The independent author whose muse is Second Life

Maxwell Grantly is a non de plume for an anonymous school teacher, living in a small seaside town on the east coast of Great Britain. Although he has written many free short stories, he does not consider himself an author. He simply writes just because he enjoys doing so (and for no other reason.)

So reads the Profile summary of, well, Maxwell Grantly, a Second Life resident living in England, and who has a remarkable talent for creating illustrated short stories and graphic novels using Second Life as the environment to create his main character and the medium by which he creates the illustrations for his stories.

Timothy tortoise finds himself in an alternate universe when he unwittingly embarks on a Big Adventure
Timothy tortoise finds himself in an alternate universe when he unwittingly embarks on a Big Adventure

I confess that Maxwell’s work had actually slipped right past me, and quite possibly might have remained out-of-sight to me had it not been for Charlie Namiboo circulating information on his latest book, Timothy’s Big Adventure which is currently available free-of-charge for 5 days on Amazon for download on the Kindle reader or similar devices, and computers with the Kindle Reader app installed.

The book follows the adventures of Timothy tortoise, who lives with a little boy called George, who lives with his parents in a small house “many miles from anywhere” (photographed in Frisland) and is too young to go to school. Timothy is somewhat envious of George’s fast-paced and, to Timothy’s way of thinking, exciting life. However, all that changes when Timothy falls through a hole and finds himself in an intergalactic adventure in another universe.

Timothy’s Big Adventure is the kind of short story which harkens back to childhood memories of bedtime stories; indeed, the book itself makes excellent material for such a setting if you have small children of your own. The plot is uncomplicated, easy-to-follow and the illustrations, created using characters and settings from inside Second Life, are delightful.

As well as Timothy’s Big Adventure,  Maxwell has written longer, more complex pieces, such as his Fingers stories, set in New Babbage, which follow the adventures of a young pick-pocket, Edward “Fingers” Croydon, abandoned to the streets of that town whilst very young.

Maxwell admits that he doesn’t actually write first and foremost with children in mind; his stories take a form that he is prone to enjoy, and he views some of the concepts then can enfold as being perhaps more suitable to older children and perhaps adults, rather than being purely for bedside story enjoyment – although he does acknowledge that this is those with younger children might well enjoy reading them to their kids.

As well as telling stories of adventures and intrigue, Maxwell’s books also touch  – albeit perhaps in a very subtle manner – on what might be terms social issues from the periods in which they are set. The Fingers stories, for example, deal with matters of Victorian street urchins and how social care was more a matter for philanthropists (real or apparent) rather than the state.

Likewise, Jack and the Space Pirates touches on child labour: the story’s hero is Jack, is employed to “creep into the tiny gaps gape between the timbers” of space ships to apply the tar need to keep “space out” – a job which sounds akin to the Victorian use of children as chimney sweeps because of the ability to worm their way up flues, or in earlier times, to clean out the spaces behind tightly-packed spinning jennies at the start of the industrial era. Sprocket and the Sparrow carries a more obvious message on the importance of conservation, but it is one that is again imaginatively told.

Some of Maxwell's titles available through Amazon as e-books
Some of Maxwell’s titles available through Amazon as e-books

Again, this is not a deliberate approach on Maxwell’s part; but it does form a natural element in his creative process, as he explained in a recent interview with Writing.com.

“When I write, I just want to tell a good story,” he said. “I feel that it is a basic feature of every human being to be creative. Some people find their creativity in their hobbies, art, dance, music; other people find a release for their creative spirit by consuming the creativity of others. I find that the production of stories is a great release that allows me to be creative, simply for the joy of doing so. Sometimes a fable or lesson might arise naturally from the plot but, when it does, it is often unintentional. I would like to think that, when a reader browses through my work, they are able to enter a magical world of suspended belief and join me in my bizarre world of fantasy, if only for a brief moment.”

