UPDATED! Notes from Yesterday’s Sansar Product Meetup: What’s On the Software Development Roadmap

I heard through the grapevine that yesterday’s Sansar Product Meetup was to discuss future developments to Linden Lab’s social VR platform.

Screen capture from the Twitch video of the Sansar Product Meetup

But no, I didn’t bother to come into Sansar for this meeting; I watched the hour-long Twitch livestream the next morning, coffee in hand. I am still on an extended, self-imposed break from Sansar, but I don’t think that watching a previously-recorded livestream (and blogging about it) is breaking that rule.

Here are a few of my notes from yesterday’s Sansar Product Meetup, regarding plans for the platform for 2020. Galileo, the Community Manager for Sansar, led the meeting, and Boden, SeanT, Lacie, Cinno, and a few other Linden Lab staff were also present (I didn’t catch everybody’s name). The audio on the Twitch stream at times was very uneven, and the sound cut out completely at one point, so I may have missed a few items in this report.

Any editorial comments in these notes are in italics.

Among the new features planned for the next few releases of the Sansar client:

  • New emotes system. You will not have to go into the character editor to select emotes. You can use hotkeys to play emotes instead of selecting them from a menu.
  • New starter avatar looks in the carousel, with more variety possible for first-time users.
  • Twitch extensions (a new feature for streamers; I have no idea what this means).
  • Scene-based animations (e.g. animations that are enacted when you enter a scene or world)
  • Having items in your backpack change according to certain events and triggers.
  • Improvements to moderation tools (internal use first, then eventually passing them on to end users).
  • Group travel and group chat (by the end of next quarter).
  • Improvements to the instance picker.
  • User Interface improvements (Binah is working on this).

After announcements, Galileo opened the floor for questions from the audience in attendance at the Product Meetup. Items and issues that came up during this question and answer session included:

  • Individual avatar volume controls are likely to come in the second quarter of 2020, as part of the roll-out of the UI redesign.
  • Skin textures and body sliders: Linden Lab is looking at skin textures in the first quarter of 2020, and they hope to have this feature released sometime over the next couple of client updates. “The body sliders are further out, for sure, but skin textures are closer.” (Editorial note: I’ll believe it when I see it. My understanding from various sources is that most of the Sansar avatar team was laid off in October, which will significantly impact further avatar customization plans.)
  • No planned changes to any income splits between creators and Linden Lab. (Editorial note: Again, no big surprises here. Some content creators are obviously still feeling cranky about the percentage LL takes when selling items on the Sansar Store, and cashing out profits.)
  • Various people reported problems with the avatar files in Blender, which Linden Lab has not yet had an opportunity to look at.
  • There are no plans for extending shader capabilites (and yes, there is still someone left on the shader team, despite rumours to the contrary). Linden Lab may bring him out to a future Product Meetup to answer questions.

Those are pretty much the highlights of the meeting, from what I can see. I’m glad that Linden Lab is still having regular Product Meetups, even though I still don’t expect to see any major new features showing up in any future releases in 2020. (The planned updates to the emote system are certainly very welcome, though.)

UPDATE Jan. 18th, 2020: As usual, Inara Pey has a much more detailed breakdown of what was discussed at this meeting. Thanks, Inara!


Saying Good-Bye to Sansar: Some Final Thoughts on the Final Day of the Year

Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

I am feeling extremely depressed, disheartened, and discouraged today, the final day of the year.

You might be surprised to learn that the majority of the responses I received to yesterday’s Sansar “call to arms” blogpost have been negative, not positive. People are no longer inclined to feel positive about Sansar.

If I could summarize all the negative responses, they all pretty much run along the lines of: “We gave, we gave some more, we got burned, we’re not giving any more. Linden Lab made too many mistakes, and Sansar is doomed. I’m not responding to your call to arms to try and save it.”

Furthermore, I have had several private conversations with long-time members of the Sansar community over these past few days, partly in response to the Comet project set-up fiasco (to which I sadly contributed to the overall miscommunication). And I have heard a great many disturbing things, about which I swore promises that I would not write about them on this blog. So I will not.

But I can say this.

