Believe it or not, it’s already over a year and a half since Linden announced it was building a successor to Second Life. June 2016 will mark two years since we learned about the project which would go on to be rebranded ‘Sansar’. During that time, we’ve seen a few dropped hints here and there on how the new platform will be different from Second Life, plus a couple of screenshots and a 14 second video clip filmed by someone in the audience at a conference. Discussions by the Lindens about it are usually heavy in marketing speak and tick lists of objectives against which Sansar must be measured. It’s amazing how Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Labs, can talk for thirty minutes on the topic of Project Sansar and reveal absolutely nothing new about it. Which is fair enough, of course.
It’s not much to go on, though, if – like me – you like your concepts served up nice and concrete. I do get that Linden needs to control information about its new baby very tightly and that the fewer people who are disappointed by what they learn about the new platform not matching up with their expectations/hopes the better; many of the folk I encounter casually in SL, however, appear to think that Project Sansar will be a new single world just like Second Life – and one thing we know for sure is that it won’t be this at all. In fairness to Linden, it has been said officially several times that people shouldn’t expect this, but if you don’t give information at the same time about what to expect, well that’s just so much telling people not to think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man. We’ve been told it will be a bit similar in some respects to the WordPress publishing platform, but this is an analogy which will mean precisely nothing to the vast majority of people, who have no idea what WordPress is because they don’t use it.
But I think it is possible to piece together the various scraps and mix them in with a good helping of speculation, and come up with a possible visualisation of what this new product might look like. You may consider what follows more a set of hopes than a set of predictions…
Sansar will be like WordPress
So what does this actually mean? WordPress is an online tool for creating websites. A large number of people use it for creating blogs, but it can also be used to create quite complex sites. I use it for this website; previously I used a similar, but less powerful platform called ‘Blogger’ that’s run by Google.
The significance of services like Blogger and WordPress are that they make creating websites a lot easier than this used to be. In ‘the old days’ you used to have to design every aspect of your website, and every page had to be manually built. With these services, however, all you have to do its chose your theme (the style in which the site is presented), and build your widgets (little bits of the site that appear on every page, such as the buttons down the the right-side of this site), and from that point on, all you have to do is write your content.
Both Blogger and WordPress exist as free, online services whereby you sign up to get an account which has attached to it a certain amount of free storage. For the WordPress.com account I use for this blog, the amount of free storage (for things like the images I use on my site, any files I upload to it and the text of all my blog posts) is three Gigabytes. If I want more than that then I’ll have to upgrade my account to one of a number of paid-for packages.
Now then, let’s apply this to Sansar…
Free accounts = free land
I’ve been saying for a while now that a future metaverse should have free land as a basic provision, something we found out in June last year would indeed be a feature of the new platform. Writing four years ago about a hypothetical virtual world of 2023, I argued:
“…there were certain things that most new Facebook users ‘got’, even before they’d logged on to the network for the very first time; the most powerful of these was the understanding that everyone on Facebook had their own space where you could find out things about them. In the 2D world of the web this space was understood to be a web page. In the 3D world of the metaverse, therefore, it was realised that the intuitive expectation had to be that this space would be a room or a building or a garden or some sort of three dimensional place that represented in some customisable way the person it belonged to. In the new, successful, metaverse, then, signup takes you straight to your very own place. For free. The notion that having any sort of a home is a luxury residents should pay for has been identified as an unworkable business model; instead, everyone gets a free place of a certain size and money is required to make it bigger.”
This maps pretty well onto the notion of a WordPress model. So you’ll create your account and you’ll get a certain amount of land and resources for free, just as you get a certain amount of server space free for a basic WordPress account. If you want a bigger space then you’ll have to pay for it.
The world you create will be separate from everyone else’s world
At least, to begin with. You’ll create your space and it will exist as its own little world, and people will only be able to visit it once you’ve ‘published’ it somewhere (see below about publication).
But the thing with WordPress is that, once you’ve created your account, you then have a WordPress ID which is recognised at more or less any WordPress website. If I leave a comment at any of these sites I’m automatically recognised as Huck and my picture is displayed next to my comment. If we apply this thinking to Sansar, we could consider this ID to be the equivalent of what we would today in SL call your avatar account. It would mean that you, as a Sansar account holder, could visit any Sansar world made accessible to you (whether you actually created your own Sansar world or not, just as you don’t actually have to create a WordPress blog to have a WordPress account). They might not appear to be physically part of the same grid, however you could ‘teleport’ between them via a menu of bookmarked links. The experience wouldn’t really be all that different from that of visiting private islands in SL as it is today.
And I think there will also be the possibility to link up different worlds, perhaps via some sort of portal system. Incidentally, I also predicted all of this back in 2012:
“It’s no longer a single cyber-world, then, as SL was. But SL was never really a single world in any case. Few people actually walked or flew from region to region in the days of SL; teleportation was, of course, the norm – and, in the case of private sims, essential. Naturally, you can still teleport from place to place in metaverse 2023, it’s just that the old pretence of a single world has been dropped. If you have the money, you can extend your own space into an entire planet if you want to, or you can link your space to the spaces of your friends and make one up between you. Linking spaces, in 2023, has become the modern day equivalent of friending.”