Lief's Quest
Leif’s Quest

Another aspect to the appeal with these books  is the care with which the illustrations have been composed; facial expressions have been deliberately selected, for example, to help give even passing characters their own personality – and I admit to smiling at both the astronaut’s expression and choice of words “Yikes!” on being confronted by the lizard aliens!

There’s also a richness to Maxwell’s use of genres; while the Fingers series and Jack are most assuredly Steampunk in setting, his stories involving the elven children Maxwell and Skippy are equally assuredly rooted in fantasy, as is Leif’s Quest, which also has more of a graphic novel look to it.

While the scenes depicted in the stories are located in Second Life, encompassing places as diverse as Frisland, Calas Galadhon, Escapades (and one of Loki Eliot’s magnificent steam-powered airships is Jack’s rewards in Jack And the Space Pirates), New Babbage and other locations, it would be a mistake to say the stories are about Second Life – and it shouldn’t be for a moment considered that they are. Again, that’s not Maxwell’s intent.

Instead, what we do have is another example of how rich and diverse a place Second Life can be when it comes to inspiring our imaginations and for acting as a springboard for our creativity. These are imaginative stories, and I found myself getting drawn into them as I read them in turn.

If you have young(ish) children of your own and are looking for a range of bedtime stories with which to entertain them, or if you want to read adventures of a different kind, I have no hesitation in recommending Maxwell Grantly’s books. They are available on Amazon worldwide – just search for “Maxwell Grantly”, and are offered as e-books on either the Kindle PC app or via the Kindle Cloud.

Additional Links

Linden Lab raise group limit to 60 for Premium accounts

On Thursday, May 28th, Linden Lab announced that with immediate effect, Premium Members can now join up to 60 groups – raising the limit for them from the previous 42.

This increase is only, for now, a pilot programme, for reasons explained below. However, all things being equal, it will hopefully become a fixture of the Premium account package.

The news came via an official blog post, which reads in part:

Today we’re thrilled to be rolling out another perk for Premium members: now you can be a member of 60 groups! Groups have been a consistently popular feature among the Residents of Second Life. It may not be obvious, but group membership can have an impact on the performance of a number of systems. That’s why in Second Life’s early days, Residents could only join a maximum of 10 groups. Over the years, we’ve made improvements that enabled us to raise the group limit to a maximum of 42, but we know that for some power users, even that isn’t quite enough, and today we’re happy to raise the bar for Premium subscribers.  We must make sure that the recent gains in group performance are not jeopardized, so for now the new limit is a pilot program. If there are no problems, we will look forward to raising the limit further (stay tuned!).

Simon Linden:his work on group chat has contributed directly to the announcement on group limits being raised for Premium members
Simon Linden:his work on group chat has contributed directly to the announcement on group limits being raised for Premium members

The “gains in group performance” referred to in the quote above are related to the recent improvements made to the Group Chat service. These have been going on for almost a year now, spearheaded by Simon Linden, who has been working hard to bring about significant improvements to the entire group chat service, front-to-back.

One of the key aspects of these changes relates to how  various “update” messages, created every time someone logged-in or out of SL, etc., and which required updates to be sent to every group of which they were a member, could actually interfere with the group chat system sending and displaying actually messages being members.

At the time Simon was working on these changes, it was indicated that the Lab might consider raising the limit on the number of groups people can join if the work proved successful – so kudos to Simon here for all his hard work – and kudos as well, to the Lab for approaching things cautiously, and recognising that should the new limit prove detrimental to the performance gains that have been achieved with group chat, they are prepared to roll them back.

There is also news in the post for those who take advantage of the increase in the group limit, and then subsequently opt to downgrade their membership to Basic:

Premium members can immediately take advantage of the new limit. Downgrading from Premium membership will not remove you from any of your groups, but it will mean that you cannot join any new groups until you remove yourself from enough groups to get below the Basic account limit, which remains at 42.

This is a further change to the Premium account package that sees things continue to pivot away from the idea of quarterly “gifts” and the like, and towards offering options and abilities that users are more likely to find of use and thus appreciate more. Again, as the official blog post states, expect further updates to the Premium account offering that continue to move in this direction.