The small remaining Sansar community (those who have not already given up, packed up, and left) are largely feeling fearful, mistrustful, betrayed, and angry. By and large, they no longer trust Linden Lab, and by and large, they feel that they are not being listened to anymore. Communication between most LL staff and most Sansar users has broken down to the worst point that I have ever seen it in the three years that I have been part of this community. Small wonder the Comet project lead to such rumour-mongering, hearsay, and finger-pointing.

Linden Lab staff working on Sansar are currently stressed beyond imagination, scrambling to fill in for laid-off coworkers as best they can. I have also heard rumours that key LL staff who survived the October layoffs, but then quit after them, have not been replaced—hardly a promising sign. Because of their high-stress work environment, LL staff are making mistakes, which are often taken as signs of ill intent by an already distrustful user community (again, the Comet project is an example).

In my opinion, the entire Sansar community—both staff and users—is now so broken, so distrustful, and so dysfunctional, that I fear it will hasten, instead of forestall, the failure and shut-down of Sansar. When well-known, long-time members of the Sansar community tell me they are planning to shut down their worlds completely, and take their items down from the Sansar Store, it is a sign that there is something terribly, terribly wrong within the virtual society, within the virtual world, we have all built together. It breaks my heart more than I can say.

I now realize that I can’t fix this current mess by anything I say or anything I do. So, instead of rallying the troops to try and save Sansar, I have decided that the best thing for me to do is, simply, to walk away.

I give up.

I can’t fix Sansar’s problems, and trying to stay and fix them is making me more and more depressed, and negatively impacting on the rest of my life. So for my own personal mental health, I am leaving Sansar.

I’m sorry. Like those who responded to my call to arms yesterday, I realize that I have literally nothing left to give anymore.

I realize that I have now changed my mind for the second time in two days about Sansar. That in itself is a strong sign that I need to step away from the platform completely, and give myself time and space to heal.

I will still continue to write this blog, but I will be taking an extended break from Sansar, and not writing about it at all. I will continue work on the Metaverse Newscast, which is currently on hiatus while I teach myself digital video editing, to take over that task from my producer, Andrew William. There will be no future Metaverse Newscast episodes about Sansar for the forseeable future.

I hope that you will understand my decision. But even if you don’t, I expect you to respect it. Thank you. And I’m sorry if I let you down.

Good-bye, Sansar. It’s been a fascinating three years. But it’s over. As part of my decision, I have left the official Sansar Discord server.

Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2020

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Now that I am (finally!) finished my annual holiday tradition of utterly ransacking all the Advent calendars and December shopping events I can find in Second Life—the better to clothe my small army of alts with fashionable freebies!—it is time to turn my attention to predictions for the coming year.

Let’s start with a look back at my predictions for 2019, shall we? I said then:

  • That Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that “the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab”. Well, I am going to stick to that prediction. Implementing avatar name changes in SL turned out to be a thornier problem than Linden Lab anticipated, hence the delay, but they now have eight years of pent-up demand for this feature, and I anticipate that it will still prove popular—and profitable—for Linden Lab. I myself upgraded one of my alts to Premium to be able to change her legacy name of Bumbly Rumpler. (I know. I know. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time!) I also snagged her a lovely new riverside Victorian Linden Home in the process.

  • That OpenSim would move on implementing virtual reality support, but (as far as I can tell), that work has stalled or been abandoned. To be honest, I have barely set foot at all in OpenSim this past year, so I regret that I am not in any position to make predictions for 2020!

  • That “one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold”—a prediction which has come true, at least for MATERIA.ONE, which has not officially folded, but is currently on an indefinite hiatus. The landscape is littered with various blockchain-based projects that are either dead, moribund, or stuck in pre-development hell: Aether City, Ceek, The Deep, MARK.SPACE, MegaCryptoPolis, The Sandbox, Stan World, SuperWorld, Terra Virtua, and VIBEHub. And yet, somehow, new crypto projects keep appearing, hoping to become the next Bitcoin.

    However, three blockchain-based virtual world projects appear to be doing well—Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space—and I expect that they will all continue to do well in 2020. I note that both Decentraland and Cryptovoxels have tended to rank in the Top 5 in sales volume on the OpenSea marketplace (this screencap is from a tweet made Dec. 27th):

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

– convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);

– sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or

– shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

I am increasingly worried (even heartsick) over the future of Sansar.

