SAN FRANCISCO—The company behind Second Life, the community-building online fantasy whose popularity spiked a decade ago, is preparing a third life — this time with a social virtual-reality venture.
Project Sansar, created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, promises many of the elements that made Second Life such a cultural and media phenomenon, an avatar-inhabited world of schmoozing, boozing, sex, and — at the other extreme — virtual houses of worship. Members, or “creators” in Second Life-lingo, will be able build, explore, capitalize and just hang loose in Sansar’s planned worlds, from Mars to an Egyptian tomb.
But Sansar’s avatar pals will be that much more life-like to members who don Oculus Rift or HTC Vive virtual reality headgear, rather than the typical portal of Second Life — a desktop computer.
“We’ve never referred to it as Second Life 2.0,“ says Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg of Project Sansar in an interview here. “We think we’re building what will be the easiest ways for users to create virtual reality experiences that are social. And to make it easy for people to create, share and monetize these experiences.”
Linden Lab has invested tens of millions of dollars and some 75 employees into Project Sansar over the two-and-a-half years it has been under development. It recently started accepting applications from 3D content creators to build Sansar experiences this summer, with the goal of opening up Sansar to the public around the end of this year or early next.
Getting social on Mars
I was recently treated to an early glimpse of Sansar.
Donning Oculus Rift headgear, my Sansar demo began on a virtual replica of Mars, before I was teleported to an ancient Egyptian tomb, where I could inspect the hieroglyphics on the walls up close. Soon, I found myself “inside” a 360 video and later spent time in a virtual reality toy room where I was encouraged to knock down a bridge and bat other objects around.
I was guided throughout these experiences by a Linden Lab employee who was in a remote location, fronted by an avatar.
Altberg hopes Sansar will become the platform for social VR creators, just as YouTube became the go-to streaming solution for uploaded video. “There will be games, there will be special applications, there will be vertical all kinds of things,” he said.
Social VR: ‘Everyone is experimenting’
Linden Lab is by no means the only company with designs on social VR.
Second Life’s own founder Philip Rosedale, now CEO of a company called High Fidelity, recently launched the beta of Sandbox, an open-sourced platform for VR. The well-funded AltspaceVR is up and running and hosting events where people can congregate in shared virtual spaces, even watching avatars for entertainers perform. And Facebook, which owns Oculus, has devoted a team to social VR.
“Everyone is experimenting and making different bets on what the experience will be,” says Tom Schofield, chief operating officer at High Fidelity.
Project Sansar’s bet is that the same drive to build and mingle that attracted 1.1 million members to Second Life at its peak will lure new users to the virtual reality platform.
Its creators aren’t revealing much about Sansar, but it’s possible to project how it could evolve based on Second Life’s model. Drawn by the real-life consumers behind the avatars, brands set up shop inside Second Life, helping to generate a virtual economy of goods and services.
Though the buzz waned in recent years since, Second Life is still populated with a variety of companies, schools , entertainers, and other creative entities. Recently some members held a fundraiser to raise funds for the victims of the Orlando shooting.
It remains profitable, says Altberg, both for Linden and its creators. The company makes about 70% of its money off the real estate market in Second Life, essentially hosting simulators, or virtual land, that people can “rent” from the company. “Creators” in Second Life redeemed about $60 million in actual dollars last year, converted from virtual tokens called Lindens, Altberg says
Virtual French school
What’s different? Linden Lab’s design aims to give Sansar creators more power to attract an audience to their experiences than they do in Second Life, where visitors may stumble upon the places by chance. Some people never find such places and don’t stick around.
If you search Google for “I want to learn French” you might find in the search results a virtual reality experience in Sansar where you can actually “go to virtual places in France, meet French people and have French dialogue at the boulangerie,” Altberg says.
Linden Lab hopes one experience in Sansar will lead to another, becoming a network of multiple experiences. Sansar would grow its own economy from there. Linden says it can lower the cost to entry by taking a bigger split of virtual transactions generated, rather than by rental costs as it does in Second Life.
Altberg hopes to draw users from Second Life to Project Sansar, while acknowledging the likelihood of some cannibalization. “We obviously have the largest ready to roll audience…. But rather me than someone else,” he says.
As with Second Life, visitors inside Sansar will be able to dress up and customize their avatars, primarily communicating with others via voice using a headset.
“In the not too distant future this is how people will cut down on travel, be able to participate and go places, and do things that otherwise would be too expensive, too dangerous, too inconvenient, ,” Altberg says.
“The luxury we have (in developing Sansar) is that we have already seen people successfully do all of the things I mentioned in Second Life. The true strength of VR will be social.”
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