Playing with Pixieviewer

Thomas Buchauer has been working on developing a virtual world viewer-in-a-browser. The work is still very much in its alpha stages, but already shows sign of promise for those who are OpenSim-based.

Pixieviewer is available now as a special “first look” release, with access restricted to a special test grid called, appropriately enough, Pixiegrid. It is also in non-public testing with two OpenSim grids, and the aim appears to be to make it generally available as a browser-based means of access OpenSim environments at some point in the future. The viewer utilises HTML 5 (and so runs of Firefox, Chrome, etc.), and runs on any portable / mobile device capable of running WebGL.

PixieViewer: accessing OpenSim through a web browser
Pixieviewer: accessing OpenSim through a web browser

As an initial “first look” release, functionality is obviously limited – although already offering enough to get people playing with things and see the potential. Capabilities currently included in the viewer comprise chat, building both using primitive (“basic”) shapes and pre-set 3D models (mesh is supported although uploads are currently not enabled), and the ability to send content to a file suitable for 3D printing on your own (data exported as an STL file), or have the data sent to http://i.materialise.com, where you can preview and order 3D prints. Some basic object interaction is also possible as well – such as sitting on objects or clicking them to display pop-up with further information.

You’ll need to create a log-in account to the Pixiegrid in order to try-out the viewer, and you can do so directly through the viewer’s log-in page.

General Looks

The preview version loads fast – once you’ve registered an account, you can fire-up the viewer and are immediately delivered to the Pixiegrid preview area, where you can wander, try out various options (including the 3D printing), chat with others and explore what is already available.

3D printing from within PixieViewer
3D printing from within PixieViewer

Avatars come in default male and female forms and are non-customisable at present – although you might find your hair colour changes between log-ins; I’ve tended to find I’m either a blonde or a red-head when using the viewer. Movement  – both avatar and camera – is fairly basic, but more than adequate for getting around and seeing things; those who have followed Lumiya’s development will be aware how rapidly things like this improved, so it’s reasonable to expect PixieViewer will add further refinements as time and the technology allows.

The building tools are somewhat different to those found in full-blown viewers. Clicking on the build button at the bottom of the viewer will open a palette from which you can click-select an object (basic or 3D) and then click in-world where you which it to appear. There is currently no drag-and-drop nor any in-world dragging. Positioning individual pieces requires adjustment of their position co-ordinates.

Building in PixieViewer
Building in PixieViewer

Texture uploads are available through the Materials button on the build floater, which offers the choice of applying default textures or of uploading your own. You can also opt to display the object you’re working on as either a solid or a wireframe, and set the collision value for it (solid or phantom). There doesn’t appear to be any way of linking shapes together at present, and the option to set interactions against objects (e.g. a sit function) is currently disabled.

Of Browsers and Devices

While the viewer should run on any HTML 5 capable desktop browser, Chrome is the recommended default. I tried both Chrome and Firefox, and found both worked well, although with a few quirks. I did, for example find that after a relog, I could no longer click on interactive objects or drop build shapes in-world and my only option to restore functionality was to shut Firefox down and re-start; a problem I didn’t encounter using Chrome. There’s a handy Report Bug button at the bottom of the viewer window for logging issues like this.

Pixieviewer avatars
Pixieviewer avatars

As mentioned above, WebGL is required to use Pixieviewer on a mobile / portable device, so iOS users will have to download an app to enable WebGL if they’ve not already done so. I don’t have a tablet device (although Lumiya is making one awfully tempting nowadays!), so I was restricted to trying-out Pixieviewer on my Galaxy S2 which, given the screen size, is less than ideal when using something which is browser-based.

However, both Chrome and Firefox were able to display the viewer on my relatively small screen, and for the most part, things functioned reasonably. The only issues I did have were with general viewing and a slight hiccup with movement.

The viewing issue was down to the black bands at the top / bottom of the viewer window; the latter made the buttons contained within it somewhat hard to see, even in reasonable light, although once identified, they responded well. Even so, it might be an idea to lighten-up the background to assist people using the viewer on devices with smaller screens.

The movement issue was slightly more pronounced. I found that if I pressed the left or right turn keys displayed within the viewer window for more than a very brief touch, my avatar would end up spinning around on the spot. Tapping any other movement button would stop this, but invariably turn the screen black, so I’d have no choice but to shut-down the browser app and re-start.

In the case of the latter, I found that with care I was able to wander around, but again, the S2 screen size is really far to small to efficiently put Pixieviewer through its paces (building, for example, is not easy to achieve on a tiny screen), so I’ll leave it to those with tablets to give more informative feedback on using Pixieviewer on a portable device.

Pixieviewer on the Galaxy S2
Pixieviewer on the Galaxy S2

Feedback

A viewer-in-a-browser has long been regarded as something of the Holy Grail of grid-based virtual world access. We’ve had some attempts at providing support in the past – most notably with the Pelican Crossing offering for SL back in 2007, various options to pull-up the viewer itself through a browser (not quite the same thing) and, of course, the work with the Unity 3D player as well. As such, Pixieviewer has a lot of potential.

How widespread the take-up is, remains to be seen. In terms of OpenSim, Thomas believes it will be between another two and six months before the viewer is ready for prime-time use, however he is already seeking early adopters within the OpenSim community to help move the project forward. As Pixieviewer requires a dedicated server-side module in order to connect to a grid, it’s unlikely that it will be able to access Second Life any time soon – if ever.

As it stands, for those interested in browser-based access to grid-based worlds, Pixieviewer is one to watch.

Related Links

With thanks to Ener Hax