Project Sansar: Inside the Real Life ‘Westworld’

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By Caroline Kent | 11:40 am, December 6, 2016

If the idea of an anarchic, lawless playground like that depicted in HBO’s Westworld appeals, then you need to get in line for Project Sansar, a new VR project set to be the real life version of the fictional theme park.

The simulated world of Project Sansar is the latest offering from Linden Lab, best known as the creators of Second Life (the largest-ever 3D virtual world filled entirely by the creations of its users).

Sansar will allow more people than ever before to build and enjoy their own simulated reality world free from pre-programmed boundaries.

Launching in early 2017, the VR technology allows users to create their own world and develop scenarios in which to explore it and socialize alongside other “advanced expressive avatars” using headsets like the Oculus Rift.

Project Sansar might not have a western theme at its core but the concept bears striking similarities to the futuristic amusement park in HBO’s Westworld. The park in the show is populated by synthetic robot “hosts” who help visitors enact whatever storylines they’d like to experience.

Every hero has a code. #Westworld premieres 10/2 at 9PM on #HBO.

A photo posted by WestWorld HBO (@hbowestworld) on

Immersive VR environments like Sansar are increasingly able to serve as a similar sort of inverse safe-space where — like Westworld — anything goes, from violent rapes to heroic adventures. But this has worried some who argue that murder in VR should be made illegal.

Westworld’s rebellious robots tap in to our fears about the potential impact of increasingly immersive tech. Does what happens in VR stay in VR? Many worry that it’s not possible for us to switch-off and leave experiences behind in the virtual world; that allowing people to commit illegal or immoral behavior in the virtual world erodes our moral fibre, desensitizes us, normalizes aggression and even rewires our brain since the scenario might not be real but the physiological reaction is experienced as reality.

But who’s to say that allowing people an unsafe safe space in which to be utterly deviant couldn’t actually serve a novel purpose for society; VR may serve a cathartic function. Sansar and other platforms like it could provide a much-needed pressure valve.

One of the many things we don’t yet know about Westworld is what the universe outside the park is like. It may be as debauched as the theme park itself, but perhaps it’s safe and peaceful because people are free to satisfy their impulses and work through their frustrations and fantasies, creative and destructive impulses, in a “safe” arena?

I can certainly see why a world free from boundaries would appeal. Maybe it’s just me, but the standards set for our behavior and achievement seem to be climbing all the time. We must do the right thing, in the right way and tell everyone about it afterwards.

We are acutely aware of how we are perceived. Social expectations can feel crushing at times, conflicting with our flawed, confused, and imperfect human nature.

VR platforms like Sansar could serve for us, as Westworld does for its wide-eyed visitors- a place to defy expectations, explore our value system and boundaries and show us what we’re capable of.

Virtual environments might give us access to the sides of ourselves we can’t as easily access in real life scenarios. Perhaps they will affirm our goodness rather than magnify our weaknesses.

Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg explained to his reasons for keeping Sansar boundary-free and user-generated in an interview with tech blog Future of Sex. “In Second Life I can be almost anyone, from anywhere, doing anything…for a lot of people, it has been a very useful way to explore their own identity.

“A lot of people are not comfortable with their shell, so they have an opportunity to explore through their avatar another side of themselves, or maybe the actual side of themselves. I know of many people who have discovered themselves through that process and actually helped them come around to who they are in the physical world.”

Westworld certainly presented viewers with questions related to his comments. What would I do if I was a guest? Would I exact a revenge fantasy? Project my need for closure from someone who hurt me in real life on to an avatar?

Would I play the hero on a gun-toting adventure through unchartered desert land? Would I stab my waiter with a steak knife for failing to top up my drink quickly enough? Would I cheat on my partner?

What would you do? Sansar is set to give us a chance to find out.

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