The Drax Files 41: animating Second Life

The vista Animation team: adding action to Second Life since 208 - and now in 360-degree Technicolor!
The Vista Animation team: adding action to Second Life since 208 – and we can see their work in 360-degrees thanks to The Drax Files World Makers

The Drax Files World Makers #41 arrived on Wednesday, October 12th, 2016. At just a shade under four minutes in length, it is an intriguing beast, exploring in-world animations and motion capture through a 360-degree video format.

The latter is suitably underplayed at the start of the video, as Drax introduces it – but the clue comes much sooner when watching on a flat monitor – the 360-degree cursor located up in the top left of the screen, which you can use to steer your way around the video view, or you can left click and drag. Obviously, if you’re using a mobile device, you can tilt and turn the device, allowing the gyro to move the image around, and those with a head mounted display can instantly enjoy in in 360-degree surround.

Motion Capture in the Vista Animation Studios
Motion Capture in the Vista Animation Studios

“I’ve been playing with some of the cheaper systems available,” Drax told me, as we discussed the video, and why he opted to go with the 360-degree format for this segment of World Makers. “Like the Ricoh Theta and Samsung Gear 360, and Mambo Morane has been working in real life with the Go Pro array, so I started thinking in June about how we could do this in SL.”

This turned out to be harder than anticipated. The first attempt involved using an array individual viewers synchronised by a device built by Arduenn Schwarztmann which would enable simultaneous filming through all six viewers, and included additional audio cues to further assist in the post-production stitching process. Unfortunately, this approach revealed that differences in how GPUs process the recording, even with the same windlight and camera defaults in the viewer, could result in recorded clips sufficiently different one to another that stitching them together failed to produce a smooth result.

And translated to Second Life
And translated to Second Life

“Then Mambo Morane came up with the idea of filming in six instance of the viewer running on the same machine, using Open Broadcaster Software to bring them all up together,” Drax continued. “We could then pull them apart in post-production and stitch the individual clips together using 360-editing software, with all of them having the same look and feel. Unfortunately, this may not be something for many machinima makers right now. The software for editing and stitching the video cost US $800.”

The result is a very smooth video, freely intermixing physical world footage shot at Vista Animation’s offices near Barcelona, with footage stages and shot in Second Life which presents an exceptionally immersive and unique view of Second Life, even when seen on the flat screen of a video monitor.

Certainly, the 360-degree aspect is guaranteed to be one which will have people watching the video at least twice, simply because scrolling / looking around in side SL is addictive, and there are some nice little touches to be found – such as little Marianne McCann gamely holding up a boom microphone in some of the in-world footage. This inevitably means it is easy to become wrapped-up in scrolling and looking, without paying attention to what is being said, prompting a second viewing to focus on the main aspect of the audio narrative: animations.

Animations for an important, if often taken-for-granted aspect of Second Life
Animations for an important, if often taken-for-granted aspect of Second Life

Animations – walks, stands, sits, dances, runs, hops, crawls – whatever form they take – are something we’re all familiar with to some degree. An animation override system can often be one of the first purchases made in Second Life (allowing for the worn AOs now supplied with starter avatars and those supplied by the makers of avatars, human or otherwise), and we’re all familiar with the idea of mocap – motion capture – going into their production.

Vista Animations is widely regarded as one of the premier providers of animation packs for overriders, dances, etc., and World Makers #41 offers something of a glimpse into their work, albeit it without going too in-depth with matters of production and workflow (although Drax has previously covered elements of MoCap in Drax Files World Makers #6, so this sits as a good companion piece, and Vista Animations also offer a look at their work for those interested in other aspects of animation creation.

What is offered here is a feel for both the complexity of motion capture and how rapidly the field is changing, as well as a look behind the curtain at a small, successful business which has grown out of Second Life. It terms of the former, the Vista team point out that when they started with their first MoCap suite in 2008, it cost them US $45,000. The system they use today, which I believe was purchased in around 2012/13, set them back US $2,000.

Two of the 12-camera rif vista Animation use in their motion capture process
Two of the 12-camera rif vista Animation use in their motion capture process. Image courtesy of Vista Animations

The MoCap process isn’t just a case of pulling on a suit of sensors and then moving around with the cameras running. Everything has to be calibrated – sensors (50+ for the body and additional elements for the hands), skeleton, props, etc. – to ensure a smooth capture process, which can be time-consuming. Then, once captured, there is the entire editing and post-process work required to produce the finished animation files which can be uploaded to Second Life.

While this latter aspect isn’t really touched upon in the video, what is fascinating to see is how physical world actions translate in-world through the clever use of cross-fading in the segment. This is particularly effective as we see Drax doing a mock interview while being motion captured, then transition to him carrying out an interview in-world.

