Armchair Sansar

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If you’re anything like me, you “live” in an online virtual world called Second Life. Second Life was created by and is owned by Linden Lab. Linden Lab is trying to grow bigger. Linden Lab has announced their “Next Big Thing” … and it is called Project Sansar. Also if you’re anything like me, you like to spend time thinking “how things could be…”

(You can read the Official Press Release on the Linden Lab web site)

Armchair Sansar – Initial Assault

When you want to remake something from the ground up, the first thing you do is figure out what parts of the original are essential to the organic whole. Smart people make lists of the things they need to keep. Really smart people wind up with two lists; one from the technical perspective and one from the consumer point of view. Because the goal is to make something that will attract (and hopefully steal) customers from the previous version, it’s important to give them a high level of familiarity and comfort. You also want to give them new features and capabilities, but presented in a manner that doesn’t terrify them.

Second Life Tech

The technical aspects for something as complex as Second Life are rather daunting. I strongly suspect the folks on the inside of the existing SL Servers are some of the brightest wonks to wander the halls at LL. But I also strongly suspect there are code sets, entire mountains of running, functioning software that not even the Server Wizards know. Second Life is just too big for one team to fully comprehend. But it does have some easily defined boundaries:

  • Immersive 3D Graphics rendering
  • Multiple Player engagement and interaction
  • One-to-one, One-to-many and Many-to-many communications
  • Beginner-level build tools with options to access higher complexity
  • Support for a broad array of hardware platforms and systems
  • Off-platform Tools and Support features (Account management, blogs, forums, etc.)
  • External Support for In-Platform Ecosystems (Economy, data management, media, etc.)

Some of the above are endpoints, meaning the entire function is contained within a Linden Lab property or computer. Others are gateways or portals that allow external third-party systems to tap in and participate in the digital bloodstream that is Second Life.

Second Life Ecosystems

Every sophisticated platform has its own home-grown family of Ecosystems. Some of them even provide tools and classification techniques that help create a new Ecosystem, but most others do not. Second Life is one of the latter, mostly. In spite of the limitations, Second Life has grown a remarkable variety of unique and inventive Ecosystems. It is arguably the main reason that the platform thrives as it does now; there is just too much stuff growing in there!

I won’t go into massive detail, after all this is a blog post not a Scientific White Paper. But it does bear remarking that there are some very strong and also very necessary Ecosystems that have, intentionally or not, become essential to the operation of Second Life. There are times I like to think of Second Life as a human body. Linden Lab certainly has created a marvelous brain to run the whole show, but without the arms, legs, lungs, heart and dreams of the people using it … (insert dreadful end music here).

Sansar as Second Life v.2

It really doesn’t matter whether the current intentions are to create something that fully retains the Second Life customer base. My contention is that Linden Lab would be foolish to do anything else. Over the past handful of years they have tried to branch off in other directions and failed. I personally chalk this up to the fact that running something like Second Life consumes every bit of air in a company. They’d have to spin off an entirely new division, complete with separate housing, admin and support, before they could really make anything other than a Second Life Virtual World. And that’s why I think they’d be foolish to make Sansar anything other than the next logical home for everyone now living in Second Life.

Ratcheting Up The Bar

Obviously if you’re making something new, it’s gotta have new stuff in it. Thankfully the technology of today is providing “new stuff” faster than most of us can follow on Twitter. While the really jazzy tools are shiny and often catch investor eyeballs (and win approval from management), the real target of a next gen system is to make the rendering and immersion as realistic as possible but without requiring George Lucas’ budget to see it.

Once again, Tech to the Rescue. There are a number of very well supported third-party engines that have been poured underneath some really amazing games. Granted they require a good bit more expertise with design and development tools, but I’ll get into that in a bit. What they do have are implementations that extend their beautifully rendered virtual landscapes across many (many many) computers and displays around the world.

Lowering the Stepladder

Second Life became a sensation because virtually any hick with a keyboard could wander in and start goofing around. It is still a very tough on-ramp, but the tools available and the controls provided are easily understood within a short time. And yet we also often hear people wanting a simpler approach to that first day experience. Clearly this is in direct opposition to the added complexity of today’s 3D Engines, so now what?

A platform that gives end-users a direct handle on the building and rendering tools must also give them ways to use those handles. The simplicity of the existing toolset in Second Life is something that can be brought into Sansar as well. Instead of generating low-resolution primitives, the tools would create much higher resolution … primitives. At least it would look that way.

Perhaps the most daunting task that must be accomplished by Linden Lab (should they build an SL v.2) is building the templates and mechanics into the new engine that will be used to represent existing Second Life style prims and objects. There is no technical reason why such low-impact tools cannot be created either. They certainly won’t push the platform in any difficult way, and those people willing to suffer the lower detail and functionality of old-style primitives would also be willing to endure the introductory tools. Basically it has to have “Paint By Numbers” level tools that anyone can use and understand rapidly, but it has to create and work with the intricate and data-dense (mesh) objects in common use now.

Spreading the Roots – Urban Sprawl

One particular facet that I’ve not heard a single peep about is … will Sansar have any connections to the outside world? I don’t mean Facebook, Twitter and all those other “Social” connections. I mean the massive amount of operational and personal activity data that flows in and out of a platform like Second Life. You may not be totally aware of it, but a lot of the things you do in Second Life are also using computer systems and software packages not owned nor created by Linden Lab.

Some of the most common examples are In-World Vendor systems. The most popular and functional systems keep sales records on an external computer, send purchase and delivery instructions back and forth between SL and the computer, and generally spend all their time chatting in the background. It’s exactly the same sort of living data system that is at the heart of your mobile phone system, it just happens to be wired directly into Second Life.

Without those connections, you would not be able to:

  • Buy anything except using “Buy from Prim”
  • Rent a skybox or land unless you paid the Landlord directly and manually
  • Listen to music or watch a video
  • Raise breedable animals of any sort
  • Participate in most Hunts (unless they use those old clunky boards)
  • and many more…

Maybe I’ve missed it, or maybe they haven’t said anything yet, but so far I’ve not heard a single peep about this from Linden Lab.

Planting a Tree … in a Concrete Bucket

Here’s the real goal of today’s post: To remind people that successful platforms seldom stay within the confines of the creator’s hands. Not only does the design morph and change over time, but once real human beings get hold of it, it begins to evolve into something way different than anticipated. Companies like Compaq that based their entire business model on “all your computers are belong to us” … failed. Even Apple, a company with the most successful product line based on closed and proprietary systems, also uses the most popular Open Source operating system and routinely adopts patches and updates from outside their own walls.

What little we’ve heard and seen from Linden Lab so far seems to be akin to planting a seedling tree in a concrete bucket. You do get the advantage of being able to control the spread of its roots, and to keep it exactly where you want it. But that dang bucket will restrict the tree’s growth and will most likely kill it eventually. Linden Lab needs to find a nice big open field, scatter some really high quality (3D) seeds, water liberally with simple end-user design tools, and provide high-power fertilizer in the form of advanced design tools, techniques and technologies.

Then set us peasants into the fields and see what sort of fruit we can grow.

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