MetaHarpers: the art of new user orientation

Arrehn Oberlander recently contacted me concerning MetaHarpers and the -io- Team’s new Linden Endowment of the Arts installation, The Inspiring Orientation – a smaller version of which was recently displayed at SL9B.

The installation, which opened on June 22nd, is described as: “Part art walk, part tutorial – a vision of a future where new SL citizens are introduced to an interactive combination of gallery and orientation course.”

The inspiring orientation – from the outside

Teleporting to the venue brings you (a little wet-footed, but that seems par for the course at LEA venues!) to a greeting area, where you are welcomed in a wide range of languages and get to meet your guides for the tour –  tablet-like creations that display information and instructions on their screens.

A guide

Following the path takes you through various rooms, each with a specific focus on using your viewer and interacting with the world around you, starting with the basics of movement. Each section is quite cleverly put together, and the section on sitting cleverly introduces the idea of sitting on objects directly (scripted or otherwise) and using poseballs. Elsewhere there are lessons on using chat, which uses a range of animals with which to interact on a basic level, and there is a section devoted to camera movement and control.

Talking to the animals: “If I were asked to sing in hippopotamus
I’d say “whynotamous?” and I would!!

At the end of the walk there is the opportunity to explore SL itself, with a series of teleport alcoves. These are divided into categories: Music and Stage, Art and Fashion, Exploration, Games, and Social and Chat. Each of these has two (or more) vendor boards visitors can scroll through to see a range of destinations. Clicking on an image brings up the Place Profile floater, allowing the visitor to read more on the destination and, if they like it, click on the Teleport button and go visit.

Each alcove also has a notecard giver that explains a little more about the subject matter, and can provide additional help. The Art and Fashion notecard, for example, defines the major forms of clothing (system, prim/sculpted and mesh) and the differences between them. While one might grumble the presentation of this information could be better, it is nevertheless more informative than anything currently on offer to new arrivals in SL.

Where next?

Most importantly, this area of the installation offers a way back for those that need a little more assistance – something massively lacking in recent orientation offerings from LL, where once you leave, the way back is barred to you in a “Thank you, and good night!” approach.

There isn’t much else beyond this in terms of orientation – but its is enough to give a flavour of what might be achieved.

Not only is the tour a visual experience, it is also very aural: the various sections are filled with a range of atmospheric sounds or music. The section on flight features elements of Glyph Graves’ The Forest of Water and Strangers also Dance, which uses sounds and tones very cleverly and is definitely worth wandering around rather than simply flying straight through. Elsewhere sounds of the jungle accompany the animals in the chat section and Lily of the Lamplight provides an accompaniment as you learn about camera controls.

Given that sound is enabled by default on the official viewer, then the use of music and sounds adds a clear dimension to an orientation experience and helps demonstrate the rich immersive experience one can enjoy with SL.

Glyph Graves’ combined piece deep inside The Inspiring Orientation

Clearly, as a demonstration, the installation only offers up just a sampling of lessons that could be provided in order to provide a feel for the idea. It would seem to naturally lend itself to further lessons being added without over-burdening the new user, so I’m not going to critique the creators on the basis that it doesn’t show X or Y in terms of basic lessons – something easily fixed were this to go into production.

However, I would be a little concerned should the idea be used with some of the graphics as seen in this installation. The animals in the chat area and the cartoon bedroom used to demonstrate sitting and touching objects in-world may look cute – but they also run the risk of giving entirely the wrong first impressions about SL to the newcomer, who ends up simply turning around and walking out in the belief they’ve wandered into something aimed towards younger children, rather than a sophisticated immersive world.

Perhaps a little too much like a cartoon?

While the lessons don’t have to be totally rooted in the “reality” of SL, I can’t help but feel that they should at least have a greater rooting in what SL as actually like in terms of what the new user can reasonably expect to see and encounter once they pass on in-world. Doing so should help build familiarity and confidence in the user, and enable them to better respond to the things they see with greater familiarity.

Another area that isn’t really covered in the exhibit, which is perhaps more important, is that of language. Beyond the many greetings in the welcome area, The Inspiring Orientation is presented entirely in English – and that’s fine for a piece designed to stimulate the mind and demonstrate what might be achieved. But how would it handle multiple languages, given that those coming into SL do so from all over the world?  Would multiple “tablet” screens be used? If so, the lesson areas might get a little crowed. Would screens operate in more than one language? That could easily lead to confusion were someone to start reading instructions in German, only to have someone else click the button for the French option to be displayed…

In fairness, the team behind the piece may have already considered this issue and have an answer – if so, it would have been nice to see something presented here, if only to further demonstrate the practicality of the the approach.

