Shiny… and not so

When you build with only prims and sculpts, the more detail wanted, the more objects it takes. That’s easier to get away with in, say, InWorldz, where the prim limit is 3 times Second Life’s per square meter. Not so easy in SL.

Except… there’s more than one way to impart the sense of 3-dimensionality besides making it out of blocks. Ever hear of trompe l’oiel art?

That’s oil paint on flat canvas, from 1887.* In our own time, there’s a movement of sidewalk artists who do some phenomenal work when seen from the optimum angle:

The child is real, by the way.

Linden Lab’s announcement Thursday of a new, open source “Materials Systems” project seeks to enable trompe l’Viewer: a way of adding metadata — “normal” and “specular” maps — embedded in mesh objects and textures that fool the graphics rendering engine to interpret a surface other than literally.

If you endured Intro to Optics in a uni-level physics course, you might recall that normal refers, not to behavior, but to the line perpendicular to a surface at a given point, and that reflection and refraction are measured as an angle away from the normal. Specular, in optics, means “mirror-like”; that is, light is reflected directly back toward the source; specularity in computer graphics is a way to control how reflective a surface is, and where.

Put the two together, and you have a way of creating detail on an otherwise flat (or smoothly curved) surface without having to add more more triangles and vertices to the mesh. The Linden Lab post has a short teaser about results (which you should watch), and Nalates Uriah’s blog has a couple of examples from outside SL, as well as an important reminder: It’s all mesh, and it always has been.** Avatars, clothing layers, skins, prims, sculpts, even the sky! Go to your Advanced menu and turn on wireframe to see for yourself.

Think about what skin, clothing, and texture artists will be able do — eventually — with Materials tools. OK, so SL may never look like Pixar put it together (seen Brave yet?), but it may eventually look a lot less flat.

The keyword in the last paragraph is eventually… which brings us to Teh Lab’s other announcement of 16 August: “Second Life is Expanding to Steam”. There was quite a kerfuffle when that news hit the SL enclave in the Twitterverse.

Here’s my reaction, cobbled together from a series of Tweetrants:

“Let them come, and they’ll build it.” How many times have we seen that before?

Since they can’t retain the new signups they already have, why bother looking for more? Unless it’s another round of “let’s make money hosting someone else’s content,” which I strongly suspect. $1000 down and $295/month for a 256m-square sandbox. When someone successfully raises startup cash online for game development in SL, then I’ll believe it’s got legs.

So… yeah. Materials and Pathfinding: great potential tools for builders and game developers who, if they show up, might create some really cool shit that might attract the kind of gamers who use Steam as a one-stop source for stuff to play — eventually. Gotta get the devs here first, of course, but does Linden Lab include that in their thinking? Nope — it’s “cart before horse” time again.

Let’s say, once those shiny new tools are sufficiently “out of beta” to be useful, that someone is genuinely interested in SL as a game development platform. It’s going to cost them a minimum of $4540 for the first year, per sim, plus the nickel-and-dime game of upload charges, just to sandbox the thing. Like I said: when I see Kickstarter appeals on Twitter to bankroll a game in Second Life, then I’ll know that idea is working.

Meanwhile… people go to Steam to play games, not make them. Hard-core MMO players, if they’re curious enough to create an account, are going to take one look and say “Pffft!” Second Life requires self-direction (not to omit a steep learning curve), and that’s not what most people play games for.

Last time I looked, five months ago, SL had about 28.25 million total signups over the life of the grid. It’s up to 30.5 million now – 2 and a quarter million more new accounts; 450,000 average per month, or about 15,000 a day. Yet median concurrency continues to slide, slowly but perceptibly, somewhere south of 40,000.  They can’t keep the newbies they already get every day; why are they going for more, before the improvements that might make more want to stay?

It is a puzzlement.


Civil War Regalia of Major Levi Gheen McCauley, George Cope, 1887 (Art Institute of Chicago)

** The Lab likes to throw the word “mesh” around in various contexts, with various connotations, without explaining that it’s all the same thing. “Mesh import” is exactly and only that — a means to import items made out-of-world (in Blender, et alii, ). “Pathfinding mesh” is, like the materials maps, merely an addition of metadata to the terrain – which is also, and always has been, mesh: a mathematical 3-space construct of points, connected by lines into triangles that imply a surface.


Raising the Walls

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

The occasion was SL7B, June 2010, when Philip (Linden) Rosedale, founder and Chief Ineffectual Figurehead of Linden Lab, gave not one but two speeches — partially because Mark (M Linden) Kingdon was simultaneously being shown the door.

From the transcript of Speech #1:

Second Life is this wonderful, beautiful city — once you’re in it and you’re having this amazing immersive experience, you’re just totally blown away by it. But the city itself is surrounded by huge walls and a moat. It’s like a medieval city. To actually get into it you have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy getting across that moat, and over the walls, and into this amazing new world of people inside that are waiting inside. And I think that in our excitement about the success of Second Life — in its amazing initial growth and the amazing things that you guys have done and that we’ve done together — we were getting ahead of ourselves a bit as a company and this is what we really talked about in this restructuring. We were building these sort of rickety — we were in many cases building these bridges and scaffoldings that sought to get different types of people across that moat and over those walls, whether we’re talking about international Residents, or the community welcome areas, or enterprise or education users — we’ve been sort of building these little, thin bridges that try and quickly get everybody kind of over that wall and into Second Life. And of course, you can understand why we’d do that, because it’s just so fantastic an experience once we can get people there.

