Exploring the Virtual World of Sansar

Linden Lab’s Sansar, a new VR-enabled online community, gives content creators powerful tools to unleash immersive, dreamlike digital worlds.

In Second Life, a vast online digital world, users create 3D content, including avatars, buildings and almost anything imaginable. In this internet-powered world, users can shop for virtual clothes, buy land, and attend concerts, classes or other virtual experiences almost like real life but digitized and certainly otherworldly.

Now fans of this long-enduring digital world can visit a new virtual reality (VR) world with the introduction of Sansar, an immersive online community where users create and share VR experiences.

After years of creating content for Second Life, Dario Buratti decided to give his elaborate 3D designer condos and party spaces a VR facelift.

“VR is the ideal environment for any creative person,” said Buratti, a 3D modeler who built his VR Cult events hub for hosting virtual art exhibits, fashion shows and concerts in Sansar.

“You can draw a space, walk inside of it — as if it were real — and meet people inside the experience,” he said.

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In the VR Cult events hub, artists can host virtual shows in Sansar. Photo credit: Dario Buratti.

The events hub was among the first crop of virtual places to populate Sansar. True to its roots, Sansar is an exploratory virtual world, an online habitat where people build virtual places and hang out.

Since entering public beta in late July, the platform has already produced a bouquet of VR environments, including a Zen garden, a famous piece of unbuilt architecture and the Apollo 11 moon landing site. By equipping builders with cutting edge technology, Sansar is raising the bar for what it means to be immersed in virtual worlds.

With Sansar, San Francisco-based firm Linden Lab has given content creators the necessary tools to make luscious VR spaces. Now it’s moving boldly into the next phase of pulling curious people into these VR worlds.

History of Second Life

History suggests that if people build it, others will come. The idea of virtual worlds entered the public consciousness around 2007 with the increasing popularity of Second Life, Linden Lab’s first foray into digital worlds. As of 2015, 1,019 square miles of user-created content has been made for the platform, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

“There was so much creative energy being invested in Second Life,” said Philip Rosedale, who founded the virtual hideaway in 2003. “At one point, the land mass was expanding so rapidly that, even if you were flying through Second Life on a plane, you couldn’t have kept up with it.”

The vast possibilities of early broadband internet attracted a huge audience. As of 2016, more than 47 million people have signed up for the service since it began, and the active community is still going strong with approximately 800,000 users each month.

Using the latest VR technology to make this massive virtual world more immersive seemed like the next logical step. But there was a problem.

“We tried bringing VR to Second Life several times, but how Second Life was built wouldn’t let us do that,” said Bjorn Laurin, vice president of product for Sansar and Second Life.

To create the effect of immersion, VR headsets require a minimum of 90 frames of images per second to appear on the screens, a feat that proved formidable for Second Life’s 14-year-old infrastructure and user-created content.

Birth of Sansar

With VR specifications in mind, Linden Lab set about building a new engine that could render beautiful user-created art at a high frame-rate display suitable for VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

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At the VR Cult event hub, VR users can explore exhibitions by well-known artists. Photo credit: Dario Buratti.

This graphical upgrade makes Sansar’s archipelagos and melting sunsets look realistic, but more importantly, it helps bridge the gap been the virtual world and the real world. People who visit Sansar find this VR world unforgettable, Laurin said.

For instance, Laurin, who oversees both Second Life and Sansar development, likes to hold weekly meetings with the teams inside the virtual worlds. Upon switching the meeting venue to Sansar, he says his memories of those meetings have become much clearer.

“[In my memory,] I’m not in my office in a VR headset. I was there,” Laurin said.

Research supports Laurin’s experience. A study on presence and memory from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that participants who were provided immersive visual feedback remembered their virtual experiences more vividly.

Other VR-specific features like spatial audio — a technology that anchors sound to specific objects within the 3D environment — makes the synthetic world hum with believability.

When users speak in Sansar, for instance, their voice emits from their body. At first, this may seem like no big deal, but the change increases the satisfaction of conversing with someone in a virtual world tremendously, Laurin said.

At the weekly meetings, with his development team’s 40 avatars huddled around him, Laurin can hear a voice and know exactly who is speaking to him. He looks in the person’s direction and sees the avatar’s lips moving. This ability to hear a voice radiating out of someone has had a contagious effect on sociability in VR.

“I routinely see small groups of people standing together under a tree, talking, like they do in real life,” he said.

Together with other sensory tricks, such as how the sun casts shadows from an avatar’s body onto a wall, Sansar has the technical prowess to render exceptionally lifelike VR worlds.

Through Sansar, content creators — like Buratti and his unreal art gallery — have the VR tools to bring their dreams to life. They can invite other people into those dreams. Now that this new VR world is live and growing, the guests are arriving.

 

Editor’s note: Learn more about technologies bringing VR to life.

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