Continue reading “The Drax Files 41: animating Second Life”

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The Drax Files 40: the eyes of experience in Second Life

Bernhard-2
Bernhard Dörries

Update, January 16th, 2017: Bernhard Dörries passed away in a hospital in Augsburg, Germany, on Sunday, January 15th. Our condolences to his family and friends. Those wishing to personally pass on condolences can do so through Concetta Curtiz in-world. Please see the comment from Draxtor which follows this article. 

“My name is Bernhard Dörries, basically for as long as I have been alive. In Second Life my name is Bernhard McIntyre; I am 88 years old. In Second Life I am, and I feel like, 37.” And thus the focus of the September 2016 segment of The Drax Files World Makers introduces himself in what is one of the most remarkable pieces so far filmed in the series.

His name may not be familiar to most of us, but Bernhard Dörries was instrumental in the establishing the German New Cinema movement following the end of World War 2. Perhaps not as recognised even within cinematic circles due to his focus on television, he nevertheless made 129 films during his career, ranging in scope from experimental meditations on the moral decline and subsequent clash of upper class society in Germany, through documenting the existence of two German states during the Cold War, to pieces examining art history and the influence of colonial powers on middle east painting and sculpture in the 20th century.

What’s more, he is still filming, having turned his attention to machinima and the potential of Second Life – a platform which has become as much his home as the assisted living centre in which he resides in the physical world.

Bernhard McIntyre " “My avatar is [my] co-creator, equal partner in sharing feelings, co-owner of feelings and emotions.”
Bernhard McIntyre ” “My avatar is [my] co-creator, equal partner in sharing feelings, co-owner of feelings and emotions.”
“I discovered Second Life in 2008,” he says. “It not only showed me new worlds, it opened new worlds inside myself! I became a new person!” Bernhard says of his experience of the platform. It is within Second Life that Bernhard lives with his Second Life partner, Alsya, where they share a tropical island home modelled after Stromboli – up to and including the volcano! – and which removes the physical world distance between them.

Throughout his career, Bernhard has looked into the nature of society; starting in Munich at the end of the war, and the near-destruction of his homeland. He has constantly sought to scratch away at the surface veneer of our modern society and look at what lay beneath, and how progress so often involves the burying (and ignoring?) of the past, perhaps leaving issues and situations – and lessons – ignored.

Bernhard’s own situation is perhaps a reflection of this. Elderly, in need of care assistance, confined to a wheel chair, he is of a generation our commercial, consumer-driven society can often see as having little intrinsic value (in the UK, for example, the most frequent television adverts we have for those of 60 or over present their commercial worth in terms of life insurance policies aimed at meeting funeral costs).

The fathers of German New Cinema, post WW2 (l-to-r): Christian Doermer. Dieter Lemmel, Bernhard Dörries, Edgar Reitz, Rob Houwer, Hans Jürgen Pohland, Wolfganf Urchs, Roland Martini, Alexander Kluge and Hilmar Hoffmann, director of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (1954-1970)
The fathers of German New Cinema, post WW2 (l-to-r): Christian Doermer. Dieter Lemmel, Bernhard Dörries, Edgar Reitz, Rob Houwer, Hans Jürgen Pohland, Wolfganf Urchs, Roland Martini, Alexander Kluge and Hilmar Hoffmann, director of the International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, Germany (1954-1970)

Yet, as Bernhard demonstrates, while his body may be frail, his mind – and heart – are as agile as ever, and through Second Life he can fully enjoy creative expression in building an island home and in putting together an 80-minute machinima film. It is a place where he can also enjoy emotional release and partake of the company of loved ones and friends on equal terms, free from and shadows or outlooks which might otherwise colour interactions with him.

Bernhard himself recognises this, saying, “My avatar is [my] co-creator. Equal partner in sharing feelings, co-owner of feelings and emotions.” While the comment may have come in response to a question about his film, there is little doubt he’s referring to the broader dynamic between himself and his avatar. It’s a sentiment anyone who has invested time and self in their avatar will doubtless find resonating. However, with Bernhard, we should see within it a special value.

As with Fran Swenson, whose story Drax covered exactly three years ago in September 2013, he demonstrates that Second Life is as much about expressing who we are, regardless of age or situation or location as it is about creativity. It offers a genuine mix of potential and opportunity unmatched in any other medium.

So much so, that I find my thoughts sliding off at a tangent. Just how well will the upcoming new platforms – High Fidelity, Sansar, et al, with their onus more on the “real” self, through elements of identity, voice, and so on, manage to replicate the broad freedoms all of us enjoy in Second Life when expressing who we are – or who we prefer to be? It’s potentially an interesting subject on which to cogitate, although one perhaps better served in a separate article.