Ego as art in Second Life

Ego - Being Your Own Muse
Ego – Being Your Own Muse

Saturday, May 23rd, saw the opening of a new exhibition at the CBK Art Gallery, operated by Ceakay (CK) Ballyhoo. I was sadly unable to attend the event due to other commitments, so hopped over at the start of the week to have a look at the exhibition.

Ego – Being Your Own Muse features the work of a number of SL artists, who were all challenged to offer images featuring themselves as the models / subjects – hence the title of the exhibit. The participating artists are Whimsical Aristocrat, Seductive Dreamscape, AngelinaKnox, Coober Galicia, Daallee and Owl Dragonash of The Living Room fame, and CK herself.

Ego - Being Your Own Muse - Coober Gallicia
Ego – Being Your Own Muse – Coober Galicia

The resulting works are all offered for display in a garden-like environment, with each artist having his or her own summer house in which their pictures are displayed. This not only gives an inviting and relaxed environment for the exhibition as one wanders through the garden under a suitable windlight setting, it also means that each artist’s works can be studied without the temptation to directly compare one artist with another by checking back and forth and getting caught up in technique, approach, etc.

As a result of this, the visitor is free to focus on how each artists views their own avatar; and it is surprising as to just how much can be revealed through the images that are offered. While little in the way of criteria was offered, other than asking the artists to use themselves as their model / inspirations, it is interesting as to the number of nude / semi-nude pictures are are offered (which make this exhibit perhaps a little NSFW, although all the pieces are very artistic in nature).

Ego - Being Your Own Muse - Owl Dragonash
Ego – Being Your Own Muse – Owl Dragonash

I commented on this to CK, who replied, “Well, I think most people in here like the way they have shaped their own bodies, and they’re best to be viewed naked. I myself am very keen on how my ass looks for example!”

That is a fair and accurate assessment. In many respects our avatars can be a huge statement of self and self-image, and we often do invest considerable time, effort and money in how they look, so why not show them at nature’s best. There’s also something strongly emotional about nude and semi-nude images which can express far more than might be the case were the model to be fully clothed, and this is also captured within the images on display here.

Ego - Being Your Own Muse
Ego – Being Your Own Muse

Which is not to say all the pictures figure nudes; far from it. Coober Galicia, the only male artist in the exhibition, for example, presents a series of powerful, character-driven images (even if one is admittedly sitting nude in the saddle 🙂 ), which I found myself especially drawn to; while Owl’s images display her delightful whimsy and outgoing nature.

All told, a charming and worth seeing exhibition that will be open through until the end of June. When visiting, do remember to take a walk through the gates on one side of the gallery area and explore the wonderful Mistwood Isle woods CK has created, or take a ride on a floating dandelion seed!

Additional Links

Mistwood Isle woods
Mistwood Isle woods – through the gates from the gallery space

Into the Abyss and beyond: exploring our world

The Abyss Observatory
The Abyss Observatory

For the last several years, The Abyss Observatory has been a collaborative project formulated by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) and involving the support of a number of organisations including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who host the core elements of Abyss Observatory, the Open University in the UK, and the Digital Hollywood University, Tokyo.

At the start of May, Vick Forcella nudged me about Abyss, and the fact that it will be going offline in early June. I actually hopped over to have a look around then, but it has taken me a while to get this article sorted and written. My apologies to Vick and to the organisers of the Abyss that this has been the case.

The Calypso at the Abyss Observatory
The Calypso at the Abyss Observatory

The Observatory grew out of work initially started as the Abyss Museum of Ocean Science, which closed in May 2009, and two follow-on projects. The first of these projects was Vi and Yan’s Undersea Lab, founded by the current co-creator of The Abyss Observatory (August 2009), Yan Lauria from JAMSTEC, and Vianka Scorfield, one of the creators of the exhibits at the Observatory; the second project was the Ocean Observation Museum (November 2009), which saw Rezago Kokorin, one of the creators of the original Abyss museum join the team as co-curator, and Comet Morigi join as Artistic Advisor.