  • That “the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality”. I think that we can agree that the Oculus Quest has been a runaway success. Facebook is apparently selling the units as fast as they can make them, and they are now backordered until late February 2020. (The Valve Index is also selling well, and also similarly backordered.) I do predict that this will bring many more people into those social VR platforms which can natively run on the standalone Quest headset, such as VRChat, Rec Room, and AltspaceVR.

  • That “Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform”. I deeply regret that this prediction has come true in spades. I said at the time that Linden Lab ditching its SandeX and launching Sansar on Steam would be a terrible mistake, and I take no pleasure in being proven correct. Sansar has been pummeled by negative reviews by Steam gamers, adding to the general sense of malaise about the platform in the past year, especially since approximately 30 staff working on the project were laid off by Linden Lab a couple of months ago, in an attempt to trim their continued financial losses. This was a move which was probably imposed on CEO Ebbe Altberg by the Linden Lab board of directors, who are probably very worried that if Sansar tanks, it will take down Second Life with it.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

O.K., now that we’ve looked at how well my predictions for 2019 have fared, now it’s time to peer in my crystal ball and make some new predictions for 2020.

First, all current social VR platforms and virtual worlds will struggle with a key problem: effective promotion. Getting the word out to the public about the various platforms is proving to be more and more difficult in an age of social media overload and short attention spans.

We can expect to see more partnerships between various platforms and influencers (such as Sansar’s continued partnership with the VR vloggers Cas and Chary, and my own recent sponsorship and advertising deal with Sinespace). By the way, my partnership with Sinespace is not exclusive, we can still see other people 😉 and I am still actively looking for other advertisers and sponsorships for my blog and the Metaverse Newscast show (hint hint).

Second, every single eye will be on Facebook as they launch their new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, early in the new year. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook announcement gets oceans of fawning mainstream press coverage, and you can certainly expect Horizon to suck up all the oxygen in the press room when it gets closer to launch date. If Facebook Horizon, backed by the almost limitless resources and reach of its ambitious parent company, fails to take hold in 2020, then that will be the clearest indication yet that the nascent social VR industry is in trouble (and that I might be out of a job!).

Third, as I have said above, I am extremely worried about Sansar. The Sansar website has recently had a complete redesign to focus almost exclusively on live events:

It would appear that Linden Lab is going all-in on Sansar as a platform for live events, to the detriment of other features such as avatar customization (I don’t expect anything new this coming year). However, competition in the live events market in 2020 is likely to be intense, with the following products also planning to focus on hosting such events:

  • Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has also recently announced a pivot to live events);
  • VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events);
  • Wave (which has already pulled off some spectacular musical events such as the recent Lindsey Stirling concert);
  • Upstarts such as Ceek and Redpill VR (which are in various stages of pre-development and may or may not launch in 2020);
  • Not to mention that Facebook will also want to muscle in on this extremely lucrative territory (with Oculus Venues, and probably Facebook Horizon, too)—and Facebook will not hesitate to ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at their disposal to achieve market dominance (including “hiding” posts about competing platforms in their Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social network users’ newsfeeds). Facebook also has deep pockets to ink deals with major talent, locking them into exclusive deals to appear on their platforms.

Expect many skirmishes on the live events battlefield in 2020, and also expect some causalities to occur.

Fourth, Second Life will continue to coast along as it always does, still boasting approximately 600,000 regular monthly users in recently released statistics by Firestorm, and still making millions of dollars in profits, both for its content creators and for Linden Lab. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I see no sign of it stopping anytime soon. I predict that SL will still be around five years, perhaps even ten years, from now, and that people will still be logging in, and still merrily ransacking Advent calendars 😉 …and I will continue to blog about steals, deals, and freebies in Second Life!

Fifth, we can expect to see the upcoming Educators in VR International Summit as an example of an increasingly important use of social VR platforms in 2020: conferences. This is a natural fit, and one that saves precious resources (such as airline fuel) in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. We can expect to see more conferences and meetings hosted in VR as an alternative to real-world meetings (although, as High Fidelity found out, the remote workteams support marketplace isn’t quite there yet, since the vast majority of companies still expect their employees to show up to their offices rather than work remotely from home). I think it’s going to take another generation for that shift to take effect in any widespread fashion.

