A Shining announcement: major improvements coming to SL

Yesterday Linden Lab announced a major series of new initiatives aimed at improving the overall SL experience. The announcement came via a Tools and Technology  blog post, which covers the initiatives in great detail. These focus on four main areas of activity, one of which is directly related to hardware and infrastructure, and the remaining three are focused on the platform itself and are grouped under the Shining project banner.

The hardware / infrastructure element of the work is described thus:

This year, Linden Lab is making the single largest capital investment in new server hardware upgrades in the history of the company. This new hardware will give residents better performance and more reliability. Additionally, we are converting from three co-locations to two co-locations. This will significantly reduce our inter-co-location latency and further enhance simulator performance.

The Shining project is something that is already known to many SL users – especially those who attend some of the User Group meetings. It is perhaps most famously associated with the Lab’s work on the Viewer rendering code, removing outdated functions and calls no longer supported in modern graphics systems (most notably Nvidia) and improving graphics handling overall. Shining has also been responsible for other incremental improvements to issues around streaming objects and avatars.

Under the new initiative, Shining is split into three core performance projects.

Bake fail: a familiar problem for many

Project Sunshine: One of the biggest complaints from users in SL is related to avatar rezzing. This can appear slow, and usually manifests in avatars remaining grey for periods of time, or in skin and system clothes remaining blurry (see right) – and at its worst, result in a user changing their avatar’s outfit – but others either seeing the avatar still dressed in the previous outfit or naked. Collectively, these issues are known as “bake fail” and are the result of the Viewer having to do all the compositing of avatar textures locally, then sending the results to the SL servers, which then send the information back to the simulator the avatar is in to be accessed by other Viewers in the same simulator.

Under Project Sunshine, to precis the blog post, much of this work is moved server-side, using a new, dedicated server, the Texture Compositing Server, which is separate to the simulator servers. This effectively allows all the “heavy” communications and calculations work relating to avatar texture calculations to performed within LL’s servers and across their own internal network, removing the reliance upon the Viewer and on Viewer / server communications which are outside of LL’s control.

Object Caching & Interest Lists: This is intended to directly address another common request from users: improving how the Viewer handles local object caching. This effectively means that once the Viewer has information relating to a specific region, and providing the information is still valid (i.e. there have been no changes to objects that the Viewer already has cached), then it will no longer need to re-obtain that information from the server. Only “new” or “changed” data needs to be streamed to the Viewer. This should mean that on entering a previously visited region, the Viewer should immediately be able to start rendering the scene (rather than requesting a download from the server), while simultaneously requesting any “updates” from the server through a comparison of UUID information and timestamps.

HTTP Library: The final aspect of Shining’s three-phase approach is to improve the underpinning HTTP messaging that are crucial to simulator / simulator and simulator / Viewer communications (and thus key to the other elements of Shining) through the implementation of “modern best practices in messaging, connection management, and error recovery”.

Overall, Shining will be tackling some of the major causes of Viewer-side lag and user frustration in dealing with avatar bake fail and the complexity and wastefulness of scene rendering that is encountered when moving around SL.

No definitive time frames for the improvements have been forthcoming with the announcements – and this is understandable; there’s a lot to be done and matters are complex enough that LL will want to proceed with minimal disruption to the grid and to users. Doubtless, more information will be made available as becomes known through the LL forums and (possibly more particularly) via the relevant User Groups.

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Metareality discusses the “RedPoly” approach to mesh deformation

Note this is a 2-page article. Use the page numbers at the end of the piece to page back and forth.

Today’s Metareality podcast covers, as usual, a lot of topics, including Cloud Party and, more particularly the possible alternative approach to mesh deformation as proposed (or possibly re-proposed, given LL apparently looked at the same idea last year) by RedPoly, and which I covered in an earlier report this week.

The panel for this panel for this week’s show comprised Kimberly Winnington, aka Gianna Borgnine in-world and Karl Stiefvater, Qarl Fizz in-world, who were joined by Cyclic Gearz  and Geenz Spad.

While you can hear the broadcast in full over at Metareality, here’s a transcript of the discussion around the alternative means of mesh deformation.

[02:47] Gianna Borgnine (GB): So what is this new deformer, and how is it different? … For what I understand it works on bone definitions, is that right?

