Daily Archives: December 12, 2011

Niran’s – the Viewer that dares to be different!

Note Dec 24th: The release version of this Viewer is now available. As such I have an update / continuation of this review, and have closed comments on this article (comments on the second are open).

Niran’s Viewer is an intriguing hybrid; forked from Kirsten’s Viewer, it includes everything that made Kirsten’s unique, as well as adding some very individual flavours from NiranV Dean and, in the most recent builds, the V3.2 FUI. The result is a Viewer that steps out of the box somewhat from what we’ve seen to date, offering some amazing capabilities – although you may find you need a high-end system to get the most out of it.

In Brief

  • Currently Windows only
  • Forked from Kirsten’s Viewer
  • Lots of graphics updates (including completely revamped graphics preferences)
  • New and unique menu layout
  • Viewer 3.2 Flexible User Interface (FUI)
  • Fast rendering on suitable machines
  • Additional ATi support
  • RLV/a
  • Mesh rendering and uploads
  • Lots more (did I mention fast rendering?)

Installer with default location

Installation and Logging-in

The installation is straightforward – and other than the installer being partially in German, offered no surprises per se

Like Marine’s RLV standalone installation, no desktop shortcut or icon is produced, so once installed, you’ll have to go play hunt the EXE in C:\Windows\Program Files\Nirans Viewer (assuming you use the default installer path).

This is no biggie, but I hope (as I’m a lazy cow) that NiranV will provide a defacto desktop icon in the future – that way my VistaMenu utilities for Win7 can grab what’s needed and I can keep my desktop nice and tidy with the minimum of fuss on my part :).

On start-up the Viewer pulls no punches letting you know you’re entering new territory, as the log-in splash screen demonstrates.

Log-in screen

Top left of the screen are the familiar Me and Help menu options – the former providing access to the Viewer’s Preferences. Over to the right of the screen is the log-in area, neatly laid-out and with three options in bold white text sitting under it:

  • Select Other Grids: the Viewer appears primarily aimed at SL, so this option provides access to the Beta grid
  • Settings: open the Preferences floater
  • Help: opens a set of additional options:
    • Sign-up: takes you to the official SL sign-up pages via your web browser
    • Forgot password…: opens the official password reset page in your web browser
    • Grid Status: opens the Grid Status page
    • About Niran’s Viewer: opens the HELP ->About Viewer pop-up.

It’s a nice arrangement, although my personal preference would be to see some take on the official V3 log-in screen  – the Destination Guide, etc. – make an appearance. Perhaps that’s scheduled for a future build…

To actually log-in, you need to click on the LOGIN option after entering your username and password – tapping Enter doesn’t appear to work on this release.

The UI

Once logged-in, you’re again immediately aware that you’re in a Viewer that dares to break all the established rules.

Wot’s that? Buttons on the TOP? No menus?! (click to enlarge)

The Viewer clearly uses the V3.2 FUI, but NiranV has added the option to place buttons at the top of the screen as well as the sides / bottom – thus being the first to respond to requests for this capability. I’d still like to see VWR-27455 implemented for the FUI by someone, but just having the additional top area for use might make it easier for people to group buttons.

By default, the following buttons are available on first starting the Viewer:

  • Top: Snapshot, Build, Map, Mini-map, Search, Inventory
  • Left: Speak and Voice Settings
  • Right: Profile, Picks, People, Places, Appearance

Buttons can be removed, added or relabeled simply by right-clicking on an existing button and selecting the required menu from the displayed menu  – CHOOSE BUTTONS opening the Toolbar Button floater. In a further step away from V3.2, CTRL-ALT-B will also open the floater, rather than CTRL-T, the use of which in V3.2 has caused some consternation amongst users, given that key combination has had a previous use.

The top of the screen is also conspicuous as it apparently doesn’t have a menu bar – no Me, Comm, World, etc. Instead we have the Navigation / Favourites Bar.