As it is, this a beautiful piece, fully deserving of the slightly longer running time, providing us with insight into a remarkable man who is still as much a pioneer today with his embracing of Second Life as he was when he and his colleagues set out to redefine German cinema.

The Drax Files 39: of games and freedom in Second Life

Sergio Delacruz. Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres / Sergio Delacruz
Sergio Delacruz. Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres / Sergio Delacruz

There’s an argument about Second Life which is as old as the platform itself: is it or isn’t it a game? The majority of  active Second Life users most likely fall on the side of the line which says it is not a “game”, and I’d be among them for many and varied reasons. However, one thing that Second Life can be, is a platform for a wide range of games.

This is demonstrated in segment #39 of The Drax Files World Makers,  which explores the work of content creator and designer of in-world games, Sergio Delacruz. However, in typical Draxtor style, there’s a hidden depth to this piece which makes it yet another fascinating exploration of the potentials and opportunities which are open to anyone engaging in Second Life.

Sergio runs Delacruz Technologies, where he builds a range of items, such as his familiar Ferris wheel and bumper cars, and where he hosts Susan's Diary
Sergio runs Delacruz Technologies and Delacruz Park, where he builds a range of items, such as his familiar Ferris wheel and bumper cars, and where he hosts Susan’s Diary

When it comes to games, Sergio is the man behind Drone Wars (which I can remember playing back in 2009/10), a first-person shooter pitting players in combat against armed drones whilst attempting to locate and disarm a nuclear device. More recently, he has created Susan’s Diary, an immersive horror / mystery story players have to solve.

Like so many of us, he was drawn to Second Life out of curiosity, and was struck by the huge scope for creativity offered by the platform. “I was like a child with Lego,” he says of his early, sandbox-based days. However, and again like many of us, he quickly realised the potential of the platform for both creative expression and for learning new skills. Starting with a pair of primy sneakers, he progressed through teaching himself to script in LSL and onward into game design.

With the latter, he also recognised what is perhaps one of the more unique aspects in designing games within the platform: if the creator desires, they can be built so that people can play them using the avatar with which they are most comfortable with using, without the need to adopt a specific character and / or look, as is the way with console and computer games.

One of the darker aspects of Susan's Diary, an immersive horror / mystery game
One of the darker aspects of Susan’s Diary, an immersive horror / mystery game

This is actually an important point. Because we can engage in games within Second Life using our avatarian familial, rather than being forced into the identity of a pre-defined character, it is possible to have a far more personal connection with the game – it becomes far more our adventure.

Second life also allows for a more open approach to games design and game play; designers can present games which are not necessarily constrained by a linear narrative, but become more of an exploration and discovery by the players, whether playing individually, or with a group of friends (something which further makes games in SL far more of a genuine social experience than those of other mediums can allow, again due to the limitations imposed by pre-determined characters, etc.).

The concept of “freedom” is perhaps where a good portion of the heart of this piece lies. At its core, Second Life is about giving anyone who uses it personal freedom and in a huge number of ways, be it through the creativity of actually making things, or through using the things other make to create an environment others can appreciate and enjoy, or through which we can find new ways and means to express ourselves through art, or through learning new skills. And of course, there is the freedom it gives us to express our personalities through our avatars and to socialise with others from all of the world in a huge variety of ways.

Sergio designing his physical world home in SL - from the comfort of his physical world home, inset). Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres / Sergio Delacruz
Sergio designing his physical world home in SL – from the comfort of his physical world home, inset). Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres / Sergio Delacruz

Of course, there’s a wide range of opportunities sitting around and between these examples, both within and beyond the platform. Nor are any of them mutually exclusive; most of us embrace two or more through our time in-world.

In Sergio’s case, this freedom has given him the ability to develop skills and interests which have application beyond Second Life. From LSL he’s moved to more recognised programming languages such as JavaScript and C#, which in turn have encouraged him to experiment in other mediums, and also to get a potential leg-up into the world of “consumer VR”. Most recently it has offered him the opportunity to dip a toe into real-world design, reproducing his own home inside Second Life.

“In Second Life you are free,” Sergio says at the end of the piece. “Free without limits.”  And that is perhaps the platform’s greatest gift to each of us.

