The company behind Second Life is betting on a second chance.
Linden Lab, which pioneered the idea of virtual worlds with Second Life in 2003, is getting ready to jump on the virtual reality bandwagon. The company has quietly been building a new virtual world for the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality headsets, currently code-named Project Sansar, while still maintaining the original Second Life for hundreds of thousands of monthly users.
Second Life, which allows users to roam freely through virtual places built and maintained by its community, was at one time one of the hottest trends on the Internet. Business Week even devoted a cover story to entrepreneurs selling virtual goods in Second Life in 2006.
However, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg believes that Project Sansar can eclipse Second Life. “Second Life hit the ceiling at the hobbyist level,” he said during a recent interview, explaining that it once had slightly more than 1 million monthly active users, while still attracting just below 900,000 monthly users in 2015. Sansar isn’t just supposed to one day become bigger, but also much more instrumental to the success of virtual reality itself.
Different economics, better graphics
Ebbe said that Linden Lab had learned a few fundamental lessons from Second Life that are shaping the design of Project Sansar. Some of these are about economics. Second Life became famous for allowing users to buy land and produce and sell goods and services, but a few key economic rules stifled growth. “Land in Second Life is quite expensive,” said Altberg. Trade, on the other hand, is barely regulated. Linden Lab now wants to lower real estate taxes and increase sales taxes, he explained, to make it easier for people to pitch a tent in its virtual world.
Linden Lab is also rethinking some of the technical infrastructure used to power virtual worlds. Each virtual space could host only between 70 to 100 people at the same time before the server powering that instance of Second Life slowed down. More involved experiences could even hit that ceiling at a maximum of 30 participants.
That, in turn, made it hard for brands to justify investing into virtual real estate. Why spend a lot of money to build a presence in Second Life if it could only be visited by only 70 people at a time? Project Sansar wants to solve this issue by allowing for unlimited copies of an experience. In other words, instead of just opening one restaurant, McDonalds could open hundreds or even thousands of eateries in the new virtual world, and open and close them based on customer demand.
Project Sansar will also be rendered with 90 frames per second to look fluid in a virtual reality headset.
Like WordPress for VR
But the most fundamental difference between Second Life and Project Sansar is a lot more conceptual: Second Life has always been first and foremost about Second Life itself. Sansar will be about individual VR experiences, powered by Linden Lab’s technology.
Project Sansar will allow brands and other developers to build their own VR experiences, and then deep-link to them from their websites or third-party apps. Users will still have to have the Project Sansar software installed to use them, but it will feel a lot more like custom experiences. “Second Life is a platform dressed as a product,” said Altberg. Project Sansar will be a platform that will allow others to build products. “The experience is the primary brand,” he said.
Altberg compared Sansar’s role to WordPress, the popular blogging and web publishing platform that now powers a quarter of the world’s websites. Linden Lab’s goal was to turn Sansar into a WordPress for VR, allowing enthusiasts and big brands alike to build VR experiences without spending tons of money and man hours on custom programming, he explained.
More experienced publishers will be able to use Sansar in connection with popular 3D software; initially, Linden Labs wants to make it work with Maya, and eventually add support for Blender, Sketchup and other apps as well. Getting those animations up and running in virtual reality will be a lot easier that starting from scratch, promised Altberg.
An open beta when the Rift launches
Work on project Sansar began in honest about 18 months ago. This month, Linden Lab is inviting a few select users to join an alpha test. Throughout the fall, it will gradually add more alpha users, and a public beta test is planned for early next year — just in time for the availability of the Oculus Rift consumer headset. A 1.0 version could launch by the end of 2016, said Altberg.
Project Sansar’s success could hinge on the popularity of these VR headsets. It will also depend on how much control brands and other VR publishers are willing to hand over to Linden Lab. Developers that build experiences with Sansar will have to abide by its rules, use its billing system and share revenue with Linden Lab. In return, they’re promised an easier way to build those experiences, no matter whether it is a multiplayer game, a social space or even a telepresence application for remote learning or work.
Handing over more branding power to companies could also turn away users who aren’t looking for big real-life brands to dominate their virtual worlds. But it’s just as possible that both could co-exist. Much like Second Life, Sansar could in the end become anything that consumers, brands and developers want it to be. Altberg said that Linden Lab isn’t pre-populating the world with ready-made experiences or things ported over from Second Life. Instead, it’s betting on its users to start shaping their world. “It’s gonna start from the beginning,” he said.