ebbe-altberg2Linden Lab’s Second Life has been one of the largest and most successful virtual world ecosystems with nearly 13 years of existence. But Linden Lab recognized that the infrastructure and foundations of Second Life was not going to be able to drive the level of low-latency performance that virtual reality requires, and so they announced in June 2014 that they were going to be building a new project codenamed Project Sansar that would be optimized for VR.

I had a chance to sit down with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg this year at SVVR to talk about their design goals and plans for Project Sansar. We also talked about a lot of deeper issues about the future of the Metaverse ranging from the tradeoffs of walled garden silos vs the open web, control vs. freedom, identity vs. anonymity, and moderating for the group experience vs. justice and reconciliation beyond a one-strike ban.

This interview with Ebbe also inspired a lot of deep thoughts about how the overall political, economic, and legal context is setting the tone and boundaries about the future of VR. This interview made quite an impression on me, and I appreciate Ebbe’s candor and honesty to discuss and explore some of the larger issues of the closed vs open web, and the future of privacy and data tracking as we move beyond the “Information Age” and into the “Experiential Age.”

LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST

Linden Lab has had a lot of experience of running a successful virtual world with Second Life, and they are well-positioned to make an early move at creating a user-generated virtual world at scale. A press release from last August mentions that pilot users of Project Sansar will have to “create 3D content using Autodesk’s Maya® software,” and so it will be interesting to see to what types of world-building tools will be available within the experience to their non-expert, 3D modeling users. At SVVR, Linden Lab announced that they’re taking creator preview applications for people interested in creating experiences on their platform starting later this summer.

This interview inspired a lot of deep reflection, and I noticed that there was a qualitative difference between being able to track data from your behaviors in a web browser and being able to track biometric data from a VR experience. I think this reflects some of the wider discussion in the tech community that VR and AR may be catalyzing a larger shift from the “Information Age” and into this new “Experiential Age.”

MOVING FROM THE INFORMATION AGE TO THE EXPERIENTIAL AGE
On Monday, Mike Wadhera wrote an article on TechCrunch titled “The Information Age is over; Welcome to the Experience Age,” where he argues there’s a fundamental shift of “the changing context of our online interactions, shaped by our connected devices” that has users posting and consuming less personal information and moving towards having more “experiences” online.

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Wadhera argues that Facebook and Twitter are Information Age natives where users aggregate data to reflect their identity. He says, “Accumulation manifests in a digital profile where my identity is the sum of all the information I’ve saved —  text, photos, videos, web pages.” With original Facebook status update sharing on the decline, then this could be an early indication that the tide is shifting away from experiences that value data and information, and more towards ones that emphasize visceral emotions and deeper meaning.

The Experiential Age is more about having an authentic experience of being yourself rather than collecting abstract representations of identity through the posting of information. Wadhera argues that Snapchat is a native to this new Experiential Age, and that their ephemeral, self-destructing messages “force us to break the accumulation habit we brought over from desktop computing.”

Wadhera identifies mobile technologies as one of key drivers of this shift, but I would also argue that the rise of virtual and augmented reality has the potential to move the center of gravity of our attention from information on screen-based media to experience within immersive media.

The Virt’s Phil Johnston argues a similar point in his post from 2014 where he says that Virtual Reality represents the Dawn of the Experiential Age. VR allows for the direct transmission of experiences that goes beyond a level of data transmission that happens when it’s abstracted into a 2D plane.

This is a similar conclusion that I came to within my summary of 400 Voices of VR interviews talk that I gave at SVVR. I titled my graphic “The Human Experience of Virtual Reality” because it was the underlying human experience that I found could make the most sense of understanding the virtual reality landscape. The “human experience” landscape of VR is less about market verticals, and more about how VR has the capacity to reflect the full complexity and nuance of the human experience.

Human-Experience-of-Virtual-Reality

I would argue that the more of these twelve different domains of human experience that a VR experience can include, then the more popular it will be since it will be able to reflect the fullness of our actual human experience. Both Second Life and Project Sansar aim to give expression to all twelve of these domains of human experience within the context of their virtual worlds, and this is often overlooked or not fully appreciated by the new consumer VR community.