Geenz Spad

[03:07] Geenz Spad (GS): Well, basically yes, it uses several unused bones in the avatar skeleton … I guessing were used at some point to calculate the bounding box of the avatar on the server for collisions or similar. So, that’s mostly what it seems to be right now.

[03:30] Qarl Fizz (QF): I can probably add some more, but I should also specify that this is complete speculation because I haven’t had a chance to dig in … It seems like, yes, for the purposes of physics and maybe other stuff, at one point the Lindens had this approximation system put in so that when you dial your avatar sliders around, they have a basic gist of what your avatar looks like. And someone came up with the idea of using this information to do the deformation instead of the actual morphs themselves.

[04:10] GB: So, Cyclic, maybe you could answer this best: what about this is so appealing to the content creators?

[04:15] Cyclic Gearz (CG): Well, from my perspective, well, I make furniture mostly, but I still know a lot about design and stuff …  And all my designer-friends who make clothes … and part of the most difficult and annoying process is having to make five separate sizes currently, because at the moment that’s the best option for attracting the most customers – having more sizes that fit more bodies – if they have a deformer that works as is, and they do the work outside of Second Life, it reduces the workflow, it reduces the time to make new things; [it] means that they can get more stuff out and therefore more customers are happy.

[04:55] GB: So my guess is, I mean I talked to a few different people and got a few different opinions, and it was interesting to see the different sides and probably the only person I talked to … who wasn’t as thrilled about it, other than some of the developers I talked to, was Maxwell Graf, who is always looking to get rid of extra sizes, so I thought he would be excited! But for him, one of the big things was that it still felt like so much extra work because now he’s back to weight painting, which is something he was trying to get away from with Qarl’s deformer … But the thing that, as a person who does not make mesh fashions … Right now at least, you’re sort-of weight painting, but you’re painting blind, because you have to upload it to see the effects of what you did. Is that right?

Avastar in use

[06:06] CG: Sometimes; it depends on how you make your mesh. For instance, with blender you can get a plugin which you can pay for called Avastar by Gaia Clary. That is a really good way of seeing what your weight painting does and has an affect. You can also get a free burn file for Blender which is called The Avatar Workbench, also from Gaia Clary, where it has got all the bones and stuff and you can see what it’s supposed to look like. But you do sort-of have to guess … if you’re not versed in mesh or anything like that, and weight painting at all, it can be quite daunting. So from that perspective, not having to weight paint would be better for newer creator, because they’d be able to build something in blender or a different commercial program and not have to weight painting, because that is really horrible stuff! But … I do think people need to learn these skills, because the skill you learn for making 3D in Second Life can be applied in real life for big jobs … you could go into the games industry making models and stuff; but if you can’t weight paint, you’re out of luck!

[07:22] GS: Personally, I used to be an artist before I was programmer, and 3D animation was something I was always very interested in, and I definitely know the pains of having to go through and paint a variety of different vertex weights for different bones and things like that. And one thing that seemed interesting to me to the new approach to a deformer that works across all viewers that support mesh is that … you have 20-something bones you currently have to rig if you really want something that really looks good and really deforms well on most avatars with regards to just an avatar moving around; now you have all these additional bones you now have to worry about. That really seems to be the biggest drawback here. Granted, there are ways to mitigate this, and as I was saying on Monday, someone should find a better workload for this if it’s really going to be a viable solution.

[08:19] GB: Which made you really unpopular…!

[08:23] GS:  (Wryly) yes, because I’m a terrible person for suggesting something rational here, I guess!

[08:49] QF: So, I don’t know actually how this works, so may be you can help me, Geenz. So, what I said is true, right? These are like pseudo joints that the visual params modify to kinda …

[09:09] GS: … Kind-of get an idea of how big the collision capsule server-side should be – that’s what I’m guessing, you know? I could be wrong.

[09:12] QF: but you can’t visualise these in Blender at all, can you?

[09:18] GS: You pretty much have to manually add them currently.

[09:20] QF: So there’s no good way to … like Cyclic was saying, painting weights is hard, but you’re painting weights for … totally blind, right?

[09:33] GS: The worst part is here … there’s no guarantee that these will actually stick around in future versions of Second Life. I mean for all we know, after RedPoly outing it, Linden Lab may remove it in X number of months or they may keep it just because they’re afraid people began making content – and we know linden Lab’s policy on content breakage – So its either they’re going to break it now, or they’re not going to break it because people are going to make content with it. Danger of content breakage, here we go!

