in place, we'd "interact with whiteboards" or "shoot some pool" or go to the club. Maybe we'd even go to church. It sounds familiar.
"Everything I just described happens in Second Life every day," he said.
The few screenshots they've released, full of hazy Martian sandscapes or blocky apartments perched atop boulders in a Bauhaus nod to Magritte, suggest something far more ambitious than Linden's first efforts. And if it all goes well, even a person with minimal programming skills should be able to create their own such settings and stuff them with different experiences and travel hubs. What Altberg wants is no less than the democratization of virtual reality.
"There are relatively very few that can actually participate in this medium now, in terms of creating it," said Peter Gray, Linden's marketing chief, in the same phone call. He pointed out that making what we see in VR today usually requires licensing game engines, creating 3D assets, and juggling hosting, distribution, and general development as well. Scary stuff, to say the least, for the Average Joe or Jane.
"But we're trying to not be in the content business; we're in the platform business," Altberg said, adding that ready-made environments would be purchased on the Sansar marketplace. This, he says, is how it usually works in the real world.
"You didn't build your house that you live in or the car you're driving, I'm guessing," he said, "so we really don't make much in the physical world."It's a little too early, though, to tell how enticing it'll all be once it launches for PC, Oculus, and the HTC Vive sometime early next year. (PlayStation VR "might be a target for the future," Gray said.) When I ask what kinds of creations Altberg's seen so far, there's a big emphasis on grand imagery but little in the way of innovation. That's partly because there's really been no time. Right now, he said, with new builds coming out every couple of weeks, most people are merely focused on experimenting with the toolset.
"One guy made some ginormous winter mountain landscape with woods and trees and some castle on it," he said. "Another guy made this really funky city street with neon lights."
And so far, at least, no one's making the likes of the American Apparel and H&R Block storefronts that grabbed headlines in 2006. But Altberg reminds me such "branded" projects fell out of the picture long ago, and that Second Life has proven a more worthwhile virtual home for "hundreds and hundreds" of educational institutions in the meantime.
And what of the Second Life faithful? Altberg has no plans to shut down Second Life unless it ceases to be profitable; for now, Sansar remains something else. He acknowledges that some users have been worried about a shutdown for months now, but adds that just as many are "banging on the door" to see the final form of virtual reality Linden's technically been chasing all along.
"Some of them may probably stick around in Second Life for a long time because that's their home," he said, "just like not everybody moves from their town to the city, just because a city grows up somewhere else. "
As someone who's lived in two small towns that eventually got swallowed by a growing large city, though, I wonder if that'll be the case for long.