Increasing your Zen: Viewer updated

Update January 27th, 2013: The Zen viewer has been discontinued by its creator.

Zena Juran released a new version of the Zen Viewer over the weekend – something I almost missed due to being busy with other things in-world (of which I’ll say more another time). As mentioned in my original review earlier in the month, Zen is aimed at bringing an enhanced build experience to the V3.2 environment.

Currently still only available for windows, this new release ( remains based on LL 3.2.8 Development / Project Viewer code, but sees some major changes and additions in terms of the TPV code that has been merged.

Installation and Start-up

The EXE retains more-or-less the same size as the release, and the Viewer installs the same, complete with dedicated user folders and cache locations (rather than using the SL defaults).

Logging-in reveals little in the way of changes between and earlier releases – other than the fact that the UI buttons are no longer transparent (more on this in a moment), the layout is the same as and prior releases. However, open up Preferences, and the updates immediately make themselves apparent.

New Preferences Tabs

In my original review, I commented that Preferences were little-changed from V3.2, but Zena would be adding to the list of capabilities over time. Well, she has – and massively so! At the same time she’s also re-arranged things somewhat.

Expanded Preferences

Release sees one tab in Preferences removed (LSL Pre-processing), and five new tabs added, together with an overall re-ordering of things which may initially catch used to operating by wrote a little off-guard (Graphics, for example has gone from near the top of the tab list to fairly well down the order of things). This shouldn’t interfere with overall usability, however.

The five new tabs are (in the order displayed:

  • Name Tags: Pulls together the V3.2 (usually found in the General tab) and popular TPV options relating to name tags (setting colours, etc.) together into a single tab
  • Shadows: pulls-in the shadow options popular among TPVs, and which can be found in a variety of locations (a sub-tab under graphics, for example)
  • Camera: pulls-together “standard” options such as view angle & distance (from MOVE & VIEW),  disabling camera constraints (from the Advanced menu), depth of field on/off (duplicated from Graphics), and camera / DoF sliders again found in other TPVs
  • Build: presents  the Build enhancement tools first seen in the likes of Emerald / Phoenix, and now widely used in TPVs

Visual Auto-Mute

This is perhaps the most interesting change within Zen (and potentially the most drama-risk feature to pop-up in the Viewer code in general for a while), and is the first merge I’ve seen of a new functionality from LL that was recently released as a changeset (my apologies to other TPVs if they’ve in fact merged it as well, I’m still trying to catch up on 3 days of missed blogging and updates).

Visual Auto-mute

Essentially, this functionality allows you to set thresholds above which avatars with a very heavy load (high-res textures, complex attachments (multiple prims, flexi prims, sculpts, and what have you), etc., – but not scripts, which are a completely different kettle of fish) will not be rendered by your Viewer. Instead, they will appear as “grey ghosts”, similar to when you’ve muted someone; however, you will still be able to IM them and chat with them. This should theoretically reduce the load placed on the Viewer and your system in terms of rendering, and lead to an improved SL experience.

I’ve covered Visual Auto-mute elsewhere, so will not dwell on it further here.

Graphics Preferences

The Graphics tab in Zen’s Preferences has also been updated, with an improved overall layout, largely due to the removal of the low-med-high-ultra slider from the top of the tab (itself no real loss), although a full screen option has yet to appear.

Graphics tab updates

UI Skins and Button Transparency

This release sees the range of skin options (colours) expanded, with gold, purple and red being added to the original LL teal and Zen blue. It also appears that Zena has taken-up the comment I made in my original review about having the transparency of the UI buttons user-adjustable. This release sees an opacity slider for the buttons added to the UI Skinning tab – so while the buttons are initially solid on first-time start-up, you can adjust them to a level of transparency to suit your needs.

Zen Menu Updates

Zen menu

The Zen menu sees a couple of updates. The Notifications to Top for moving incoming notifications to the top right of the screen has gone (it can now be found in PREFERENCES->NOTIFICATIONS). This moves the Pie Menu option (on by default) to the top of the menu, while an option for accessing Preferences slips-in at the bottom.

I’d still prefer to see a button added to simplify accessing preferences, but this is still a logical addition that streamlines access to frequently used menu options.


This release moves Zen up a notch. While performance is unchanged on my usual system (no surprises there given it’s still effectively the LL 3.2.8 Development / Project Viewer code base), the additional preferences options help make the Viewer more accessible and potentially feature-friendly to SL photographers who prefer something closer to the “official” Viewer rather than plunging into Exodus or Niran’s (although Zen does not have the advanced capabilities of either of these two Viewers, obviously).