[10:10] GB: Well, Linden Lab is going to have to weigh-in at some point, because as it stands right now, it doesn’t deform around breasts or saddlebags or anything, so they would have to add in order to make it work right, right?

[10:23] GS: And on top of that, from what I can tell, the skeleton that’s being used is mostly just a rough approximation of the avatar itself in terms of its shape. That’s all you’re really going to need if you’re going to calculate a bounding box or a bounding capsule or something like that.

Continue reading “Metareality discusses the “RedPoly” approach to mesh deformation”

“We have whole planets to explore…” – A return to SunAeon

In April, I wrote about a new collaborative effort to build an interactive, immersive on-line guide to the Solar System and space exploration called SunAeon. Since then, the team behind the project have been hard at work, added features and capabilities, producing special updates – such as their model charting the recent transit of Venus). Today they launched a further update to the site – and I’m taking a little time out not only to report on it, but also (being totally honest) tooting my own horn a little – as I’ve been able to make a small contribution to the site.

The first notable change on visiting the SunAeon website is that the portal front page has been removed, and that after the familiar tree has been displayed, you’re taken directly to a Solar System view.

The new Solar System display at SunAeon

This now features a number of buttons and controls:

  • Top left:
    • SunAeon: opens a small menu that allows you to display a planet directly on your screen or see the SunAeon team’s biographies or a list of founding members or to visit the SunAeon Facebook page
    • Solar System: clears the SunAeon menu and returns you to the Solar System view
  • Find Planet: Located on the left of the screen, further down from the SunAeon and Solar System buttons, this opens a list of the eight planets of the Solar System (yes, eight planets of the Solar System now that Pluto has been downgraded), allowing you to select the one you wish to explore
  • Top right:
    • Volume: activates / mutes the music stream
    • Full screen: displays SunAeon full screen and sans adverts
    • Settings: opens the settings options, of which more below
  • View Settings: located further down the right side of the screen, this displays sliders allowing you to set the relative size of the model and planets on your screen – the more to the left the sliders are set, the more “real life” the planet sizes and relative distances between them. You can also add orbital paths around the sun and tag the planets with their names
  • Zoom: located bottom right, this allows you to zoom in and out of the model.

You can explore the planets in a number of ways:

  • Via the SunAeon – > Explore Planet list OR by DOUBLE clicking on a planet
    • Either option will zoom you immediately into the planet and display the planet’s information and data page
  • Selecting a planet using the Find Planet button OR by clicking ONCE on a planet:
    • Either option will focus the planet on your screen and circle it
    • Additional buttons will appear alongside the zoom button at the bottom right of your screen
    • An Explore Planet button will be displayed under the Find Planet button
Selecting a planet: additional buttons and options

The additional buttons in the lower right corner of the display allow you to:

  • Additionally focus on / zoom out from the selected planet (left)
  • Zoom in / out on the selected planet (middle)
  • Once zoomed on the planet, you can use the original zoom button (right) to adjust the proximity of your zoom on the planet.
Focused on Venus and zoomed in using the additional controls (bottom centre right) – use the zoom scale to further zoom in as required

Planetary Data Pages

When zoomed-in on a planet, you can click on the Explore Planet option to display the associated information and data (or you can go directly to the page by double-clicking on the planet or via the SunAeon menu, as described above).

This displays some basic information about the planet, in a scrollable window.

Basic planetary information

To the left of the planet are three buttons:

  • The planet button:
    • Click on the planet’s name to display the basic information window or
    • Click the right arrow under the planet’s name to open a list of planets and go directly to its information and data display (clicking the left arrow will close the list)
  • The structure button: click this to display basic information on the planet’s structure and (where relevant) atmosphere (see below)
  • Solar System: click this to return to the Solar System view.
Basic planetary structure information

I was very honoured to be asked by the team to provide the text for both the information and the planetary structure windows, and am very pleased – not to mention proud – that the material I was able to provide has been of use to the team and helped them further develop the site.

Note that when zoomed-in to a planet in the Solar System view, or when displaying the basic information about the planet, you can still rotate it on your screen by click-holding the left mouse button and then moving your mouse. You can also use this method to rotate the entire solar system in your field of view.

Settings Options

The embedded media player

The settings button (top right of the SunAeon display allows you to set the overall quality of the displayed images (very noticeable difference in the Solar System view).

