A Look Into a More Social Virtual Reality With the Makers of Second Life
What might be the implications of VR from a social standpoint? We turned to Linden Lab's CEO Ebbe Altberg and Senior Director of Global Communications Peter Gray to get our answer
Virtual reality headsets are pushing the boundaries of what we can do, from skydiving in the comfort of our apartments to exploring Mars in our pajamas. We’ve seen how the technology has disrupted industries such as gaming, news, travel, and real estate, but we’re still only in the experimental phase as most of the hardware has yet to reach mainstream adoption.
With Facebook releasing the Oculus Rift some time in 2016, and AltspaceVR picking up steam as a new frontier of remote communication and interactions with others, an emphasis on the social proponents of the platform is arising. To better understand the implications of ‘social VR,’ we reached out to Linden Lab—the company that brought you Second Life and is working on a new title dubbed “Project Sansar.”
Here we speak with CEO Ebbe Altberg and Senior Director of Global Communications Peter Gray.
“Social will be HUGE in virtual reality,” opens Altberg in our chat, “people will be able to be anyone, be anywhere, and make money doing it,” he says, likely alluding to the annual $60 million USD users and businesses are already making building out content for Second Life.
For those unfamiliar, Second Life is ‘the largest-ever 3D virtual world created entirely by users,’ and it recently opened its doors to the prospect of playing through the Oculus.
“Second Life’s strong communities and the deep social connections formed among users have been a key to the virtual world’s success and longevity,” Gray chimes in. “For many people, a world at your fingertips wouldn’t really hold any value if you had no one to share it with.”
Though the two are quite pleased with the product that’s been evolving over the course of the past 12 years, they jumped on the chance to branch out into VR. Since Second Life peaked at roughly 1.1 million active users and is subsequently loaded with content, Altberg and Gray reason that constructing a new narrative, one that is developed around virtual reality as its foundation rather than merely supporting it, makes intuitive sense. Project Sansar looks to parallel Second Life rather than replace it altogether, drawing on the discoveries made by the community of players and developers.
“Online interaction will become more natural. It’ll be less about operating a puppet and more about just being immersed in this new world which is actually in your control,” forecasts Altberg.
PC games have traditionally had a heightened learning curve for older audiences who have a hard time navigating worlds with mouse and keyboard, but Project Sansar looks to be an all-inclusive medium thanks to a more instinctual set of controls. Gesture-based movements, advanced expressive avatars (the kind that’s rigged to your real life expressions), voice chat, haptic feedback and other progressive modes of interaction will all be welcome additions to the game.
“Project Sansar will democratize virtual reality as a creative medium. It will empower people to easily create, share, and monetize their own multi-user, interactive virtual experiences, without requiring engineering resources…
[It] will allow creators at all levels to focus on realizing their creative visions, without having to worry about issues such as hosting and distribution, multi-user access and communication systems, virtual currency and regulatory compliance, and other challenges associated with creating, sharing, and monetizing virtual experiences today” reads the press release.
It’s admittedly hard to wrap our heads around how virtual reality could facilitate social involvement, especially with the stigma surrounding the concept as an isolating mechanism. If you think kids nowadays are lost in their smartphone, imagine the next generation with their Oculus. Yet, it’s this very reputation constructed by VR critics that has elicited companies such as Linden Lab, Facebook, Altspace VR, Landmark Entertainment Group, CONVRGE and so forth to create and explore the unique social proponents unattainable through other mediums.
“Many companies are recognizing the potential of VR and have started developing their own virtual experiences, games and other content. We’ll certainly see more companies enter this space in the near future,” says Gray.
“Whereas forums, messenger platforms and social media have all enabled communication, Second Life has taken this a step further by deepening the kind of relationships people have. We’ve literally seen users get married inworld, then meet in real life and do it for real.”
Touching on this idea of acquiring real-world value, Gray pointed us to a collection of work by Jeremy Bailenson, a professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford who’s also the founding director of the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Given that Bailenson’s main area of interest is the phenomenon of digital human representation, especially in the context of immersive virtual reality, his research has had a tremendous impact on Linden Lab.
Exploring the manner in which people are able to represent themselves when the physical constraints of body and related behaviors are removed, he details how virtual reality can change the way people think about education, environmental behavior, empathy, and health.
Altberg and Gray explain that ultimately, Second Life and Project Sansar are social havens that transcend the physical boundaries present in the world surrounding us. Whether you’re in a wheel chair, in a nursing home, or a middle schooler on a lunch break, everyone will derive real-world value; the question is, ‘how can offline behavior be changed for the better through virtual experiences?’ They cite the example of having to help a senior citizen in a game as impacting the type of relationship one might have with their elders afterwards. More prominently, however, Project Sansar will likely serve to enrich the type of online social interactions we have today by giving control of both the self and environment over to the users.
“We want to lower the barrier of entry for VR experience creation. Project Sansar will do for virtual experiences what WordPress has done for the Web: empower a broad range of people to create with professional quality and reach global audiences.
By greatly expanding who can create virtual experiences, Project Sansar will also extend the value of VR to a wide variety of usecases—from gaming and entertainment to education, architecture, art, community-building, business meetings, healthcare, conferences, training, and more.”
Photos: Linden Lab