The door is bright red, perched at the top of a mossy stone staircase in the middle of a floating island. When I approach, a mysterious tune begins emanating from it, as if playing from the other side. Right now, it’s just a simple prop, and there is no other side. But when I ask Linden Lab’s Bjorn Laurin, he tells me the door is supposed to lead to Narnia — and by next year, there’s no reason it shouldn’t.
The space we’re both inhabiting is part of Sansar (formerly known as Project Sansar), a new virtual reality experience from Linden Lab. In the mid-‘00s, Linden Lab struck gold with digital world Second Life, which played host to 1.1 million users at its peak. Second Life retains a user base of some 900,000 monthly active users, and CEO Ebbe Altberg brags that creators earned $60 million in real-world cash last year selling digital goods.
When virtual reality started gathering steam with the Oculus Rift, Linden Lab hacked in crude support for Second Life. The graphics were aging, though, and its complicated controls didn’t make much sense in VR. Instead of pursuing patches and upgrades, the company began work on a new virtual world. But according to Altberg, Sansar isn’t just supposed to be a headset-friendly Second Life clone — it’s a major overhaul of the basic structure. Second Life uses the metaphor of a single, finite universe, where Linden Lab makes money off expensive virtual “land.” In Sansar, environments can be endlessly duplicated to accommodate more people. To use Altberg’s metaphor, Linden Lab will slash Second Life’s high property taxes, taking a cut of virtual object sales instead.
“Second Life was very much built like a world,” says Altberg. “Pretty much everybody comes in through the front door of Second Life, and then they start trying to find things. Sansar, we're sort of turning inside out and saying every experience should be an easily accessible entry point.” He uses the example of a language tutoring space that people could enter straight through Google search results. Sansar has been slowly inviting creators to build VR experiences since last year, and it will begin taking users in a larger beta early next year, with plans to officially launch soon after.
I got an early look at Sansar at Linden Lab’s offices, during last week’s VR Developers Conference. After putting on an Oculus Rift with Touch motion controllers, I appeared on a virtual stage alongside Laurin, kicking off a brief multi-world journey. Like many VR experiences, Sansar lets you either walk with a joystick or teleport by pointing to a particular place, which is usually the less nauseating option. Its avatars have the same bland, glossy prettiness of Second Life residents, but they’re far more detailed. Lips move in time with your real voice, and walking in real space will cause the avatar to take a few steps as well. But for now, arms don’t follow your motion, and you can’t see your own avatar — just a pair of ghostly Rift or Vive controllers.
There are already many VR social networks in various stages of development. AltspaceVR got into the game early with a simple meetup format, and recently partnered with NBC for a high-profile series of election-related events. Former Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale started a peer-to-peer network called High Fidelity, which announced a partnership with avatar company Morph 3D at VRDC. Facebook has hired an entire VR social team, which debuted an early experience at Oculus Connect last month. “They're doing some really cool prototyping,” says Altberg of Facebook. “But we have over a decade of experience in user-created content. That's a really, really difficult problem to do at scale. No one has the experience we have with that.”
Altberg thinks that being able to cheaply and easily create your own virtual home — or, in the case of companies, branded location — has a special draw. “Most users will just consume an experience that someone else made,” he says, but that’s not unlike real life, where people can develop a unique style without sewing their own clothes or building their own house. “They can just come in and shop for a cool little place that they can call their own.”
I tried my hand at some virtual homemaking, which works like a hyper-simplified video game level editor. I could arrange (and systematically dismantle) a living room by pointing at objects to grab, move, and rotate them. But the majority of Sansar’s editing capabilities exist outside VR, on a piece of desktop software that people will use to place lights, add props, or perform other relatively complex tasks. For now, it’s more interesting to see spaces like the island, or an actual Egyptian tomb scanned and replicated in photorealistic detail. Users can watch 360-degree videos together on a floating platform — this stretches the limits of VR cameras’ relatively low resolution, but even when the image is blurry, being able to walk around inside a video is an impressive experience that I haven’t seen in other social spaces.
While Second Life has found many uses, it never became a mainstream phenomenon. Virtual reality is even more rarified, especially because Sansar is initially coming only to high-end PC headsets. When it launches next year, we’ll see how many people actually make their way to this virtual world, and whether they stick around. For now, though, Linden Lab is just focused on getting it out the door.
Correction: Project Sansar’s name has been changed to Sansar, and its release date is now the first quarter of 2017, not the spring. All instances have been updated to reflect these details. Company Morph VR was also corrected to Morph 3D.