Linden Lab, which created the created the virtual world Second Life in 2003, is in “invite-only creator-preview” mode for Sansar, a new VR-based platform that has been described as a “WordPress for social VR.” Pooky Amsterdam, who has long been evangelizing the immersive experience of Second Life, which has hosted everything from NASA to Kraft Foods and millions of individuals' avatars in between, feels that it will be riding the crest of a Zeitgeist built on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and yet-to-come devices.
Amsterdam runs PookyMedia, a real-time animation studio based in Hudson, N.Y., that has created more than 200 virtual-reality TV shows for Second Life and elsewhere, but has no affiliation with Linden Lab, which has its headquarters in San Francisco. She is also the co-author of a 2013 paper on the nature and potential of virtual world television, with a focus on its communal nature and ability to create engagement among participants.
In many ways, Second Life was ahead of its time, Amsterdam says. It had about 1.1 million active users at its peak. Reportedly, that’s down to the high six figures. The “residents,” as they are called, create the content, and it is very transactional.
“When you create content, you can also sell it in stores and on the marketplace. You can buy anything you can imagine and beyond,” Amsterdam explains. “People who sell their goods get Lindens, which have a monetary value of about four cents, and they cash out -- giving Second Life in 2015 a GDP of around $500 million, with users getting a total of more than $60 million that year. For example, one user sold around 300,000 virtual dresses at roughly $4 each.”
But marketers, in particular, had a hard time figuring out how to use Second Life effectively — and there are lessons to be learned for when Sansar is released to the general public.
“There were a lot of brands early on,” Amsterdam recalls. “But they would build a store -- and, it being in the nascent stage of virtual reality, they wouldn’t have anyone in it. It’s like if you were going to open a store in China. Would you do it without having anybody who spoke Chinese? I don't think the brands understood how to maximize the benefit of being in this virtual world.”
The 3D virtual world is about to get so vivid and immersive that Amsterdam feels most people can’t grasp just how powerful the experience will be. “We are so subjective in our construction of reality. What we see, and what we understand, is what is," she says. "Within this virtual environment, there will be people. There will be activity. You’re either standing or sitting right there in the midst of it. With your body, not your mouse. Taking away that extra step … that extra disconnect of clicking. Will that make it more real for us? Of course it will!”
But will it make us buy?
Well, let’s say you’re Budweiser. You create a “‘Happy Days,’ rock ’n roll road house with a bowling alley” for a certain demographic that would appreciate such a venue. “I don’t care if you have been a Heineken drinker all your life,” Amsterdam says. “If you are playing Bowling for Budweisers, you’ll eventually pick up a Bud on the way home.”
And teetotalers presumably will be able to find a glaringly lighted church basement somewhere for a cup of Starbucks and, say, a meeting of like-minded fellows. Either way, you’re doing what you want to do, relating to people who feel the same way you do.
“You're going to go back again. Maybe not the next night, or every night. But when you have some free time, are you going to binge-watch TV -- or are you going to be an active participant in your entertainment? It used to be ‘sit back and relax.’ Now it’s ‘lean forward and engage,’” Amsterdam maintains.And the brands that figure out how to be fully present for your experience, without being obtrusive, will presumably factor into your non-VR engagement, too.