Note: this is a compressed version of an article which first appeared in Kultivate Magazine’s January 2017 issue, and which here includes some personal feedback on being peripherally involved in the project.
There can now be few – even among those having only joined Second Life in the last few months – who cannot be aware of project Bento, the work to significantly enhance the Second Life avatar skeleton to better support mesh avatar models, how they are animated and how they might be customised. I was able to observe Bento almost throughout its lifespan. As such, I thought more of a look inside the project might be of interest.
Bento’s heart comes in the form of one person: Vir Linden. Despite the avatar skeleton being one of the most fundamental parts of Second Life which could if interfered with, cause all sorts of issues, Vir was convinced things could be done to make the lot of mesh avatar creators and animators much easier, and without putting additional stress on either the simulator or the viewer. So in early 2015, he started looking at what might be achievable.
By roughly April 2015 he felt he had enough information to put together a presentation he could put before senior staff at the Lab. Despite the ambitious nature of the project, potentially adding (at that time) 106 new bones to the avatar, the response was enthusiastic and positive. Troy Linden joined Vir from the Product Team, and Bento was born.
Initially, the work was in-house, involving Lab staff and the Moles. However, as the potential for the project grew, it quickly became apparent that wider expertise would be needed to both give input to the project and help steer the development work. And so it was that a core Bento User Group came together, comprising Lab staff with expertise with the viewer, with the server, and – most significantly – content creators noted for their expertise in developing mesh avatars and avatar accessories (human and non-human), and the people behind the most popular tools for avatar creation and animation: Gaia Clary and Matrice Laville (Avastar) and Cathy Foil (Mayastar).
Like, Vir, Cathy, Gaia and Matrice deserve special recognition for their work on Bento. Not only did they embrace the project and work to update their products to support Bento, they also took on a lot of the grunt work involved in updating essential code used by the viewer to make Bento happen – and they were enthusiastic about doing so. If you make use of a Bento head and are adjusting things using the sliders, offer a word of thanks to the three of them: they’re the people who carefully went through the avatar files in the viewer to get as many of the sliders as possible working with the new facial bones for you to be able to do so.
Bento meetings initially took place at a small desert island on Agni, the Main grid. This sat on its own channel to ensure the necessary tweaks to the simulator end of things could be made to try out ideas and options and generally lay the foundations of the project. This work progressed over a period of just over six months until there was a good level of confidence that the project could be taken to the next stage.
This involved moving things to Aditi, the beta grid, and opening things to the public at large. The use of Aditi meant that more extensive testing of simulator and viewer changes could take place, more space could easily be made available for people to experiment, and more people in general could get involved. In time, these meetings would eventually move back to the main grid. It also marked the start of my ability to publicly report Bento progress on an almost weekly basis.
At the start of the public phase of Bento, the skeleton had stabilised with some 92 additional bones – 60 of which were evenly split between hands and head. However, as the work progressed, this number tended to vary for a time as the need for further bones was identified while some of the new bones were found to be redundant and could be removed. As the same time, additional use cases for Bento were proposed, with every effort being made to incorporate as many as practicable. There were even some fundamental shifts made in how Second Life functions so that more could be achieved through Bento.
An example of this lies with bone translations and rotations. In essence the SL animation system had always worked on the assumption that sliders only affect translation and scale whilst animations only affect rotation, allowing both to work cooperatively.As the animation system was not necessarily seen as an intrinsic part of Bento, little thought was initially given to changing it. However, during the public beta phase of the project, a strong case was made for allowing both translation and rotation through animations – and as a result, the necessary updates were made to the animation system to support this without potential conflicts occurring.