Mesh and other matters

Here’s my October column for AVENUE magazine.

At long last, Mesh is here.  What seemed like a whole year of waiting (no, now that I think about it, it actually was a year) has finally come to an end and all the regions have been made Mesh Ready.  A new, Mesh Enabled viewer is available for download (version 3.0, but still called ‘Viewer 2’ according to my start bar, presumably in accordance with Linden’s quest to make things more intuitive).  As was the case with sculpties, it’ll probably be a while in Second Life® before mesh starts making the sort of visual impact anticipated.  Unlike sculpties, there’s a whole load of pre-existing mesh content – 3D models made originally for reasons other than rezzing in SL – which could be imported rapidly, however for previously in-world content creators like me looking to learn the new method now that it’s actually here, be warned that the user interface of Blender looks not at all dissimilar to the control panel of the space shuttle.

In the meantime, there are also the new features (much under-celebrated, if you ask me) of shadows and depth of field to enjoy. Shadows is something that’s been experimented with by third party viewers such as Phoenix and Imprudence for a while now. The results weren’t at all displeasing, however inworld photographs weren’t able to capture this detail – leading to all the palava of having to take and edit screen captures, and then upload them as a texture – plus there was the problem that only prims were able to cast a shadow: light was unimpeded by avatar bodies, which meant that only worn attachments projected your presence over a nearby wall on a sunny evening. In my case, this was a silhouetted hair piece and shirt collar, and the outline of a pair of spectacles; not really the sort of dramatic detail I was after (although it could have been considerably more bizarre had genitalia been involved). But the new SL shadows work like actual shadows: not only does your whole avatar block light, but the transparent parts of textures let it through. Combine this with depth of field – an entirely new feature – and the virtual world looks suddenly utterly sumptuous. Oh yes, and prims can now be more than ten metres long. Which I am tremendously excited about.

Already, then, SL looks completely different from how it looked a couple of months ago and Mesh has yet to make its mark.  Gazing a couple of days ago at my beach hut home in blurred evening shadows behind my avatar (and through the Firestorm Mesh viewer, since I’m afraid Viewer 2/3.0 doesn’t work for me at all yet) I realised that this look was very close to the sort of thing I’d kind of hoped SL would be when I first entered it nearly five years ago.  In fact, putting aside the (admittedly rather huge) issues of lag and rez time, it’s all of a sudden a little difficult to imagine what a better-than-this metaverse could look like.  A hastily assembled wish list now might include such entries as clothes that don’t disappear inside me when I lean to the side a little and objects that break when I drop them (don’t tell me you’ve never thought of this).  Maybe clothes that drip when they’re wet.  Maybe a new physics engine that doesn’t make physical items behave like some sort of inebriated grasshopper when collided with.  But these would all require fundamental alterations to the grid code – maybe even a complete rewrite – and all for embellishments that would be little more than enjoyable tweeks for us old-timers and utterly invisible to new residents.

Is 3D gaming approaching a threshold?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly well aware that everything could in theory be sped up and made more detailed.  A higher prim allowance was probably towards the top of your own wish list a few sentences ago, and without a great deal of mental effort.  There are plenty of meaningful improvements which could be made, for sure, to the metaverse as it stands.  But the world of 3D has taken some important new turns in the last couple of years and I’m curious as to how these technologies could potentially converge and render our current inworld experience obsolete.  First of all, there’s the success of real world movement controllers such as Microsoft Kinect and the Wii remote (Wii Tennis is still a guilty pleasure for me, although that idiot umpire needs to get himself a pair of god-damned glasses).  Secondly, there’s the onward march of ‘actual 3D’ – by which I mean stereo depth perception – across our cinema screens and television sets.  3D TVs are still a little out of reach for most of us, but economies of scale are starting to take effect and it probably won’t be all that long before most sets include 3D as standard, just as HD now appears to be pretty much built in to anything that shows moving pictures.

‘Actual 3D’ so far has made little impact on gaming, notwithstanding the Nintendo 3DS and its rather lacklustre sales.  My reckoning is that this is about to change and will happen most significantly with the next generation of games consoles due out over the next two to three years.  It’s not as though the technology doesn’t exist to do something earlier, but the timing of the next gen machines coincides nicely with the fall in price of 3D displays towards something affordable by most.  Of course, we might all be living off the vegetables we have to grow in our back gardens by then if the world economy continues on its current curve – thoughts of virtual worlds a fond and distant memory – but that’s another issue entirely.

Despite the repeated evidence of the last three decades, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that today’s technology is unbelievable, easy to forget how what we once thought was incredible now looks hopelessly outdated.  In September, it was announced that a ban on the sale of ‘Doom’ to teenagers had been lifted in Germany, 17 years after it was put in place (and 18 years after the game was initially released).  Doom was once incredible.  Not the actual first 3D environment to grace a computer screen – I can still remember 3D Monster maze on the Sinclair ZX81 thirty years ago (and I probably shouldn’t have admitted to that) – but the first, perhaps, to produce a collective gasp of such magnitude.  Now, it looks archaic.  The German decision on its unbanning was rationalised with the explanation that a game as old and chunky as this was now likely to be only of historical interest to gamers.  Presumably their belief is that any game in this day and age that doesn’t show high resolution internal organs exploding whenever a bad guy takes a round from the player’s machine gun is about as harmless as Jerry the mouse sticking Tom cat’s tail into a nearby wall socket.  It wasn’t at all a decision based on ‘not 3D 3D’ being old in and of itself of course it wasn’t.  But perhaps this step is also the first rung on the ladder for the genre’s transition to the IT attic, that dusty place where we store such memorabilia as 3.5 inch floppy disks, cathode ray tube monitors and pretty much anything that plugged into the parallel printer port.

Enticing as an ‘actual 3D’ SL on your TV might sound (perhaps with your RL movement mapped onto that of your avatar), this would still be a window into a world you’re not part of.  I can imagine this enticing more people to the metaverse, but would it be enough to make the experience so immersively spectacular it attracted the sort of numbers seen by Facebook?  SL, after all, is not a 3D gaming environment: it’s a 3D social networking environment and therein lies its potential mass appeal.  At about the same time that Doom got unbanned, Sony demonstrated a new virtual reality headset to be sold for the PS3 (http://goo.gl/5a6FH), a pair of glasses that places a tiny screen in front of each eye.  At $600 each, these are probably unlikely to fly from the shelves (in any case, they’ll only be on sale in Japan); it’s a new, expensive and probably imperfect step in the next direction.  But just imagine the possibilities if this technology ever got joined to SL: a turn of your head to the right and you’d be looking at the person next to you; you would be inside SL rather than looking into it; a non-windowed world of people and places, and no need to pick up any sort of gun in order to enter it.  Now that might be something of interest to the masses.

Which all might feel in the here and now such a terribly long way away.  But just think: five years ago, you couldn’t even get a prim bigger than ten metres long without having to resort to some dodgy backstreet deal with ‘megaprim’ suppliers.  Newbies these days just don’t even know that they’re born.

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