This was a point that was brought home to me in my 2014 interview with Ebbe as well as with Second Life documentarian Bernard Drax. Linden Lab does have an incredible amount of experience in fostering and cultivating each of these domains of human experience, and so I would expect that if Project Sansar enables user-friendly world-building capabilities, then they’ll have the potential to be one of the first virtual worlds that captures the full range of expression for all of the different dimensions of the human experience within VR.

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INFORMATION AGE BUSINESS MODELS DRIVEN BY SURVEILLANCE
One of the primary business models of The Information Age has been that information is freely available, and that it’s supported by ads. There’s an explicit agreement that authenticated users are volunteering to be tracked and surveilled by companies in exchange for all of this free content and social connections that they are enabling.

This was a point that was made by Ethan Zuckerman in a Reply All podcast, where he argued that the JavaScript pop-up ads that he invented in 1994 may have helped to sustain an ad-based revenue model on the Internet that could have had the unintended side effect of “ushering in a world in which the american public has grown too comfortable with the idea of being under surveillance.”

Zuckerman feels guilty that he may have “helped create a world today in which Edward Snowden can come forward with his revelations about government spying, and most of us will just shrug, because we’re so used to being generally surveilled by the websites we visit.”

We often don’t hesitate to consent to the Terms of Service agreements of Information Age websites that dictate how our data are collected and used in exchange for the attention of our social network and the platform tools to share photos, status updates or videos. We have a lot of agency over what information we share and don’t share, and so this is a value exchange where we’re willing to trust these companies in exchange for the real value they’re providing.

WHY EXPERIENTIAL AGE SURVEILLANCE IS DIFFERENT
While there’s a level of consent for data that we are explicitly sharing on websites within the context of the Information Age, the Experiential Age is going to be tracking behavioral and biometric data that is a lot more unconscious but yet still revealing. Virtual Reality has the capability to gather an enormous amount of biometric data ranging from our heart rate data, our emotional states, identifiable body language cues extrapolated from head and hand tracking, and eventually our eye-tracked “attention” for what we’re looking at and getting impressed by.

While we have had no real pause with sharing abstracted information with companies, then perhaps we will be more cautious about what type of unconscious medical data from our bodies that we’re willing to share with companies. That means that Facebook, Google, or Linden Lab could start to save vast repositories of personal biometric data that could become a target for governments or hackers.

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US companies can receive a National Security Letter from the government requesting data that they’re prevented to talk about under a gag order. There are government transparency reports available from Google and Facebook that have assurances that they’re not required to hand over certain private data, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation has found thousands of pages of documents from a related lawsuit that showed repeated revealations of government abuses of power.

The Terms of Service from Oculus even remind us “[No] data transmission or storage can be guaranteed to be 100% secure. As a result, while we strive to protect the information we maintain, we cannot guarantee or warrant the security of any information you disclose or transmit to our Services and cannot be responsible for the theft, destruction, or inadvertent disclosure of information.”

While we like to think that all of our personal data will be completely safe in the hands of these companies, the truth of the matter is that there are hackers and abusive governments that make it impossible for companies to be able to guarantee 100% security.

THE EVOLVING BUSINESS MODELS OF THE EXPERIENTIAL AGE
Will the Experiential Age catalyze a change in what types of Terms of Service that we’re willing to accept? And will this lead to new viable business models that don’t rely upon surveillance? Here are a number of big open questions as to what the emerging business model of this Experiential Age:

  • Will VR users still be willing to share personal data in exchange for free content?
  • How much of this gathered data will VR users be willing to share?
  • What types of benefits of interactivity or more targeted content would this data enable?
  • What insights and judgements could AI-trained, deep learning networks be able to assert about us after studying months of our biometric data gathered from VR experiences?

Overall, I think that the underlying business models of The Experiential Age may be evolving towards a pay-per-event type of model. So rather than receiving all of the immersive content for free in exchange for seemingly innocuous data collection, then perhaps we’ll move towards a culture that is willing to pay for experiences up front without having to submit to additional surveillance.

We’re already moving towards an app-based ecosystem with VR where there is a pay-upfront mentality that more mirrors what we have seen in the gaming market, but it’s still an open question as to whether we’ll be willing to pay for every immersive experience after living through this Information Age ethic that “Information should be free.”

We are still willing to pay for live sporting, music, and cultural events, and so perhaps The Experiential Age will introduce new viable business models for holding virtual events.

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