Company behind Second Life building virtual reality universe

Project Sansar
The makers of Second Life are working on a secretive new virtual reality universe called Project Sansar.

In a few years, we'll be able to strap on virtual reality goggles and plunge into a sprawling and complex virtual universe. But first, someone has to actually built it.

Linden Lab wants to make it easier for people and companies to build their own virtual reality experiences.

The makers of the 13-year-old Second Life virtual world are designing a platform to create and host virtual reality experiences. Codenamed Project Sansar, Linden Lab's undertaking has been shrouded in secrecy. Last month, the company had a few Second Life veterans play around with the early beta. It was the first time anyone outside the company had set a (digital) foot in the world.

Think of it as the YouTube of the virtual world -- an entry point for anyone who wants to build a VR experience without investing a ton of time and money.

Second Life is an aging virtual world that had a lot of hype but never quite reached a mass audience. It peaked at a million users. It's still chugging along today with hundreds of thousands of loyal users. It's even profitable -- but it is not the future.

A year and a half ago, Linden Lab started plotting its entry into virtual reality.

Virtual and augmented reality will be a $150 billion market by 2020, according to Digi-Capital. Facebook's (FB, Tech30) Oculus Rift headset is leading the way with immersible video, audio and even touch experiences. A commercial version of the $1,500 device is expected to hit the market in early 2016, though it will take more time before any kind of VR tech spreads to the masses.

"We know more than anybody else what it takes to do something like this," said Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg.

Porting Second Life over to VR was quickly ruled out. The performance requirements for virtual reality are high -- it requires more frames per second and high resolution art. Starting fresh gave Linden Lab a chance to rethink how a virtual world is organized and how it makes money.

Creating worlds will be more difficult in Project Sansar than Second Life, but Altberg said they've made a tool non-engineers can use.

"It's still extremely difficult to create content for virtual reality. Pretty much anything you want to create, you have to have a sophisticated engineering organization in place," said Altberg. "We're trying to solve those problems."

A news publication could make a place to experience virtual versions of articles. Executives could gather in virtual meeting rooms. Doctors could open virtual health care clinics. They would all likely prefer to do it without having to build something complicated from the ground up.

Internally, Linden Labl employees are working on polishing the product, building their own test worlds along the way. They've made a desert scene with crazy big machinery, weird futuristic lounges and a famous landmark. They've even created an exact replica of a conference room in Linden Lab's San Francisco office, down to the objects on the desk.

Altberg expects to have the first version of Project Sansar available by the end of 2016. Then it will be up to creators and companies to decide what the coming virtual reality universe will look and feel like -- and what we'll actually do when we're there.

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