The focus of the Observatory is presenting information on Earth sciences in an immersive, informative manner. As such, it covers multiple levels, extended both under the water and into the skies overhead and is also linked to a number of “external” regions, including a related Earth studies facility located at Farwell.

Finding your way around the facilities can take a little time; I personally recommend starting at the arrival hub, and taking the ground level / underwater walks which can be accessed via the beach, and which will take you under the waves, introducing you to marine life, marine monitoring, conservation and studies.

The Tektite underwater habitat at the Abyss Observatory
The Tektite underwater habitat at the Abyss Observatory

As well as meeting various members of our marine populace, the underwater walks take you through various information areas, with display models, infographics and information boards covering a wide range of subjects, including the unique Tektite Habitat, which in 1969 / 70 was the centre of research into reef ecosystems and human physiology studies related to both saturation diving and possible long-duration space missions.  The Abyss facilities provide an overview of the Tektite studies, together with a cutaway model of the habitat (shown above).

Close to the Tektite habitat, visitors can find models of the bathyscaphe Triseste, which reached a record maximum depth of some 10,911 metres (35,797 ft), in the deepest known part of the ocean,  the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific in 1960. Alongside this sits Jacques Cousteau’s famous yellow underwater “flying saucer”, exploring the deeps while the Calypso is moored nearby. This part of the Observatory also includes a model of Ictineo I, a wooden hulled submarine dating from 1858.

However, the Observatory is not all about ships and submarines – as noted, there is plenty of information on marine life and on marine conservation, and there are skyborne exhibits which offer opportunities to experience very deep sea diving. There’s even the option of relaxing in an underwater bar!

Only One Earth
Only One Earth

The Abyss Earth studies exhibit at Farwell is entitled Only One Earth, and presents the visitor with a tour of the Earth, starting with a basic introduction to the planet on the lowest level, progressing onwards and upwards through a history of the planet measured by the geological ages, which traces the development of life on Earth. This is a fairly interactive exhibit, with information boards, info givers visitors are encouraged to click on (which display information in local chat), and buttons underneath graphics and images that reveal further information – and of course, links to assorted web pages, as with the main Abyss Observatory displays.

The former climate studies exhibit
The former climate studies exhibit

Unfortunately, as I am getting to this write-up a little late, some of the exhibition spaces created for the Abyss Observatory appear to have already been dismantled. The very excellent climate studies are that was once at Farwell (see above) no longer seems to be available, for example; teleports to it simply return the visitor to ground level.

When visiting the Abyss Observatory, it would be easy to dismiss it as being “old school” – the builds are prim, there is little or no mesh in evidence, etc. It’s also true that some sections of the observatory never seem to have been entirely finished. However, this doesn’t mean that the information which is presented is lacking; there is much on offer here. With a final guided tour of the facilities coming up on Saturday, May 30th at 07:30 PDT, I do recommend that anyone with an interest in marine ecology and / or the history of Earth consider paying the Observatory a visit.

SLurl Links

Oculus VR acquires Surreal Vision, and Connect 2 announced

My colleague Ben Lang, over at Road to VR, brought news my way of the latest acquisition by Oculus Rift, following the company’s formal announcement on May 26th.

Surreal vision is a UK-based company which grew out of Imperial College London, and is at the bleeding edge of computer vision technology. One of the founders is Renato Salas-Moreno, who developed SLAM++ (simultaneous localization and mapping) technology. As Ben explains in the Road to VR blog post:

Using input from a single depth camera, SLAM++ tracks its own position while mapping the environment, and does so while recognizing discrete objects like chairs and tables as being separate from themselves and other geometry like the floor and walls.

SLAM therefore offers the potential to take a physical environment, scanning it, and literally dropping into in a virtual environment and have people interact with the virtual instances of the objects within it.

