Second Life's creator is building a 'WordPress for social VR'
For the last 13 years Linden Lab has been developing Second Life, one of the most popular virtual worlds online. It's easy to scoff at the game, with its dated graphics and simplistic activities. But it's still remarkably popular, averaging 900,000 monthly active users. Part of its appeal is the economy, which allows anyone to buy and sell virtual goods. Talented users can sense what will soon be popular, be it clothes, furniture or vehicles, and make them with 3D modelling software. They're then imported and sold on the in-game marketplace for "Linden Dollars," which can be exchanged for real-world cash. Designers made $60 million this way last year.
Now, Linden Lab is applying the same approach to virtual reality. The latest headsets are packed with potential, but crafting compelling software is expensive. To make a decent VR sandbox, you need a game engine, a team of talented engineers and artists, and people to manage hosting and distribution. That's fine for a large video game developer, but unrealistic for a museum, a charity or a book publisher. With Sansar, Linden Lab hopes to create "a WordPress for social VR." While the company handles the technical aspects, crafty creators are free to build unique assets. Anyone who wants to make their own world can buy these items or import their own, quickly building a shareable and reliable VR experience.
Mars is but one example of what people could make. If NASA or SpaceX wanted to show people the red planet, they might create a world in Sansar. The scene whipped up by Linden Lab is a beautiful, but surprisingly empty playpen. I can't pick up boulders, for instance, or hack away at discarded machinery. Altberg admits that interactivity is "fairly limited" in Sansar right now, but promises to expand it over time. The "scene" we're standing in now was constructed in half a day, he stresses, and is meant to illustrate the platform's flexibility.
A world on the platform could be small or stretch many kilometers. Teleporters will help you to stitch them together, creating globetrotting tours or history-spanning adventures. Like Second Life, the format is skewed toward social interactions. You could hold a business meeting in VR or show aspiring homeowners around their dream property. You could gather at the lake with some wakeboarding fans or talk about politics in a park. The limitations of a "scene" will be set by its creator, but Altberg expects them to naturally start small. "If you think about how you function socially in everyday life, most of the scenarios you run through are with small groups of people," he said. "Family, three or four people. Coworkers, you might have a meeting with six people."
Altberg hinted, however, that there could one day be public events such as parades and football matches that demand larger groups. "Ultimately, we'll get into the hundreds of avatars that you can have in this place concurrently," he said.
It's unclear how much Sansar will cost for people who want to design their own VR world. Linden Lab envisions a low, monthly fee that will grant creators access to a virtual plot of land. They can build whatever they want on top, and then choose whether to charge an entry fee for visitors. Designers will, of course, also have the option to sell their individual items on the in-game marketplace. Sansar is therefore like a canvas. Linden Lab will provide some basic paintbrushes, but the hope is that artists will bring their own. They'll pay the company to store and display their work -- similar to an art gallery -- and then earn some cash when someone requests a viewing or permission to rework it as part of something new.
"We want to make it so everybody can participate in this medium," Gray says. "You can create your own virtual experience, share it with other people, invite them in, communicate with them naturally and then monetize it, should you wish." A grand vision, but a familiar one. Linden Lab pioneered this model with Second Life, pushing its users to build content for the rest of the community. Sansar is just the next step -- a Second Second Life -- or Third Life, if you will. The difference this time, of course, is the entry fee. Almost anyone with an internet connection can access Second Life, while Sansar will be limited to high-end headsets. When it opens to the public in "early 2017," it might be a quiet, desolate place to begin with.