Sixth: those social VR platforms which currently lack an in-world economy, currency, and a marketplace for user-created content, will be moving towards implementing those features. VRChat already has a booming off-world economy in the creation and sale of custom avatars. We already know that both VRChat and Rec Room are making plans in this area, based on job postings on their websites, but we can also expect other platforms to take this step, taking their cues from the continuing success of the mature, fully-evolved in-world economy of Second Life.

Platforms where people can make money tend to attract droves of new users, appealing to their greed and the universal desire to strike it rich (Decentraland as a more recent example; although its continued success is not 100% guaranteed, investors have sunk a lot of money into it, and it will be interesting to see how this ultimate expression of virtual, cut-throat capitalism will evolve and grow over the next year).

Finally, at some point Apple (and other companies, including Facebook) will launch the first consumer-oriented augmented reality headsets. The over-hyped Magic Leap One has turned out to be rather underwhelming (and underselling) so far, but who knows? Perhaps future AR products may ignite consumer interest, and have an as-yet-unknown impact on the current crop of social VR platforms.

Perhaps the big bet we all placed on virtual reality has been misplaced? We won’t know the answer to that hypothetical question until at least another decade has passed. Of course, some social VR platforms may decide to extend support to whatever AR/MR/XR hardware becomes available in the future, too. Anything can happen.

So these are my social VR/virtual world predictions for 2020. Please check back in a year, and we’ll see just how accurate I was!

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

UPDATED! Editorial: Linden Lab’s New Community Events Team—What’s With All the Secrecy?

I am, once again, breaking my self-imposed Christmas holidays with news of a secretive program which Linden Lab wants to launch in Sansar early in the new year. And the company is going about setting this program up in the most curious and divisive way possible.

Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

Two different longtime members of the Sansar community (who shall remain anonymous) approached me at separate times today, to inform me about what appears to be a new, secretive initiative to recruit selected Sansar users into a program called COMET (short for Community Events Team). All recruited users must sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Both of my sources were not personally selected by Linden Lab for the COMET project, but each heard about it through others.

Here’s all the information that I have, which has been corroborated by both sources. There is mention of a separate, private Discord channel for communication between Linden Lab and their Comets:

Program Mission Statement

The Event Program (known as COMET – Community Events Team) work as a team to create a regular community-driven events in Sansar. Throughout the pilot program, Comets will be given Missions that they have to accomplish in order to earn points. If they succeed in their Missions they will be given various rewards as a group, and also work to earn rewards for the user base at large.

Rules and Guidelines:
-Comets are expected to sign a Linden Lab general NDA to participate
-Comets are expected to be exemplary community members by behaving like a leader/role model and avoiding unnecessary or malicious confrontation in the Community.
-Comets are program volunteers that represent Sansar
-They should never request personal information and they should never imply that they are Linden Lab Employees
-Comets operate as a team to earn points and complete missions
-Comets may be removed from the program at Sansar staff’s will
-Events may not overlap
-Missions must be completed by midnight PST of the due date
-Inactive Comets will be given one warning via private Discord message before being removed from the program,

Comets will have the opportunity to take “Time off”
-Time off should be reported to Sansar staff via private Discord message
-Comets on Time off will not earn Comets rewards during their Time off
-Comets may be subject to removal per the discretion of the Lab for extended periods of absence Timeline

The Comets program will kick off officially on January 3rd, 2020 Other important notes This is a pilot program that is experimental, so things may change as we figure out what does and doesn’t work. No changes will come as a surprise to Comets — this channel is meant as an open discourse between Staff and Comets

It’s not yet clear why participants collect “points” and complete “missions”. Will they be getting paid? Are they getting some other special incentives to participate?

One of my sources, a longtime and well-regarded Sansar member, told me that they hadn’t been invited, and they were afraid that it might start dividing the small community. And I must confess that I am somewhat puzzled at the secretive way that Linden Lab has decided to go about setting up this program.

Why would the people selected have to sign NDAs? Perhaps Linden Lab is bringing in some big-name artists for live events that require such a high level of secrecy and subterfuge?

I am, quite obviously, NOT one of the people selected for this potentially delicate mission (and frankly, after breaking the news of the recent Sansar layoffs, I rather doubt that I am, quote, “behaving like a leader/role model and avoiding unnecessary or malicious confrontation in the Community“). In the eyes of Linden Lab, I am most certainly not “the right stuff” to handle such a endeavour, since I speak my mind on this blog, quite regularly. And it would appear that some others don’t meet the requirements, either. If you were or are at all critical of Linden Lab or Sansar, it would appear that you were not chosen.