From here you can also access the built-in media player to set the volume for the site’s music and select the track from which you want it to start playing.  The pieces Travis Fitzsimmons produced for earlier models by the team have now been integrated into this model to provide further variety of musical options. You can leave the player open on your screen, or simply select a piece and then close it – the player will cycle through the pieces automatically.

The beautiful shepherded rings of Saturn

Summary

SunAeon continues to grow and add functionality, and as such continued to grow as a learning tool that opens up the Solar System to anyone with a computer (capable of running Flash!). I’m proud to have been asked to contribute to the website, and hope that I’ll be able to further help in its development in the coming months / years.

A high quality, full-screen image from SunAeon – note the dust clouds around the “ices”of the Kuiper belt

* The title for this piece is taken from a piece written by Francis “Dick” Scobee, Commander of STS-51L. The quote reads in full: “We have whole planets to explore, we have new worlds to build, we have a Solar System to roam in. And even if only a tiny fraction of the human race reaches out towards space, the work they do there will totally change the lives of all the billions who remain on Earth.”

Make it so, Number One: the SL SF Convention

Note this is a multi-page article, please use the page options at the very end of the piece to page bath and forth.

The fifth annual Second Life Science Fiction convention is well underway, having started on the 27th June and running through until Sunday July 1st. I’m a little late getting to it due to a number of reasons – including not receiving any PR material this year. However, given science-fiction does poke the geek in me, I hopped over to the regions ahead of the start of a busy weekend of events.

This year’s event covers six regions, and is again in aid of the American Cancer Society / RFL in SL, presenting a host of exhibits to tour showcasing SF in SL as well as running a series of live events.

The promotional poster for the event

Chief among the live events are special appearance by Jonathan Frakes (William T. and Thomas Riker from Star Trek: the Next Generation and later ST incarnations) and Garrett Wang (Harry Kim from Star Trek Voyager), both of whom will be appearing over the weekend.

Also putting in an appearance was Richard Hatch, the original Apollo from Battlestar Galactica and who also featured in the reimagined series as the manipulative revolutionary / terrorist Tom Zarek. Mr. Hatch was on stage on June 27th, just after the event opened, so I’m afraid I missed him in terms of getting the word out.

Each of the six regions has its own arrival point, each of which has a wealth of information on the events – including links to  convention guide (presented in PDF format & sadly lacking in URLs). The format of the guide will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever attended a Sci Fi convention in real life, which is a nice touch. However, if you are specifically interested in attending the presentations by Mr. Frakes and / or Mr. Wang, I would suggest you head for the North region’s teleport point. Details on the appearances by Mr. Frakes and Mr. Wang can be found just to the east of this, complete with a ticket booth, which links you to the SL Marketplace where you can purchase a ticket to attend either or both events, at a cost of L$100 per attending avatar.

The venue for the guest speakers is the spherical Council Chamber which sites next to the ticket booth and promotional posters of the guests. Other main stage events will take place in the ground immediately outside the sphere, on the east side of the teleport arrivals area.

The Council Chamber

The regions themselves are well-defined in terms of the ratio of open space to exhibits, helping to reduce overall lag. For those who visited SL9b, there are some familiar friends here – such as Novelli Nior’s TARDIS ride. If you didn’t get to enjoy this unlagged at SL9B, it’s immediately worth a visit here.

Journey through the Galaxy aboard a TARDIS

There is quite a mix of exhibits across the sims, with some promoting content, others role-play groups and some – like the TARDIS ride – offering a lot of fun. Some are imaginative ways of promoting adult-oriented material in a distinctly inoffensive way which should raise a smile even if you’re not into the adult theme itself…

The REAL truth about alien crop circles

New “informal” content creation group established

Partially as a result of there being something of a gap in the existing Content Creation User Group for the discussions on improving the state of content creation in SL, and as a result of RedPoly’s suggestions for improving the way in which mesh clothing fits, a new “informal” Content Creation User Group has been formed.

The organisers for the new group are Geenz Spad, Siddean Munro, Ellie Spot and Oz Linden. Geenz will be the chair for meetings, and Oz will act as the liaison with Linden Lab. It is intended for developers and content creators alike, with the aim of providing a collaborative atmosphere which will allow members to discuss features, workflows, and modifications with the aim of enhancing content creation for everyone on SL. As such, the focus of the new group will be:

  • To provide a forum in which content creators can voice their ideas and / or concerns about the overall state of content creation in SL
  • Encourage the spread of knowledge about content creation methodologies and tools
  • Suggest / discuss new ways to facilitate content creation in SL (including the use of new tools or possible improvements to the viewer)
  • To provide a focal-point where content creators can have questions answered and issues highlighted that might otherwise go unanswered in other user groups.