As a small aside, it would be nice to see an orientation system that actually points to the assistance that is available in the Viewer – particularly the How To guide, which even LL ignores (in favour of the Destination Guide). It’s a small niggle, but the built-in help is there, and there is no harm in pointing people towards it.

But leaving my niggles aside, The Inspiring Orientation does offer an interesting and entertaining attraction that takes a fair crack at answering a question that has stumped LL to the point where they have seemingly abandoned it entirely: just how do you get users engaged with the viewer and introduce them to Second Life in a visual and informative medium? This exhibit doesn’t have all the answers, but it does offer an immersive and engaging alternative to what has been offered-up recently elsewhere. As such, it is very much a worthwhile visit, whether you enjoy SL art or have an interest in issues of new user orientation.

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Mesh clothing deformation: alternative approach suggested

Updated June 26th 16:30 BST:  The discussion on this alternative continues on the SLU Forum thread (recommended reading for anyone interested, as a lot is explained succinctly and clearly). Darien Caldwell has summarised the technical aspects of both solutions (and in not having a deformation capability) in terms of who is the greatest impacted – consumers, creators and / or coders.  Similarly, in answering a question posed by Innula Zenovka on the relative advantages / disadvantages to the two ideas (RedPoly’s and the deformer), Adeon Writer commented

“This trick was created to address major problems with clothing, but it is a patch. And you can see the areas where it’s not patched: this only makes mesh follow a few more sliders, while the rest (especially the face) do nothing.

“Qarl makes mesh work with ALL sliders, even future ones that don’t exist yet. It is the correct solution to the problem, this is a quick workaround.

“Qarl gives the ability to make entire new human meshes fully removed from the system shape that still work with all sliders and avatar physics,

“That is not possible with this.”

This would seem to be a clear-cut differentiator that would suggest that if matters come down to a choice of one approach or the other, continuing with the deformer may well be the preferred course of action. Obviously, nothing further has been said on the matter by LL, but further updates will be posted as they become available.

Nalates Urriah brings news of a potential alternative to the mesh parametric deformer that has been under development by Qarl Fizz, and which has been reported upon extensively by Nalates, myself and others.

I’ll leave the in-depth technical explanation and quotes to Nalates – she broke the story, after all. However, to try to summarise:

  • The idea is the rather than weighting mesh clothes against the avatar “skeletal frame”, the clothes are weighted against the “collision volumes” – these are (I gather) used to detect when your avatar collides with a physical object in-world, and thus are designed to morph when you adjust your avatar’s shape
  • The approach isn’t perfect and has a number of limitations (female clothing won’t stretch with breast size changes, for example); extreme sizes cause issues (as they do with the deformer); weight painting during the construction of mesh clothing can be somewhat more problematical
  • Alpha masks will still be required in certain situations (but then, alphas were never going away anyway).

The developer of the approach, RedPoly Inventor has released a demo version of the approach using a dress, which can obtained from his store. There is also a demo video on YouTube:

RedPoly is the first to admit the approach is not perfect, but has also proposed an additional idea of developing a further set of avatar “bones”, which he calls “cbones” that would allow this approach to work a lot better. According to Nalates’ report on the mesh meeting where this all came out, RedPoly believes the development of such a new system would be relatively simple.

Interestingly, according to AshaSekayi Ra, commenting in an SLU Forum discussion on this development, the idea of using the collision volumes  was first raised in the mesh beta last year and that Prep Linden requested samples of clothes rigged to the avatar’s collision volumes, but it is unclear what happened with any tests LL may have carried out.

Right now, this doesn’t mean the end of the deformer, nor does it mean all mesh clothing issues are solved. It does, however, open-up new avenues of exploration and certainly new topics for discussion on the matter.

Reading Nalates’ report, it would appear that the idea has taken LL themselves a little by surprise, despite the fact it may well have been previously discussed, and their reaction is potentially best described as cautious.

As it stands, mesh designers such as AshaSekayi Ra and Ellie Spot will doubtless be looking at the idea, as will those with expertise in the avatar design, as well (one would hope) LL themselves. As Nalates states, there will be further news emerging on this as tests are conducted and feedback given.

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With thanks to Nalates Urriah.