Social VR Adventures: The Next Frontier

blog post | September 22, 2017 | by Cassidy Dwelis

As VR grows, developers continue to impress and roll out amazing ways that humans can use VR to interact with one another.  San Francisco based Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life is leading the pack with their newest platform, Sansar.

Sansar aims to be a place where creators can share Virtual Reality “Experiences”, immersive levels where people can explore virtual worlds. The process for creators is simple. 3D modelers and sculptors create objects for their Experience in any modeling program. Then, artists import the object into Sansar, add lighting, and begin to build their world from the ground up. Anyone with a desktop computer can explore Sansar, but the experience is geared toward owners of VR headsets.

astroPortSign_Mold3D.png

Mold3D had the amazing opportunity of working with Linden Lab to create an experience of their own and to test out the platform ahead of launch. The team created an outer-space experience where users can explore a lobby that leads to fantastical lands, and while they’re waiting for their spaceship to depart, they can also enjoy a relaxing game of skee ball. So how is this all possible and what exactly is Sansar?

I got to sit down with Edward Quintero from Mold3D and ask about his exclusive look at the beta. Ed talked to me about his experience from the developer’s end while working with Sansar and also the prospects for the platform in the 3D industry and beyond.


Cassidy: What was Mold3D's involvement with the Sansar Project?

Edward: Late last year, I had a conversation with Linden Lab's Director of Business Development and Head of Sansar Studios, Jason Gholston about a new platform that they were developing for VR. Jason proposed that Mold3D take a shot at creating a VR environment with Sansar. The app wasn't publicly available at the time, so we were tasked with creating an experience for their open beta program, basically to create a cool VR experience and test out the platform.

At the time I had just completed a gig working for Epic Games on their Robo Recall VR shooter game, and while the experience working on my first VR project was amazing, it also became clear there was a lot to learn. Even for an experienced 3D artist like myself, VR meant learning new platforms like Unity or Unreal. Not to mention that it also takes a team of UI designers, game designers and programmers to create a compelling experience like Robo Recall.

Avatars inside the Astro Port environment attending a user group meeting.

Avatars inside the Astro Port environment attending a user group meeting.

So for the typical 3D Artist, it became clear that jumping into VR is not as straightforward as simply creating a 3D model or environment. Many skills come into play requiring a team, lots of time and money.

When I was introduced to Sansar, I was blown away. Here was this platform that made it easier for an artist to plug and play, or create and play in this case. The vision of the platform is to democratize VR content creation, making it easy for someone who has 3D art skills to get their hands dirty.

This was appealing to me and I knew it would be appealing to our audience. Many of whom are interested in creating art, not learning how to code inside a game engine. Sansar makes this possible.

Cassidy: What did you create?

Edward: This was a rare opportunity where I was given complete freedom in choosing a theme and running with it. I pitched about 7 ideas, and Linden Labs chose my sci-fi concept. The idea was to create a space port for intergalactic space tourism.  Knowing I had limited time and budget, I opted for a stylized approach that was influenced by theme park environments and retro design. Think Disney's Space Mountain or something like that. An area that guests could hang out in before boarding a ride. We called it "Astro Port".

Cassidy: Why VR?

Edward: Mold3D is primarily known for education, not VR development. However, we are always on the lookout for emerging technologies and how they relate to creativity. If a tool emerges that can benefit the artist, we are interested in that, especially in the context of learning and education. 

Which is why VR and AR are topics we are interested in teaching. I felt it was especially important to have first hand experience creating in VR to help make better decisions of where to take our educational initiatives. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I'm starting to notice training centers popping up, often times created by VC backed kids with absolutely no VR, art or tech experience. This isn't a cash grab incentive for me, so it's important to intimately know the subject so I can produce the best, highest quality classes that will bring results to our students.

Cassidy: What was the process of creating a VR environment for Sansar?

Edward: I didn't want to create this on my own, so I put together a small team to help me realize the vision.  I took on the role of Creative Director and Producer for this project and hired Concept Artists, 1 full time 3D Environment Artist and a part time Texture Artist. Mike Hill,  Andres Parada and Andres Martinez helped with concepts, while Chris Durso and Daniel Morrison worked on the 3D assets, and Cesar Montero with consulting/production.

Overall the process was pretty straightforward. We created the assets using a video game pipeline. High resolution models to create the detail, followed by low resolution meshes, baking of maps (AO, normals,etc.) and texturing in Substance Painter. Materials were handled in Maya,where the assets were exported as .FBX files and imported into Sansar.

So asset creation was done entirely outside of Sansar, with only layout and lighting being handled in the platform.

Creatively, we had a lot of control but the client did have their requests. One was to incorporate interactivity in the environment, so we came up with a Skee-Ball type of game to give the users something to do. Interaction in Sansar was pretty limited when we were in production, so it was definitely a challenge.

If you want to challenge yourself, try creating a sci-fi environment without reflective materials.

Cassidy: What other challenges did you face in creating for a new VR platform, if any?

Edward: The platform was still in early development, so there were various challenges. One was technical. Having worked in a game engine like Unreal, I was accustomed to fancy materials and lighting. Don't get me wrong, Sansar looks amazing. Hands down the most impressive Social VR experience out there, in terms of visual fidelity as well as the avatar tech itself. Seeing expressions on another avatar and talking to them inside Sansar is a complete trip.

Regardless there was some technical hurdles. At the time, Sansar had no ability to render reflections. If you want to challenge yourself, try creating a sci-fi environment without reflective materials. We definitely had to get creative in suggesting metallic surfaces without the benefit of reflections.

Another technical challenge, which has since then been an added feature was no transparency. Sansar allowed for either full opaque or 100% transparent, no in-between. This meant no "Minority Report" style screens or displays we are all accustomed to seeing in our favorite video games.

The big challenge however was the budget and time constraints.  Linden Labs was generous to help offset some of the costs, but my vision was pretty ambitious.

I had recently completed look development work on Epic Game's Robo Recall, so my intention was to create something as polished as what I had done on Robo. Easier said than done, especially given the fact that Epic Games had a good sized time team and almost a year of time, not to mention a budget that was probably in the millions. We had 3 months and a budget that only afforded me to hire a single 3D Artist for only part of the production. 

Profitability wasn't my concern however, as I felt it could be a good case study for Mold3D.

Unfortunately I can honestly say I did not succeed in many ways, at least not to the level I was shooting for. My vision for the space was more ambitious than our end result. I wanted to add more rooms, as well as have a final polish pass on the materials and textures. We also need more objects to fill out the space and overall more texture variety, props and so on.

Basically a typical artist scenario where you are never happy but eventually, time or money forces you to put it down. Maybe I'll revisit the space soon and add some love (says 3D artist who has a catalog of unfinished work on his hard drive)!

Regardless of these challenges,  I am happy with the experience and the overall result. It was my first attempt at creatively directing a VR experience, and I'm pumped to go back to Sansar and create another project, perhaps this time on my own. 

Maybe you won't get it perfect the first time, but with some time and practice, platforms like Sansar give a typical 3D Artist like myself, the technology to create compelling and professional quality results in a plug and play fashion.