Linden Lab opened its much anticipated massive social platform Sansar today. Over the past year, invited creators have been building hundreds of graphic environments foreshadowing the infinite metaverse Sansar hopes to enable. If it works, this is next Snapchat, a social network whose meteoric five-year rise to 32 billion dollar IPO took everyone by surprise. At first.
I got an early peek at Sansar from Bjorn Laurin, VP of Sansar, and Jason Gholston, Product Director, on June 20 and was amazed by what I saw. The photo realism, the avatars and creation tools, the spectacular landscapes, the Sansar store, aren’t totally new to VR, but they are brought together in a simple, intuitive way to create a seamless continuous experience. What’s new is now a writer with limited technology skills can make a world in Sansar and open it to the public, even charge a fee. You pay for drag and drop elements, like your full-scale mansion, with Sansar dollars, typically a few real world dollars. This is strikingly close to the Metaverse imagined by science fiction writer Ernest Kline in his best selling 2012 novel Ready Player One. Steven Speilberg has adapted the book into a highly anticipated movie which opens March 30.
My tour of Sansar began with its fantastic, easy to use avatar creation tool. This is no bitmoji, nor a floating propeller head. Sliders control facial features. “We spent a lot of time on making avatars right,” said Laurin, “we didn’t want a bunch of floating bobble heads.” And, like the old AOL screen names, you can have as many avatars as you like. One for day, and one for night, for business and leisure. Up to 35 players can interact in one space with no latency (a big problem in Second Life and MMOG in general), and the system will support 100 by the end of the year. “We spent a lot of time on that problem,” Lauren said. “It’s good, and going to get better quickly.”
I met my guide Jason Gholston, Product Director for Sansar who was logged in from his hotel room down the street, in an elaborate futuristic patio floating in the sky. When he spoke, his lips moved. We make eye contact. I notice he blinks, and he gestures in seemingly natural ways, enabled by hand controllers. I cannot overstate the importance of these nuances. They dramatically increase the feeling of presence. Jason teleports around, covering impossible spaces, and I do my best to follow him. We make our way to a dock, where we board a floating sailboat.
Our next stop is an entirely photo-realistic ancient Egyptian tomb, from which we walk through a door onto a beach, where Laurin and his six year old have constructed a playground with basketball court. You can take shots. It requires a little practice, but I did make one. “He built this with content the Sanar store, including the working basketball game, just by clicking, dragging and dropping. He didn’t have to write a line of code,” Lorin said of his progeny. “Just as WordPress opened the world of online publishing to the masses by substituting a simple creation tool for HTML, Sansar allows anyone to create a three dimensional world of their own, which can be shared with a Sansar slash url [e.g., sansar.com/Fink] just like any web link, with a normal social media 2D preview image.”
Creators invited to the platform during a limited-access preview have published thousands of amazing public and private experiences. On exhibit at Sotheby’s “Art of VR” conference last month was The Apollo Museum, created on Sansar by LOOT Interactive.
In the Apollo Museum, visitors are greeted by a holographic Buzz Aldrin and can walk alongside a full-size model of the Saturn V rocket. The scale of of the rocket is visceral and powerful. I mean, it’s football fields. It is really that big. I was glad to be teleporting.
“Sansar democratizes social VR,” said Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab. “Until now, complexity and cost have limited who could create and publish in this medium, and Sansar dramatically changes that. It’s been inspiring to see the thousands of virtual creations that have already published with Sansar during our limited preview, and I’m looking forward to the explosion of creativity we’ll see now that we’ve opened the doors in beta.”
As I pointed in my feature “The Epic Battle for Social VR”in February, this is a crowded category, featuring the biggest players in the VR world, like Facebook, and some scrappy start ups, who are all trying to establish a position in what may well be the home page of the future. Until there is sufficient scale, successful business models will be difficult to divine. AltSpace sought business customers without success and is closing its doors on Thursday, August 3rd. Rec Room, a fermium social game, just raised 6M dollars. Oculus rooms is in the starting gate, giving Facebook a toe hold. The death of AltspaceVR the same week Sansar launches is pure coincidence, but one can’t help but feel that Sansar is AltSpace’s successor, just as AltSpace was called by many the successor to Second Life.
Second Life started in 2003 as a massive role playing game, Linden World, but soon became the open ended social world Second Life. It was different from the other MMOGs, and it got a lot of attention as a result. It was unstructured. There was no goal. No competition. Users can build their own 3D domains and control real estate. Linden Lab encouraged the development of an economy with Linden dollars, a currency with an off line equivalent. Founder Phillip Rosedale left the company in 2013 and has just launched his own social world, High Fidelity. According to Superdata Research, MMOGs continue to be a huge category, representing 27% of the $96.5B game market.
The privately owned Linden Lab has spent four years developing Sansar. Laurin and his team brought with them deep knowledge of infinite social worlds, but not a single line of legacy code from Second Life, now in its fourteenth year. The company asserts it will continue to support and improve its flagship Second Life.
Sansar has a multifaceted business plan. Like Second Life, there is a currency called Sansar Dollars. In the future, creators will also be able to sell, rent, or charge for access to their experiences in Sansar Dollars. At the opening of beta, the Sansar Store features thousands of items for sale from creators around the world. Naturally, Sansar takes a cut of transactions. For casual visitors, Sansar is free to use, with additional capacity and customer support available to creators through paid subscriptions, starting at $9.99/month.
Laurin told me he spends several hours a day in Sansar. “I can’t get enough of it,” he told me, “I drank my own cool-aid.” Indeed, during my tour Gholston, too, was a kid, giddy with excitement as he showed off the many things Sansar has to offer. Meeting him in the real world the next day, I felt a strong connection, like we had already met. That is the power of Social VR.