And, like the others who have heard about it through the grapevine, the secrets and rumours have taken on a life of their own in the community (of course they would). The Sansar community has already been deeply shaken by the changes that have taken place on the platform in the past few months. The Sansar website has now been utterly redesigned to focus exclusively on Sansar as a platform for live eventsPERIOD. It’s as if anything else (for example, the content creation and world building that once were a key part of Sansar), is now completely secondary.

Linden Lab has very clearly changed the way that they run Sansar now, and I for one do not like some of the changes I am seeing. I myself have noticed that the formerly easy flow of communication that used to exist between Linden Lab staff and its users is no longer the way it used to be, since the layoffs. (The new manager of Sansar, Sheri Bryant, still does not see fit to spend any time at all in the official Sansar Discord, to actually listen to the users, something I find increasingly dismaying.)

There is a very clear sense of “us” versus “them”, both developing between Linden Lab and Sansar users, and even developing between various groups of Sansar users themselves. The Comet program is a perfect example of a new project where, from the very start, there is zero basis of the trust in users that used to be a fact of life in the old days of Sansar. Why else would LL cherry-pick who they want, and swear them to secrecy?

Why, for God’s sake, didn’t Linden Lab just make a general announcement that they were looking for volunteers? The only reason I can think of, is that that LL is being extremely particular about who they want to work on the Comets program. They want to select people they feel they can trust, people who can follow orders and not talk back, which leaves the rest of us feeling puzzled, suspicious, and bemused.

Not a great way to start off a new year, Linden Lab.

If Linden Lab continues to divide its users and content creators into groups of people who can and cannot be trusted, they in turn will be distrustful of the motives of the company—and Linden Lab, by trying to sugar-coat the significant layoff of staff working on Sansar earlier this year, has already been seen as not being completely honest with its userbase. (At least Philip Rosedale has had the courage and the integrity to be up-front and honest about the two staff layoffs which happened to High Fidelity this year, reporting on both of them on his official blog. Linden Lab could learn a lesson in transparency from their founding CEO.)

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

  • convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);
  • sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or
  • shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

2020 is a new year, and it would appear that Sansar is playing by new rules.

Fasten your seatbelts; 2020 is shaping up to be a bumpy ride.

UPDATE Dec. 27th, 2019: All right, it would seem that this “secretive” program had been mentioned a few times at previous Product Meetups, according to Lacie Linden. And Galileo Linden said:

The mistake was not officially announcing it before we chatted with the folks selected. Like Lacie said, we were just trying to get work done before the break.We limited the folks because Lacie and I weren’t sure what the workload would be like for two of us… Well, we’ve been encouraging people to hold more events and some have. And we realized it wouldn’t be fair to continue to ask without trying to find some sort of reward system in place. The Comets will he earning rewards because we are asking them to do work. Actual work with goals and expectations. They will also be earning rewards for the entire user base. That way everyone feels involved.

Anyway, we’ll be opening a larger sign-up program later once Lacie and I figure out how we can manage that workload with only two of us.This is our test. Sorry to have not communicated that better before we left – definitely our mistake.

We’ll open up signups for the open program once we figure out if this is something that is useful. Lacie and I aren’t even sure if we can handle a program of a few people yet let alone an open sign up… So that’s all – no conspiracies – we chose the current members based on events they’ve thrown… We chose folks that we knew were throwing events and enjoy doing that. One way to get involved now is to offer up your worlds as event locations.

We’ll be discussing the entire program during our first product meetup in the new year – sorry again for not discussing it openly before we left. We finalized the program literally an hour before the office closed, so we weren’t even sure it was going to be ready before we came back.

So we can likely expect a more formal call for volunteers later on. And, as Galileo himself said, I could easily have pinged him to ask for his side of the story, but I didn’t (because I assumed he was on break), and I ran with the story.

In retrospect, that was an overly-hasty decision, and I offer both Galileo and Lacie my apologies for not checking in with them first to get both sides of the story. I have, once again, fallen into the trap of assuming ill intent on the part of Linden Lab in the absence of full information.

This grumpy old bear is going back into holiday hibernation mode and I will not be blogging again until the new year. (You can start placing bets as to when I break that promise, again.)