I‘m writing this post in recognition of the efforts by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, to bring multi-user 3D environments to content authors in a form that is both accessible and scalable. They’re making this vision a reality through their new platform, Sansar. I also think it important to provide some context of what has come before in the genre. Along with how, despite barriers like technical literacy in the general population, non-standard hardware configurations and general skepticism, they have succeeded in carrying their vision forwards.
It’s very easy to sound like an authority on a subject when all one need do is cite the many examples of failure a particular endeavour has faced and laugh, wheezily, while predicting more of the same. The hard work comes with moving beyond setbacks and reminding oneself that anything worth doing is rarely easy. Especially so when it comes to contributing to our collective mental evolution and improving the human condition.
A video montage of my quick tour of Sansar beta day one
Where it’s all coming from
I grew up in a time when games didn’t look so great. They were mostly single player affairs and the social experiences people have access to now could only be dreamt of. One particular account of this era has been burned into my memory. There was a wheelchair-bound user in a multiplayer game. It was one of those MMORPGs, ‘Ultima Online’, and they wrote how, being confined to sitting, they loved the game because it gave them the opportunity to run.
The game was 2D and rendered from an isometric perspective. There was no way the graphical fidelity could begin to compare with some of the VR experiences available today. What made it so powerful was the attribution of worth in being able to connect with people through a freedom of expression that went beyond how we converse but also included how we interact with our environment. In Ultima Online, people built homes, explored lands and played together as part of an open-ended ludonarrative experience. Despite the limited technology of the time, the emotional bandwidth of the experiences one could have were enormous.
Second Life remains a familiar icon
Second Life was the first release from Linen Lab and came many years after Ultima Online. It marketed itself as being a more general purpose 3D multi-user world. To be clear, it wasn’t a game. It was an expanse of space in which people could collaborate to both build and experience locales. They were created, entirely, by other users. It included everything from virtual settlements to larger than life cell biology in which you could move about to gain better appreciation for just how chaotic our internal worlds are. Despite all this, it was still referred to as a game. Mainly by uninformed individuals; many of who were academics, and carried a stigma that made uptake and adoption very difficult. It was breaking the norm and, for many, it was unforgivable.
As a social experiment, Second Life was interesting in that it made clear what it was people wanted to express. Sometimes, it came across as quite a dark place to be and at others, it was uplifting and thought-provoking. After spending some time inside, you learned how to navigate the world and keep away from the weird stuff. I owe a lot to Second Life, it’s what gave me some real exposure to academia and allowed me to explore the platform in an educational context. It gave me the opportunity to travel to different countries as a participant in projects focused on determining how real-time 3D could facilitate communication and learning. Until that time, I never knew how serious multi-user 3D environments could be.
I’ve since moved on from that time and space. While Second Life continues to remain incredibly active, with hundreds of thousands of users logging in every month, my interests lie elsewhere.
A Sansar preview video
Where we are
Fast forward to now and Linden Lab have moved their successor to Second Life, called “Sansar”, into open beta. With support for VR from day one, it’s going to be interesting.
Creating multi-user VR environments is difficult. There’s so much a developer needs to be aware of and adapt to. What we think constitutes best practice now, in terms of interface design, will change in a few years time. Making things compatible across multiple platforms like mobile and PC is also a nightmare but is something that Linden Lab need to figure out if they want Sansar to be an all inclusive experience. It is an extremely bold undertaking but the payoff is likely to be huge.
If the platform can simplify the process of authoring multi-user VR content, it stands to be both unique and empowering. Everything from bespoke experiences and simulations to rapid prototyping and experimentation. The tools available to content creators in Sansar will be a world apart from those in Second Life. They will allow for more industry standard practice, thereby facilitating the creation of higher fidelity experiences and appeal to a much broader range of artists and programmers alike. All the while converging the two disciplines in a social space.
There will, no doubt, be more to say on this subject in the future but, until then, familiarise yourself with what’s on offer and watch this space.