In theory, you can do whatever you want in virtual reality, and my VR tour guide and I are taking this seriously: we’re dressed like aliens (he’s red; I’m green), standing on the stern of a floating ship looking out at beautiful tiny islands levitating in the distance and a serene garden below us.
Where else can we go? The possibilities are limitless, in a sense, because we could also just build a new virtual space to hang out in if what we want doesn’t exist.
We’re in the nascent world of Sansar, which comes out for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets and, less immersively, the PC, later this year. It’s the latest offering from Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world Second Life, which launched in 2003 and eventually grew to as many as a million monthly users but has since declined to about 800,000.
Consumer virtual reality is still in its infancy—over two million headsets were shipped worldwide in 2016, according to an estimate from market researcher Canalys. That’s tiny compared to the several hundred million smartphones that ship each quarter, and we’re still figuring out what the heck to do with virtual reality. Socializing may end up being a killer app for virtual reality (it was, after all, a key reason why Facebook shelled out $3 billion for headset maker Oculus), but like the headsets that power the technology itself, it’s still early days, with just a few ways to connect with others.
That’s where Linden Lab is angling to cash in with Sansar, which has been in development for about four years. It is trying to solve some of the big problems that plagued Second Life for years, such as that most users come in through what is essentially a front door and have a hard time finding things to do once they get in. Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg says Sansar’s range of VR experiences will be less like different parts of a single world and more like the Web, with individual sites that you can navigate to directly; in the demos I tried, I navigated via an atlas that shows a simple clickable thumbnail image of each destination along with its name.
Sansar will also have a different business model than Second Life, which relies mostly on monthly fees from the leasing of parcels of virtual land. (Each 256-square-meter chunk of land costs $295 per month. “That’s not casual ownership right there,” Altberg admits.) Such land will be a lot cheaper in Sansar, Altberg says (though he doesn’t say precisely how much) and Linden Lab will concentrate more on making money from selling virtual objects like clothing for avatars and furniture.
So far, Linden Lab and an invite-only group of people have been building a range of different experiences for the platform; the hope is that people will come work and play together, helping make Sansar larger than it could ever be if Linden Lab built it all by itself.
“You have to let users create the stuff, because there’s too many cultures and styles and flavors and wants and needs. It’s too much,” says Altberg.
But those experiences will almost certainly be of varying quality. The places I saw that were built by Linden Lab look better and are less buggy than two that are being built by users.
John Artz, an associate professor at George Washington University who spent several years teaching a class on using Second Life for business applications, can imagine possible uses for Sansar like virtual classrooms for online learning. But he thinks Sansar will still suffer from the same fundamental issue that dogs Second Life: while the technology behind it is good, he says, it just got boring after a while.
With Sansar, he says, “I’m skeptical that they will be able to turn an amazing technology into a useful application.”