The Drax Files 38: economic empowerment in Second Life

Eboni Khan in Second Life
Eboni Khan in Second Life

The 38th video of The Drax Files World Makers arrived on Wednesday, June 8th, focusing on fashion designer Eboni Khan, who has been designing women’s apparel for the last decade, marketing it through her Hucci brand. However, this segment isn’t simply another examination of the creative and income generation opportunities offered by Second Life. While Eboni’s experience is very much central to the video, there is a lot packed into the three-and-a-half-minute running time, which makes this another fascinating piece.

As we learn in the video, Eboni’s ability to use Second Life as a viable means of income generation wasn’t entirely a conscious decision; trained in information management and employed as an IT manager, Eboni’s world was turned upside down when she was laid off. Second Life offered her the means to work for herself and earn an income which would enable her to raise her son (now in his 20s and attending college) – all through the power of her own creativity and that of the micro transaction.

Entering into a virtual business from a physical world business background provides Eboni with a keen awareness of the real power of virtual environments – as spearheaded by Second Life – which is worth considering when looking at things like Project Sansar and understanding where the Lab is coming from with that platform.

Eboni in the physical world
Eboni in the physical world

“Second Life has such a low barrier to market entry,” she notes early on in the video. “You don’t have that with any other kind of business; you can come in on your first day and set-up shop. It’s basically the perfect proving ground for international business  – the GDP, the amount of residents – Second Life is not a game.”

Of course, setting-up shop does not guarantee anyone of automatic success. Eboni mentions some of the secrets to building a successful brand within the platform, but there is also much more that cannot be packed into 3.5 minutes. Just like real life, running a business in SL requires not just time and effort, but forethought, planning and an evolving strategy.

This is something perhaps demonstrated in 2006-2008, when business from around the world rushed into Second Life without any definitive idea of what they were trying achieve in terms of basic marketing, leave alone trying to generate any revenue. Thus, they ended up tripping over themselves and leaving, dismissing SL as a viable proposition as they went.

The fact that effort and strategy are required is also why I tend to shy away from using the term “democratising” when referring to original content creation as a business enterprise in SL. The term suggest the platform offers a level playing field for everyone, but the reality is it doesn’t; there are skills and requirements involved which, with the best will in the world, not all of us either have or can learn well enough to succeed.

But creativity also doesn’t have to be about generating revenue and income. It’s worked for Eboni and others, because this is the path they chose to take; however, it’s important to remember that Second Life is as much about fun and freedom – escapism, if you will – as it is about anything else. This is something Eboni notes in the video.

“The world will be a better place if more people had a little escapism in their life,” she correctly observes. “Because real life is hard, and your Second Life should definitely be fun.” It’s an outlook those who sit outside SL and sneer at the platform would do well to consider.

Eboni's Hucci store
Eboni’s Hucci store

She also freely embraces the “sexier” (some  – even those who report on SL – might prefer the term “sleazier”) aspects of SL both directly and indirectly. Her designs are  unashamedly sexy, whilst her brand name is an open play on the name of a famous design brand and the fact that some dismiss SL as the home of hoochies. This approach, coupled with her views on escapism are refreshing. Second Life offers a huge freedom for people to positively express their individuality away from the constraints which might otherwise be imposed upon us in the physical world, so why not embrace it?

All told, this another fascinating and insightful piece, one which – as with every World Makers segment – but pushed into from the media. I say this not only because of what it says about Second life as a platform, but for what it reveals about virtual spaces being a genuine social environments and being both a melting pot and barrier breaking in the way they bring people together from all of the globe, from all walks of life and social backgrounds. It’s been a massively important (and oft overlooked) aspect of Second Life, and as Linden Lab and other have identified, it will be a significant part of the more immersive VR / AR / MR era we’re about to enter.

It’s’ also, I’m pleased to say, the perfect vehicle by which Drax and I have been able to re-engage in our conversations about each episode of World Makers, which tend to take place as they are being put together, or shortly before going to press with them. Catch our chat on this episode below the video.

Continue reading “The Drax Files 38: economic empowerment in Second Life”

The Drax Files 37: non-profits in Second Life

Joyce Bettencourt (aka Rhiannon Chatnoir in SL), the Nonprofit Common Community Manager talks Nonprofit Commons with other members of her community
Joyce Bettencourt (aka Rhiannon Chatnoir in SL), the Nonprofit Commons Community Manager discusses the role of the community, together with other involved with it through their own organisations

The Drax Files World Makers show #37 arrived on Thursday, April 21st, perhaps somewhat overshadowed by Fantasy Faire opening its gates. Once again, this is one of the shorter World Makers videos, running to just one second under 3.5 minutes.

