Back in 2003, San Francisco's Linden Lab led the charge when it came to virtual reality. Unlike other online products, its platform, Second Life, wasn't just a game; it was a means of realizing any and all kinds of online fantasies. Second Life held steady through a decade's worth of digital trends, but now with a new generation of VR technology on the horizon, Linden has a new platform that's once again poised to take the lead.
Recently, we spoke to Linden Lab's CEO, Ebbe Altberg, and Peter Gray, Linden's Senior Director of Global Communications. The two were clearly excited about what Linden has in the works—namely, Project Sansar (a working title)—a next-generation platform where “the creator is king.” Translated into practical terms, what that means is Sansar will give creators the tools they need to make better experiences, expand their audiences and make more money.
A thirty-programmer team is working full time right now on Sansar for PC and Oculus, using lessons learned during Second Life's development. Altberg and Gray admitted that communication between Linden and the community could have been better on Second Life and emphasized that for Sansar, communication is a high priority. In addition to developer/creator communication, they also hope Sansar will give creators the tools not only to be creative, but to track their success and user retention.
These tools (Linden hopes) will be much more accessible than those of Second Life; Gray compared Sansar to Word Press or Instagram, noting how those platforms make it possible for people “to communicate and share their ideas without having to build their own websites.” Also in the interest of accessibility, they've lowered the user age gate to 13. For parents worried about their kids' safety in Sansar, Altberg assured us that Linden's “learned a lot about ghettoizing content,” and have no problem keeping things safe for younger users.
In addition to making creation and sharing easier, Linden's intent on making Sansar better at bringing users together. They mentioned virtual classrooms and recent musical performances wherein 90-100 people attended concurrently. Altberg and Gray's ambition is to grow that number exponentially.
One method of doing that involves changing Linden's monetization model. Second Life makes its money from land rental: $295 a month) but Sansar will significantly lower the cost of land (even giving new users free land) thus making it easier for new users to start. The idea is for Linden to give users a leg up in the beginning, in order to share in their success (via “sales tax”) later on. They also hope to greatly expand their audience by developing VR/Sansar for iOS and Android.
Currently, iOS and Android development is something of a sideline for Linden while PC and Oculus is in the works. The reason for that, is that Linden sees mobile platforms more as a means of consuming Sansar experiences, than building them. Altberg emphasized Linden's commitment to serving the mobile audience, but admitted that when it comes to VR, technical and financial issues mean good cross-platform VR experiences are still many years away. Even so, he remains upbeat: “A few years ago VR had a false start; this is the real start.”
Despite Altberg's cautious prediction, Linden is full steam ahead when it comes to adding VR to its projects. They expect VR will add an even more immersive dimension to Sansar's “collection of experiences,” and make it the ideal platform for users who love socializing and creating to express themselves and encounter like-minded collaborators. That said, Second Life die-hards shouldn't worry; Altberg stated that Sansar isn't a sequel to Second Life, and that the two will function like “parallel universes” for many years to come. That could be a bit of a necessity actually, since he also said that though some Second Life assets can be imported into Sansar, there's no way to bring entire Second Life creations into it wholesale.
Linden Lab's success comes from its inclusive creative vision. Its first platform, Second Life, shared control with users and gave them the creative freedom to make and become anything they could imagine. Sansar stands to do the same, only better. By incorporating more user feedback, giving users better tools, using VR to make content more real and bringing mobile users into the fold, it promises to expand our perception of online entertainment.