The Navigation Bar contains a wealth of information, looking at it from left-to-right: the familiar (to V2/V3 users) FORWARD / BACK buttons; then a panel of five buttons: HOME, WINDLIGHT FLOATER, SKY SETTINGS, WATER SETTINGS, and ABOUT LAND; the address bar area (as with V2/V3, right-clickable for additional options); Draw distance slider; Search option; account balance & BUY L$  button, and, at the right end, the media options with the time under them.

As with V3, you can switch between Navigation & Favourites or the Mini-location bars by right-clicking on the blank area of the Navigation / Favourites Bar and selecting your preference, but NiranV has extended this drop down menu to include the ability to configure which options are visible on the Navigation Bar, complete with additional options not displayed by default. In addition, the entire Navigation Bar / Favourites Bar has further configuration options within Preferences – something I’ll return to shortly.

But Wait! No Menus, You Say?!

Well, not exactly; I fibbed a bit :).

The menus are there, but are tucked away as Niran’s takes another innovative approach to the Viewer UI presentation. At the left-hand end of the Navigation Bar (or Mini-location Bar, if you display that), is the label “NV”. Clicking on this opens a vertical  menu system which V1.x users should find somewhat familiar, despite the orientation, but those already familiar with V2/V3 might initially find a tad confusing, given the options listed are predominantly V1 menu labels.

Niran’s Menus

Having the menus displayed in this manner brings with it certain advantages; for one thing, the impact on your in-world view is minimised to the left side of the screen. There is also something more intuitive about this approach that makes using the menus somewhat faster and more intuitive: the action to select just about any option is a simple down-and-right action, making moving from menu to menu faster and easily than across-down, across-down, across-down…

NiranV has done a sterling job trying to align options with the first few menu headings (File, Edit, View) to reflect V1, which should help some with transitioning from V1 to the world of V3. However, the approach does have its own risk: V1 and V2/V3 are radically different in their menu offerings, so using similar menu titles could lure people into thinking they’ll find all the familiar options in the same sub-menus and locations – which isn’t quite the case. Similarly, as an established V2/V3 TPV user, I have to say I was initially thrown by the menu system when I first encountered it – although I quickly adapted to it and have to admit to preferring it.

A very nice touch in the menu system is the inclusion of an option to call-up the Grid Status page. This is particularly handy if you find you’re having problems, as it saves playing hunt-the-page through the SL website – and if you use the Viewer’s internal browser, the info is there without having to switch windows.

There is also a menu option called MY USEFUL FEATURES, which includes the STOP ALL ANIMATIONS option and REBAKE TEXTURES (for those unfamiliar with the keyboard shortcuts.

Preferences

This is another element of the Viewer that has been extensively revised, and nicely so. For a start, buttons are given a 3D polish and are clearly coloured: blue / tick = on; red / cross = off; grey = inactive / unavailable. Where buttons represent either/or options (e.g. name tags on/off), clicking one will turn it on and the other off.

Preferences – 3D buttons and a full revamp

Most of the main tabs also dispense with additional horizontal tabs. Instead, a “slider” action is used. Take chat as an example: open it, and you have the primary chat options, with a bar at the bottom labelled IM OPTIONS – click on that, and the IM options duly slide up into view. To swap back, simply click on the CHAT OPTIONS bar. It’s neat and tidy – although you need to keep your eye on things, as it’s easy to overlook a slider when looking for a specific option you’re used to seeing in a dedicated tab.

However, it is in the graphics tabs that the biggest changes are most readily apparent. There are two tabs – GRAPHICS and GRAPHICS 2, but they actually toggle between different presentations of the same settings.

Preferences -> Graphics

To the uninitiated, both can be something of a shock – the combination of options builds on Kirsten’s rendering pipe and offer enormous flexibility for setting the Viewer’s graphics capabilities. If you want, there are enough options here to take your world view right back to the earliest days of Second Life as well as bringing you cutting-edge in-world rendering – just take a look at NiranV’s blog post on the subject to see some of the results.