It is hoped that eventually, this new forum will be the means by which proposals for new functionality that will be beneficial to the community can be proposed and developed. This would in turn lead to prototypes being developed, with Linden Lab’s approval of said functionality, that will enable the potential enhancements to SL’s content creation capabilities to be demonstrated.

In chatting with me about the new group, Geenz had this to say, “As it stands, the Mesh Import User Group is for just that: mesh import; it’s not intended for discussing how we can make content creation better. The Open Development is for discussing things already in the open source programme’s development pipeline, so that’s not really the place to discuss this sort of thing either.

Geenz Spad, who will chair the new group’s meetings, standing of the stage where the meetings will be held

“Then of course you have the Scripting, Sim, and other groups, [and] discussing how we can improve content creation in general just doesn’t fit anywhere; it’s almost as if it’s in limbo. This is intended to fill that gap, while at the same time staying clear of the existing user groups in its purpose.”

A wiki page has been established for the group, and will contain meeting agendas, etc., and which also summarises the group’s function. The group itself will meet between 15:00-16:00 SLT on Tuesdays at the Hippotropolis Auditorium in SL, commencing on Tuesday 3rd July.

CCIUG articles in this blog

Of Trollops and Blowing Tits Off

When I was a teenager, many moons ago, a frequent insult passed around was, “If brains were dynamite, s/he wouldn’t have enough to blow her/his own ears off.” If a girl was particularly disliked, this sometimes became “….She wouldn’t have enough to blow her own tits off” (boys had a similar twist, which involved parts of their anatomy much lower than the chest).

So, any art installation that invites you to Blow Your Own Tits Off tends to ring bells of teenage years past in my noddle, and send me investigating.

The full title of the piece is “Celebrity Blow Your Own Tits Off”, and it is by Maya Paris with assistance from a number of other SL artists. It is located on LEA 10, and is modelled on a game show (proudly sponsored by “Braino, Ransom & Wow™”), with five interactive levels.

“Will the next contestant … COME ON DOWN!

The main part of the experience is to follow the dotted red arrows (well I had to get something that fits the metre of “follow the yellow brick road”) through the various exhibits looking for “holes” to pass through (or touch). You’re encouraged to touch anything else you come across as well, and to have sound on and your AO off (so your avatar can be animated).

“She’s a pinball wizard, there has to be a hole…”

Along the way you get the opportunity to pick up various items as well. Whether you wear the accessories or not is up to you…some are decidedly  … novel!

Some of it is a little ominous … some a little confusing … some might be considered a tad rude – although one cannot help but be reminded of Kenny Everett’s Cupid Stunt and that really, “It’s all done in the best PASSSS-ABLE taste!” :).

“It’s all done in the best PASSSS-ABLE taste!”
Careful, or I’ll show up on *your* doorstep like this….

Crash Bang Trollop, which is where you end-up on exiting Blow Your… is similar in theme, and is described thus:

Tired of being bombarded by the crazy tornado that is the beauty industry?

Time to CrashBangTrollop!

Now you have your ZAP suit, wear it and find the 7 Trollop gadgets in the “ZAP” boxes around the sim ( all free)

Run Wild, turn up your sound and click everything! Dodge the needlefish, tiptoe through the aggravated follicles, help those boobs escape the underwires, Wax on….and off….claw your way through the waters, dare to try the trollop-rocket? Spray yourself orange, and don’t forget to Vajazzzzz.

Aerosol a*se kisser?

Trollop is open-air, and opposed to enclosed, as with Tits, and offers a number of things to click on to animate your avatar or which give you further bits’n’pieces.

If I’m honest, I’m not at all sure what to make of either piece – apart from feeling decidedly silly when I emerged from Tits. As interactive experiences go, they are both certainly that; I’m just not sure if there is meant to be a commentary on the state of television today and / or the cosmetics industry, or whether it is all simply meant in fun.

Best thing, possibly, is that if you’re curious you go along and find out for yourself. I man, the worse that can happen is you do manage to Blow Your Own Tits Off, right ;-)?

“ah, grasshopper….”