The Build heritage for Zen is clear – drawing heavily on Firestorm in terms of floater layout and the availablity of popular tools. I’d personally still like to see the camera floater get some button functionality, and still am undecided on the complete removal of button-based functions from some of the menus. Some might find it feature-light compared to other TPVs (the list of what’s not there is still pretty much as it was for, but I don’t count this against Zen in any way. Overall this is still a Viewer that presents something of the best of both worlds – good, solid building capabilities wrapped up in LL’s 3.2 code. With it now listed in the TPV Directory, it’s worth a look by anyone who might be considering easing away from the official Viewer to take advantage of TPV-originated tools, but who doesn’t necessarily want to get swamped with additional features and options.


Visual Auto-mute: a farewell to ARC/ADW upsets?

A new set of functions has been released by LL as a changeset, and is starting to find its way into SL Viewers.

Essentially, this functionality allows you to set thresholds above which avatars with a very heavy load (high-res textures, complex attachments (multiple prims, flexi prims, sculpts, and what have you), etc., – but not scripts, which are a completely different kettle of fish) will not be rendered by your Viewer. Instead, such avatars will appear as “grey ghosts”, similar to when they’ve been muted; however, IMs and chat can still be exchanged. This should theoretically reduce the load placed on the Viewer and a your system in terms of rendering, and lead to an improved SL experience.

It’s important to note that the functions only affect how such avatars are rendered in your world-view; they will still render normally in their own view, and for anyone who hasn’t set thresholds / has higher thresholds than you. Also, your avatar will remain visible in your view, no matter how you set the limits.

The thresholds are governed by two functions, initially released by LL as a set of debug settings:

  • RenderAutoMuteByteLimit – Maximum bytes of attachments before an avatar is automatically visually muted (0 for no limit)
  • RenderAutoMuteSurfaceAreaLimit – Maximum surface area of attachments before an avatar is automatically visually muted (0 for no limit)

These currently require numerical values to be entered. However, it is possible that they’ll find their way into at least some Viewers as Preferences options, possibly using sliders. Zena Juran has already opted for this approach with the latest release of the Zen Viewer (below).

Visual Auto-mute as presented in the Zen Viewer

The functions are supported by a new addition to the Develop menu: Render MetaData->Attachment Bytes. When active, This displays a set of figures over / near avatars, which can be used to help you to determine the byte and area thresholds you should set.

Rendering Metadata->Attachment Bytes display enabled

The approach has already come in for considerable discussion on the SLU forum, where opinion seems to be weighted towards the favourable.

Certainly, it can’t be denied that avatars can impact Viewer performance enormously, so any moves that enable the user to have a greater degree of control over what is hurting their SL experience is potentially a good thing. But lag is a very sensitive subject – as anyone who has encountered upsets in the past due to people using ARC as a Big Stick can testify.

This approach would appear to be a lot more beneficial than something like ARC and its successor, Avatar Draw Weight (or ADW) are concerned, as it should hopefully reduce the amount of finger-pointing and hostility that goes on when people have arbitrary figures in red floating over their heads like a glaring accusation of wrong-doing.

It’s also somewhat friendlier than the other alternative to “blocking” “overloaded” avatars: that of audio mute, which denies any communications capabilities where some might be preferred and which can, if done on a group basis, leave a poor soul ostracised in silence with no idea why.

There are, however, some drawbacks. On the minor side, it is possible that setting the options when entering a popular venue may well result in you finding one or more friends around you turn into grey ghosts  – or that you end-up greyed-out in their view. This might in turn result in strained relations, but shouldn’t really be anything reasonable people can get past – and even joke about privately.

This isn’t necessarily a “one size fits all” solution as well; it is possible that, depending on the type of venues a person visits (in terms of popularity popularity, nature of the activities carried out, etc.), the thresholds may need adjusting from time-to-time in order to gain the best benefits / compromise in terms of performance benefits and visual appeal. This may limit the scope to which the new functions are used, as people are not always willing to fiddle around with sliders as they teleport around SL.

It also needs to be remembered that avatars aren’t the only load placed on the Viewer, and using functions like these might not help tremendously when moving around an environment that has dozens upon dozens of high-resolution textures all over the place (such as a store or mall). In this regard, the effectiveness of the system needs to be balanced against alternative approaches (such as the use of avatar imposters, or by simply turning-down your draw distance and turning down / off various options within the Viewer Preferences) in order to improve one’s in-world experience.

The biggest question-mark over the new controls, however, is that of effectiveness. If the results of playing with the new options is an improvement of a couple of fps in overall performance and/or a very slight improvement in rendering time, then it is unlikely that they are going to gain a lot of traction. But if people see a demonstrable improvement in their overall experience, then it is liable that the functions are going to prove more popular.

That said, anything tha moves us further away from the finger-pointing extremism that has been the plague of ARC /ADW, has to be a step in the right direction, doesn’t it? One possible benefit from this approach is a greater awareness and consideration of just how one’s own avatar might be impacting other people’s experience within SL, simply by seeing that it exceeds the thresholds one is setting against other avatars.

Well, one can hope, can’t one?