Sansar worlds will be accessed from a web browser
You only have to spend a short amount of time in SL via a streamed service like Bright Canopy to know that this has to be the way that virtual worlds will be accessed in the future. Aside from delivering top-quality performance to a range of hardware specifications, it will also make the new platform accessible across different operating systems, such as Windows, MacOS and Android.
Potentially, I suppose Linden could create their own website system, in which your virtual space is then published. A website with a name like “Spaces.something” might be created and, to get to your world, someone would need first to arrive at your Spaces site/page. Something like that. On balance, however, I’m more inclined to believe that published spaces will be accessible via any website as some sort of plugin, the huge advantage of this being that Sansar would then be compatible with the millions of websites already in existence.
Oh yeah, I also predicted browser access in 2012 (back when a lot of bloggers were criticising Linden for looking into this):
“Did I mention that all these spaces are accessed via a web page? Of course they are; why would anyone in their right mind ignore the number one infrastructure in use for accessing the internet?”
But the browser element is also important for an aspect of Sansar that I didn’t predict back then…
Sansar worlds will be compatible with a range of virtual reality headsets
I didn’t realise the significance of Google Cardboard until very recently. With the Oculus Rift now on pre-order at the eye-watering price of $600 and expected to work with so few existing PC set-ups that a ‘Rift and compatible PC’ bundle is to be sold, I now understand Cardboard to be the entry point for many into the world of immersive VR. Headsets like the Rift might become the showcase hardware for virtual reality, pushing back the boundaries and showing off all that’s possible, but the £10 Cardboard viewer will be the no-risk, toe-in-the-water first experience for most. If the Rift hits the ground running this summer, I expect Cardboard headsets to be something you’ll be able to pick up from your local supermarket by Christmas 2016.
Making Sansar spaces accessible from web pages, then, would also make them accessible to mobile phones and, with some tweaking, to cardboard. I’ve no doubt that Sansar experienced in Cardboard won’t be the best possible experience of it in VR, but to ignore this potentially huge mass of users would be crazy.
You won’t need a Sansar account to be able to visit a Sansar world
I mentioned earlier that having a WordPress account makes me recognised by any WordPress site. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to have a WordPress account in order to visit a WordPress site. Similarly, then, anyone will be able to visit a Sansar world (depending on the access that you, the owner, set), regardless of whether they’re set up with a Sansar account. Inviting relatives to that inworld birthday party you’re throwing or students to that inworld seminar you’re delivering will no longer have to involve any sort of signposting on how to sign up to SL or download the viewer or any of that malarkey. Visit the web page, click on the world and in you go. The guest experience will likely be a greatly simplified one to avoid overwhelming newbies – simple controls, no inventory and a limited range of appearances – once they see what’s possible, however, that might just encourage them to create their own account and dive in to the bigger experience.
As well as individual, small Sansar spaces, there will also be huge Sansar worlds (and everything in between)
The way I use WordPress for this site is I have an account at www.wordpress.com that comes with its free space, and I can upgrade this as described earlier. Another feature of WordPress, however, is that it can also be downloaded and installed into your own web space. My friend Canary Beck has chosen this route, it gives more control over the site, enables access to a great deal more third-party plugins and, of course, sites created this way can be as big as you want them to be (depending on the amount of web space you’ve purchased from your web host).
This approach could also work for Sansar, so where many users might run their space within the service provided by Linden, others might chose to install and run the latest version of Sansar on their own servers and create highly customised VR experiences according to their needs. These could be, for example, whole commercial products, such as a third-person shooter game or a recreation of a historic place, or intranet-based company meeting spaces.
The virtual world economy will be based on user-generated content
Linden will take its cut of these sales, just as it does today, but probably a bigger one. I don’t have a problem with this. As I wrote last year, I currently pay 70% to Amazon on my Kindle book sales, so the current 5% cut that Linden take on my virtual furniture sales seems extremely reasonable. But expect content to start appearing on an increasingly commercialised scale. The sofa you bought for your skybox in SL might have been created by an individual builder with their own store on the Marketplace; if Sansar becomes popular, expect larger companies to start appearing to sell you your digital content.
And, just as WordPress allows the purchase and selection of ‘themes’, expect a range of Sansar themed packages/templates for your world, whole spaces set up for you at the click of a button, so you don’t have to start from scratch (for example, ‘Spaceworld,’ ‘Country garden,’ ‘Urban district’ and so on). At first, this might result in several worlds/spaces feeling a little ‘samey,’ but, as more and more content becomes available, this will sort itself out. Canary Beck has written a fascinating article on the movement towards professionalisation and templatisation of 3D content development in Second Life (and Project Sansar) which explores these ideas in more depth.
It will be brilliant
It really will. It’ll be different from what we’re used to now, but there will be so much scope for customisation, so much more freedom than we currently have, so fewer obstacles to entry, experience and creativity that none of that need be a worry in the long-term.
If Sansar looks like this, of course. It might not. If it does, though, I must say I’ll be pretty smug about how my predictions of 2012 stood up.
But it might not. If you’re a Linden in the know, please feel free to comment/correct me below :)