But I think what we have to do — what I know is the kind of thinking that’s informing our planning process going forward — is ask whether instead we can stop doing those many, many peripheral, highly usage-specific things to get people in here — and instead just take a step back, look at the basic problems that we are all faced by, and by fixing them, fill the moat. Tear down the walls.

[emphasis added]

Now, fast forward to February of this year, when the Lab changed the Third-Party Viewer (TPV) Policy; specifically, this addition:

2.k : You must not provide any feature that alters the shared experience of the virtual world in any way not provided by or accessible to users of the latest released Linden Lab viewer.

… which basically means, to TPV developers, “If the Linden Viewer can’t do it, yours isn’t allowed to.” It also means “If the Lab decides to discontinue a pre-existing function, you TPV’ers must also cease offering it.” The first, immediately noticeable effect of the change was the permanent breaking of viewer tags — i.e., in a gathering of avatars you can no longer see, either by text or color-code, how few people are using the Linden viewer versus how many are using which TPV.

Since they couldn’t make it better, they made it impossible to see how many avvies had voted with their pixel feet.

Finally, we come to the Lab’s decision this week to remove the “-loginURI” function from (currently) development versions (and eventually, official release versions) of the Linden viewer. As analyzed and explained in understandable terms by Maria Korolov of Hypergrid Business, this simply means that the common user who has a presence in SL and any of the OpenSimulator worlds will not be able to use the official Linden viewer to access both.

(According to Oz “Mr Personality” Linden, it has something to do with the sub-license(s?) that grants permission to SL to use the Havok physics engine, which permission is not transferable to other grids.)

BFD, right?

Chances are, if you’re one of those thousands of avatars who visit SL and OS worlds, you use a third-party viewer anyway. Perhaps you use the same TPV for both… or perhaps, as in my own limited case, you use something like Firestorm for SL and something like Imprudence for anywhere else (see the remarks from Christa Lopes quoted in Maria’s blog).

I, for one, would love to have a single viewer that I can use in all worlds I visit – but it seems now that my habit of keeping two different TPVs on my desktop is going to be “the wave of the future” for all Transworlders, because of that SL policy change quoted above. To put it another way: soon, TPV developers will have to address the same decision the Phoenix/Firestorm group already have made: fork the viewer code into one that works in SL only, and one that works everywhere else but SL.

What all this boils down to is what Feline Slade said last month in her blog: “We are not the Customers the Lab wants.”

The Lab wants customers who blithely spend way too much money for pixel land they don’t really own, and for the “limited licenses” called “Linden dollars” to obtain virtual goods that neither the buyers nor sellers really own; customers who remain blissfully unaware that there are other virtual worlds Out There. The Lab cannot best their competition, so they remove any possible mention of it, including the ability to use their in-house viewer to get there.

Granted, everyone stopped listening to Philip years ago — his own employees as well as “his” Residents — but its obvious no walls are being torn down. They’re being built ever higher.

Soon, you’ll attain the stability you strive for, in the only way that it’s granted: in a place among the fossils of our time.

— “Crown of Creation”, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick (after John Wyndham)


So, where were we…?

Oh, right… SL9B.

Do you suppose whatever subgroup of LL employees came to that decision did so to deliberately spite  the Resis? “They bitch about everything we do anyway — it’s too little, it’s too late, it’s too restrictive — so fuck ’em. They want a party, let them make their own.”

Forgetting, of course, that we have, since at least SL3B (thank you, Tateru). All they provided was server space for a month – a.k.a. sims to build on. Which reminds me, it’s probably time for another informal survey of the World Map to check on how many redundant, discontinued, and otherwise superfluous regions they keep running while pulling the megaprim rug out from under their own Birthday.

It’s not like they have any pride in how old Second Life is, after all. They might even be a tad embarrassed about how little improvement they have to show for the years they’ve existed… and they should  be, even without factoring in the cyclical blunder that Marketplace has become, or the money and time thrown away during M’s years on shiny like SLEnterprise.

“We’re the oldest virtual world of our kind, and some shit’s still  broken.” is not gonna be a winning ad campaign…

What if, in “reverse spite”, no one hosts a SL9B event? Is that a fitting gesture, or playing into their hands?

A couple of weeks ago, Ghosty Kips posted this blog: “It’s Time for Rodvik To Go”. Definitely worth the read – I’ll wait…

.. and I agree that, as CEO of the company who own and operate Second Life, Mr Humble bears responsibility for the operation. But, as the commenters pointed out, he takes his orders from the Owners.

I’ll add this: Notwithstanding what personnel changes have occurred in the past year and a quarter, the so-called corporate culture of Linden Lab remains firmly entrenched in those M years, consisting of one part Disdain and two parts Inertia, with a dollop of Ineptitude.

Whether suppressed from above or stonewalled from below (I strongly suspect both), Rod Humble is merely one man against institutionalized modes of thought and (in)action. It’s not a job I’d be looking forward to arriving at on a Monday morning.