The subject this time around is an overview of Nonprofit Commons, designed to lower the barriers of access to Second Life, to create a community of practice for non-profits to explore and learn about the virtual world, and to investigate the many ways in which non-profits might utilise virtual spaces. As such, this is something of a departure from recent World Makers segments. Rather than following a single narrative, it presents a series of sound bites for those responsible for  the various organisations, groups and communities which for Nonprofit Commons, allowing them to provide a concise overview of who they are and what they do.

While this may sound like little more than a simple infomercial for Nonprofit Commons, don’t be fooled. While the pace may be rapid, the comments delivered at a staccato rate, we are nevertheless drawn into more fully appreciating the many diverse social, ecological, sexual and personal areas encompassed by the work of non-profit organisations, large and small, within Second Life, and the critical role they place in bringing people together positively.

Such is the clarity of presentation within this piece by those involved, there is really very little to add to it directly, particularly as Drax has  so eloquently summarises things:

Over 60 international non-profit organizations with causes ranging from environmental awareness to LGBTQ activism, AIDS education and Parkinson’s support, groups that fight to end homelessness or promote emotional healing with the help of horses, are gathered in the virtual world of Second Life to do everything from training to fundraising.

For over 10 years this global community has been successfully showcasing the powerful force of SL to facilitate social good: at NPC in SL office space is given away free, agency over identity through avatars is a powerful facilitator and ideas for outreach and networking can easily be implemented in the digital realm before committing to them in physical reality.

Which leaves me with but one thing to say: watch the video, and if you want to find out more, visit the Nonprofit Commons website.

The Drax Files 36: creative immersion in Second Life

Sominel Edelman - at work
Sominel Edelman – at work

The Drax Files World Makers show #36, released on Monday, March, 7th, is the second in the slightly shorter running time format of 3.5 minutes. And it is the first, I have to admit, that has struck me as a bit of a curate’s egg.

On the one hand the segment is about the work of landscape creator Sominel Edelman, whose skill in creating sim surrounds and landscaping elements is very much informed by his training as a geographer, and who offers keen insights into Second Life.  On the other we have a piece interspersed with shots focused on the used of VR headsets with only a very tenuous link back to the rest of the narrative within the piece.

Sominel Edelman - in-world
Sominel Edelman – in-world

Sominel’s work is, without a doubt outstanding, and the video serves as a high-level demonstration of the efforts involved in order to produce content that is both highly detailed and optimised for viewer rendering, a useful reminder when the focus on creation can all too often be on the former at the expense of the latter. For Sominel, producing content which both looks good and is optimised at much as possible requires a range of tools: PhotoShop, Blender and custom python scripts to achieve the desire results.

The beauty of Sominel’s work is that it can add to our sense of immersion in a place. Sim surrounds provide the means by which we can extend our vision of our world beyond the limitations of a 256×256 metre piece of virtual real estate bounded by water. As such, they have become an important part of the second life ecosystem, something very much reflected in their popularity among users interested in many different in-world activities, as he notes.

"Second life made it possible for me to explore my creativity. It's an amazing thing to discover that."
“Second life made it possible for me to explore my creativity. It’s an amazing thing to discover that.”

However, it is in his views on Second life and its community (in the broadest sense of that word) of users one find the heart of this piece. “Selling my landscapes is enough to sustain my family and my house and my living situation,” he notes. “But while the financial aspect is certainly not insignificant, it’s an amazing thing that [being] logged into Second Life gives me a true feeling of being a part of this environment, and I think I know why that is.

“I’ve played some other computer games, but it was all about consuming the path they had chosen for me. Second life made it possible for me to explore my creativity. It’s an amazing thing to discover that.”

This, I think, is the point Drax is trying to make through the inclusion of the Oculus Rift HMD shots: the idea that Second Life is so rich, immersive and boundless, that it doesn’t actually need headsets and hand controllers to come alive for someone – which any SL user will acknowledge as being true enough, and it is a point that’s important to remember as the tech world at large continues to focus on VR as if it is the only way of going about things.

The problem here is that by including the footage, and in particular by bookending the segment with shots of donning and doffing a HMD, the message is undermined, if not subliminally reversed in the minds of those untutored in Second Life, suggesting that a headset is integral to the experience.

True, there is the comment from Sominel, prompted by Drax,  that such devices aren’t vital. But even this begs the question, “so why include shots of headsets in the first place?” They certainly don’t add anything substantive to the rest of the narrative; the story could be told as effectively without them – which should really be the acid test on whether or not to include them.

Sominel 's store in-world
Sominel ‘s store in-world

Hence why I say I found the piece to be a curate’s egg. On the one hand, there is a clear message that Second Life is first and foremost about the people using it, and everything else is secondary. On the other, almost a third of the video footage is informed by shots involving a specific piece of technology (HMDs), which I cannot help feel erodes the more pertinent message.