The other two founders of Surreal Vision are equally notable. Richard Newcombe is the inventor of KinectFusion, DynamicFusion and DTAM (Dense Tracking and Mapping) and worked with Salas-Moreno on SLAM++, while  Steven Lovegrove, co-invented DTAM with Newcombe and authored SplineFusion. All three will apparently be relocating to the Oculus Research facilities in Redmond, Washington.

The acquisition is particularly notable in that it follows-on from Oculus VR acquiring 13th Lab at the end of 2014, another company also working with SLAM capabilities. They were acquired alongside of Nimble VR, a company developing a hand tracking system. However, at the time of those acquisitions, it was unclear what aspects of the work carried out by both companies would be carried forward under the Oculus banner.

Richard Newcombe, Renato Salas-Moreno, and Steven Lovegrove of Surreal Vision (image courtesy of Oculus VR)
Richard Newcombe, Renato Salas-Moreno, and Steven Lovegrove of Surreal Vision (image courtesy of Oculus VR)

Surreal Visions, seem to have been given greater freedom, with the Oculus VR announcement of the acquisition including a statement from the team and their hopes for the future, which  reads in part:

At Surreal Vision, we are overhauling state-of-the-art 3D scene reconstruction algorithms to provide a rich, up-to-date model of everything in the environment including people and their interactions with each other. We’re developing breakthrough techniques to capture, interpret, manage, analyse, and finally reproject in real-time a model of reality back to the user in a way that feels real, creating a new, mixed reality that brings together the virtual and real worlds.

Ultimately, these technologies will lead to VR and AR systems that can be used in any condition, day or night, indoors or outdoors. They will open the door to true telepresence, where people can visit anyone, anywhere.

Connect 2, the Oculus VR conference, is promising to provide
Connect 2, the Oculus VR conference, is promising to provide “everything developers need to know to launch on the Rift and Gear VR”

On May 21st, Oculus VR also confirmed that their 2nd annual Oculus Connect conference – Connect 2 – will take place between September 23rd and September 25th at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, CA.

The conference will feature keynote addresses from Oculus VR’s CEO Brendan Iribe, their Chief Scientist, Michael Abrash, and also from John Carmack, the company’s CTO. It promises to deliver “everything developers need to know to launch on the Rift and Gear VR”. As noted in the media and this blog, the launch of the former is now set for the first quarter of 2016, while it is anticipated that the formal launch of the Oculus-powered Gear VR system from Samsung could occur around October / November 2015.

System specifications for the consumer version of the Oculus Rift were announced on May 15th, and caused some upset / disappointment with the company indicating that the initial release of the headset would be for the Windows environment only – there would not be support for Linux or Mac OS X.

At the time the system specifications were release, Atman Binstock, Chief Architect at Oculus and technical director of the Rift, issued a blog post on the system requirement they day they were announced, in which he explained the Linux / OS X decision thus:

Our development for OS X and Linux has been paused in order to focus on delivering a high quality consumer-level VR experience at launch across hardware, software, and content on Windows. We want to get back to development for OS X and Linux but we don’t have a timeline.

The Windows specifications were summarised as: NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater; Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater; 8GB+ RAM; compatible HDMI 1.3 video output; 2x USB 3.0 ports; Windows 7 SP1 or later. All of which, Binstock said, to allow the headset to deliver, “to deliver comfortable, sustained presence – a “conversion on contact” experience that can instantly transform the way people think about virtual reality.”

Second Life project updates 22/1; server, viewer, avatar rendering

Stand: Relay D'Alliez
Stand, Relay D’Alliez – Relay for Life Exhibit – blog post

Server Deployments, Week 22

Update, May 28th: a back-end issue with the RC deployment has meant that all three RC channels have been rolled-back to the their previous release, leaving the grid as a whole on the same server release.

As always, please refer to the server deployment thread for the latest updates / news.

There was no deployment to the Main (SLS) channel on Tuesday, May 26th, due to there having been no RC deployment in week #21.

