Second Life Lessons: What Linden Lab is doing differently with its new VR platform

After running Second Life for 13 years, the company has learned how to build -- and how not to build -- a successful virtual world.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

(Image: Linden Lab)

At the height of the buzz surrounding Second Life in 2006, some people thought the virtual space might one day be bigger than Microsoft Windows. But people lost interest in the platform, and its remaining users often became the butt of jokes. The platform still exists -- in fact, content creators and businesses on the platform collected about $60 million in income last year -- but the Second Life revolution that was envisioned never came to pass.

Given that history, there's healthy skepticism about the nascent virtual reality industry. According to one projection from Digi-Capital, VR could be a $30 billion business by 2020, but there are multiple variables that could easily change that trajectory.

Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, has gained some unique insight into what makes a virtual world successful -- and what hurts its success.

"We're very fortunate to have over a decade of experience regarding what people want to do when they immerse themselves in a digital world," Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg said. While there are some "really good things" about Second Life, there are also "a lot of things that really constrained how successful Second Life could be," he added. "It could've been much more successful."

One major factor that could impede the adoption of virtual reality is simply the lack of content.

With its new VR platform, Linden Lab is aiming to solve that. Called Project Sansar, the platform that will allow just about any user -- regardless of technical skill -- to build their own VR content at a very low cost. The platform is being billed as "the WordPress or the YouTube of VR."

"Imagine the internet without easy-to-use web publishing or blog tools, or being able to upload your videos to stream to the world," Altberg said. "It would be a fairly empty space, or just a bunch of big companies with deep pockets. Luckily, pretty much anyone can express themselves on the internet today, and with VR, that's not really true."

With Project Sansar, Linden Labs is effectively promising to build the equivalent of a massively multiplayer online platform (MMO) -- on top of which anyone can build their own immersive experience. The company is opening up the new platform to a limited number of people this August, with the goal of making it available to the world at large early next year.

"Creators won't need to worry about figuring out how to host and distribute their creations [or] host their own servers," Alterg said. "Instead, they'll be able to simply publish their creations to our cloud, where they can be easily discovered and accessed by their audiences."

Project Sansar is going to be a very different product than Second Life, Altberg said -- "We'd never refer to it as 2.0, or anything like that" -- but he nevertheless detailed the ways Second Life informed the development of the new immersive platform:

Access and content discovery

To understand the potential of Second Life, you have to go directly to the Second Life world. "Imagine if the only way you could consume YouTube videos was to go to YouTube.com and search for stuff," Altberg explained. Sansar won't be like that. Its content creators will be able to share access to their VR experience as they would share any other content.

Meanwhile, Second Life is basically a desktop product. Sansar content will similarly function on a PC without any hardware VR requirements (though obviously not immersive), but it's also designed to support the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.

"We're not yet wandering out to support mobile VR, because the horsepower there is just not sufficient for having really a immersive social interactive experience together," Altberg said. "That day will come, but I don't know if it's two years or three years away."

Quality, ease of use, and scalability

Second Life was built on a rather ad hoc basis with "lots of chefs in the kitchen," Altberg said. That's just not workable when you're talking about building a platform that runs at 90 frames per second. "With Sansar, we're taking a very product-design approach from the beginning," he said. Part of building the platform from the ground up meant building a propriety rendering engine, so Sansar can render user-created content while reliably achieving optimal frame rates.

The more sophisticated platform will also allow an unlimited number of users to share an experience, while Second Life experiences really cap off at 70 or 75 users. For instance, Texas A&M built a Second Life chemistry lab -- but once there were a few dozen students using it, it was simply full.

"In Sansar, it'd be possible for someone to create a chemistry lab, put it on the marketplace and for anyone to rent a version of that," Altberg said. "Now, as a creator of an experience, I can have every school on the planet rent that and use it independently."

The platform is not open source, but it will be compatible with industry standard tools. For example, creators will be able to upload a variety of common 3D file formats (such as .fbx and .obj), and scripting will be done with C#, rather than a language unique to the platform.

Pricing and business model

In Second Life, a person or business can spend nearly $300 a month to host a space (it's half price for educators and nonprofits, but that's still a hefty sum). Altberg promised that hosting a Sansar experience will cost in the "tens of dollars" per month. It's cheaper than Second Life, and it's obviously cheaper than what it would take to build one's own MMO platform from the ground up.

At the same time, Linden Lab plans on "capturing more of the GDP" generated from Sansar. With Second Life, the company really doesn't take any cut of the money generated.

Second Life "has a very high property tax and basically a zero consumption tax," Altberg said. "With Sansar, we want property tax to be as low as we can make it and share a bit more in the consumption of goods and services."

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