However, I’m not entirely sure that replacing the traditional sliders for some options with a button that toggles between “none”, “less”, “medium”, “more” and “many” entirely works; what is the scale of reference? How many is “many”? How few is “less”? There’s also the fact that the sheer number of options could be somewhat bewildering to many, and may, as a result, be ignored. But, for those into photography, etc., it’s worth taking a good look at what’s on offer.

Obviously, the two tabs are supposed to be used independently of one another, rather than together, and it is intended for people to use the one they find more intuitive. In this I was initially drawn to GRAPHICS, which is closer to what I’ve been used to seeing in other Viewers, but then I quickly swapped over the GRAPHICS 2.

Graphics 2

Shadow rendering appears to be linked to “glow” in this Viewer. This means that with shadows enabled, you can end up with a very bright sky, with the Windlight clouds glowing oddly.

Camera tutorial

Away from this, it’s worth going through the Preferences tabs and sliders carefully – there are other cool bits and pieces. For example, for those unfamiliar with the degree with which the camera position can be customised to give a much improved world view, NiranV has included a tutorial on the subject with some practical examples of options. This is something that other Viewers should have, as whether you’re tall or short, the default camera position for SL is far from ideal, yet most people live with it, simply because they’re not aware of how to modify things beyond fiddling with the default Preferences sliders. Huge kudos from me for this (friends know I’m a constant nag on the subject…!).

New snapshot floater (click to enlarge)

On the subject of cameras as well, NiranV has made a very subtle alteration to the camera smoothing, setting it to a default of 10 – and the difference in camera movement is stunning (allowing for differences in graphics capabilities on individual systems); panning is wonderfully smooth, as is zooming, with both exhibiting a gentle inertial effect as you stop the movement: rather than coming to an abrupt stop, the camera glides to a halt.  Wonderful!

The snapshot option also includes the updated floater with the option to post snapshots directly to your web profile feed.

Nor does it end there: those that like their pie (menu) can have it (on by default), while those who like things in context (menus) and have their way as well.

Within PREFERENCES->VIEWER-> UI SETTINGS are a host of goodies, including:

  • The ability to increase / decrease the transparency of the Navigation / Favourites bars by disabling layers
  • Turn off the Favourites Bar independently of Navigation
  • Select which of the buttons Windlight Settings, etc.) should be display in the right-click drop-down menu
  • One-click teleport to SLurls displayed in chat
  • An ATi tweak
  • A collection of useful debug features that can be toggled  on or off.

There is even an ability to enable  / disable the new Direct Delivery “inbox” and “outbox” in your Inventory (although these can currently only be used with ease on the Beta grid) – but it gives you an idea of what it coming.

Performance

This Viewer is a fork of Kirsten’s Viewer, so one expects it to be resource demanding – and it is that, as soon as you start turning on the more advanced graphics features.

But to dismiss Niran’s as a KV clone with a tweaked front end would be a grossly unfair oversimplification. There has been a lot of under-the-bonnet work carried out, and I gather that NiranV went so far as to re-write OpenGL elements while waiting for LL’s fixes – and used an OpenGL release  that is a lot more recent than that used by LL for their fix. This means that while the Viewer is resource-hungry, it is also blisteringly fast. Rendering is some of the fastest I’ve witnessed on my PC; I’m simply not used to arriving home and having sculptie items immediately pop out at me (no waiting several seconds), fully formed, as if going “Boo!” It’s really impressive.

Frame rates are equally stunning on my PC. At home, (370m above ground), with draw up at 360m, five others on-sm, and with settings comparable to those I use on Firestorm and Exodus, Niran’s screams past them at a rocketing 57-60 fps. At ground level, this drops to some 45-48 fps, which is still very credible.