On Wednesday, May 27th, all thee RCs should receive a new server maintenance package, comprising:

  • A change logic on accessing group member lists for large groups
  • Internal server logging changes.

SL Viewer

Due to Monday being Memorial Day in the United States, the Lab was closed for normal office business, and there was no meeting to discuss potential RC viewer promotions. However, the most recent update to the Attachment Fixes RC viewer (Project Big Bird, currently version 3.7.29.301943) is showing a must reduced crash rate compared to the previous release (and which prevented it from being promoted to the de facto release viewer).

The crash rate is still slightly high than for the current release viewer, but speaking at the Simulator User Group meeting on Tuesday, May 26th, Oz Linden described it as “probably not a statistically significant difference”. Whether this means the viewer will be promoted to release status later in the week or not, remains to be seen.

Increasing the Number of Avatars Per Region

Simon Linden: looking at ways an means to make it easier for the simulator and a viewer to better handle large numbers of avatars
Simon Linden: looking at ways an means to make it easier for the simulator and a viewer to better handle large numbers of avatars

“There’s one change that I will follow up on … I added a way so I can adjust the ‘max avatars in a region’ setting.  I’d like to do an experiment soon and see what falls apart if we can get over 100 people into a region,” Simon Linden said at the simulator UG when discussing the upcoming RC deployment.

“This is purely experimental and there are no plans for changing the SL limits,” he went on. “But sometimes regions hit 100 [and] it would be nice if the viewer and simulator handled that better.”

There is already an additional means en route to the viewer by which users can have greater control over how avatars around them in a region are rendered by the viewer, Avatar Complexity, when will draw avatars above a rendering limit set by the user as a solid colour (the so-called “Jelly Baby” avatars).  The will work alongside the existing Avatar Imposters capability already in the viewer.

However, in terms of his experiment, Simon suggested that one way to improve things might be for the viewer to simply not draw everyone within a region; although how this would work, and the criteria used to determine what avatars are drawn and which aren’t, does require careful consideration. Simon suggested the viewer might simply skip drawing those avatars that are furthest away once a threshold number of avatars in the region has been reached. Another (suggest by a meeting attendee) would be for the control to be via the Max Number of Avatars settings within the viewer – so that once exceeded, avatars are again simply not rendered.

As noted, Simon’s work is purely experimental, and primarily aimed at helping the Lab understand what might be done to improve things where there are large gatherings of avatars, and to perhaps try out one or two ideas based on what they learn.

Simon’s Rendering Tricks

As a part of the discussion on avatar rendering, Simon handed out a note card of tips and trick for improving your performance when dealing with complex avatars. While this includes the debugs which will form a part of the new Avatar Complexity functionality, which will be appearing in a a Snowstorm RC viewer soon, as well as suggestions which may already be known, I’m including his suggestions in full here for reference:

From Advanced > Show Debug Settings, set:

  • RenderAutoHideSurfaceAreaLimit   0
  • RenderAutoMuteByteLimit  0
  • RenderAutoMuteFunctions  7
  • RenderAutoMuteLogging  False
  • RenderAutoMuteRenderWeightLimit  350000
  • RenderAutoMuteSurfaceAreaLimit  150

In preferences / graphics, change “Max # of non-imposter avatars” to something like 8. Also try ctrl-alt-shift-4 to hide avatars, or ctrl-alt-shift-2 for alphas.

Note the two debugs shown in green are those related directly to Avatar Complexity and drawing avatars as “Jelly Babies”. Note that RenderAutoMuteFunctions must be set to 7 in order for this to work. Also note that the RenderAutoMuteRenderWeightLimit of 350,000 is purely an advisory starting point. The Lab estimate that this will reduce the very top 3% of very rendering-intensive avatars as solid colours. You may find you have to set the value somewhat lower in certain environments  – such as night clubs and dance venues – in order for it to be effective. I’ve personally found that 150-200K tends to be required in very busy ballrooms, etc.