Unfortunately for me, enabling shadows does slaughter my system: frame rates collapse to the low-end of single figures, and the Viewer demonstrates a notable stutter in camera movement. However, I got much the same with the last of Kirsten’s builds as well, so this is likely to be as much down to my graphics system and CPU getting a little long in the tooth as anything else.

Opinion

This is still very much a Beta Viewer, but even so, if you’re not into running shadows (or have a very high-end system), it tends to blow most others out of the water performance-wise. Obviously, as a Beta, there are rough edges; I’ve been running the Viewer on both the Main and Beta grids for a total of about 6 hours over the last few days, and crashes haven’t been infrequent; therefore, you should use it with caution. Also, as it is a Beta, don’t expect absolutely everything to be implemented – there is still a number of items listed as “to do” on NiranV’s website, and some options in Preferences are greyed-out.

That said, this Viewer is a serious contender in the usability stakes. For those who do want to try something that offers a different and flexible approach to the V3.2 UI, Niran’s Viewer is definitely one to watch. For those into photography and machinima and who have used Kirsten’s Viewer in the past, will find just about everything here they need. As it is, and even though there are a number of elements I’d like to see included in it, this Viewer has already moved comfortably into my top 3 “Viewers of choice”.

So, if you are looking around for a Viewer and feel like you can dare to be different, why not give Niran’s Viewer a try?

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Phoenix goes mesh

Yesterday, the much-anticipated release of Phoenix was made. Version 1.6.0 1591 brings with it the ability to render mesh objects.

This means that the majority of users in SL are able to see mesh objects rendered correctly in-world, if not import them. However, the release announcement from Jessica Lyon is liable to make difficult reading for some:

“We stated some time ago our active development commitment is now focused on the Firestorm viewer and that continues today. We still feel strongly that the end of V1 functionality is an inevitability, so it is more important to develop an alternative viewer for our users they will enjoy for when that time comes than to spend our efforts on a dying viewer and then leave our users with no alternative once it’s gone. However, we also promised we would try to keep the phoenix viewer alive for you until it is no longer feasible to do so. As you can see, we are not walking away from that promise, but it is important to understand that Phoenix is no longer our top priority. When necessary we will continue to keep it up to date with advances/fixes from other third-party viewers and provide them the credit they deserve for that work. But ‘we’ are no longer actively developing Phoenix on our own steam.

“Any future releases of Phoenix will be sparse and only if needed. I will not commit to saying this is the last Phoenix Viewer Release, but I will also not commit to saying it isn’t the last either. I will say… this is one of our last. As time passes we will determine if another release is absolutely necessary and/or sensible and make a decision then on whether another update is mandatory in order to keep our promise to you.”

While it may not be a popular move, one can hardly blame Jessica and the team for taking this position: maintaining an aging code base which itself is built on something LL no longer maintain (Snowglobe) is liable to become harder and harder as time goes on, and for a Viewer to remain functional and relevant, it needs to keep pace with the evolution of the grid and as the Phoenix / Firestorm project has made the step of producing a V2/V3 hybrid, it makes sense for them to focus on that work in order to do so, rather than splitting efforts (and doubling the workload) to try and maintain two sets of code.

As well as mesh rendering, this release also brings with it:

  • The Firestorm 3.2 log-in / splash screen options
  • Contact Sets
  • Removal of the Google chat translation API options from Preferences
  • A host of “small” fixes and changes

A signficant element not updated was that of RLVa – it was decided that Kitty’s time and focus is better spent on the numerous projects with which she is already fully engaged: her own Viewer (Catznip, reviewed here), working on bringing the spell checker to Viewer 3.x, her continuing support of RLVa for other V2/V3 TPVs, and so on). In the release blog, Jessica suggest that those wishing to update to the latest RLVa implementations should give either Firestorm or Catznip a try.

In the meantime, and if you haven’t already, you can grab Phoenix 1.6.0 1591 directly, or go to the Phoenix home page and use the Quick Download links.