Saturday, January 31, 2009

Landmark Surfing

Every once in a while I'll be at a trivia game or merely minding my own business (really! that happens sometimes!) when a Second Life friend will instant message me and say "Hey, do you do any exploring?" And I say "Yes, yes I do!" because I love to find unusual and new-to-me places and builds in the Second Life universe. One of my frustrations with SL is that so much of the landscape is worse than blah—I think the phrase I used was "like a bad cartoon strip mall." In fact, often, the strip malls come complete with strippers. So I like finding odd and beautiful spots (even if they're stores) and think things like Winterfaire are a great idea to showcase the talent and ingenuity of many of SL's residents. The upshot? If someone gives me a landmark, the odds are that I'll check it out.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so trusting. Someone—you know who you are—gave me a set of landmarks to interesting spots. Some I had been to before, but one of them carried the Japanese name Higashiosaka. Many of the Japanese sims I've found (like Kowloon) have been wonderful…so I gave Higashiosaka an immediate double-click. And found myself in a pit filled with lava and a dreadful pounding all around me. Gee…thanks.

Eventually I found my way out of the pit and found an apocalyptic diorama: a race of giants had apparently crawled of the earth and were in the process of ripping apart a city by hand...and smooshing hundreds of naked, frantic residents in grisly ways. But these aren't actual avatars: the giants and the residents are all objects made of Second Life prims, animated by scripts, and tricked out with sounds, screams, particles, and actions. I explored the scene after assuring myself I wouldn't actually be hurt. (Some areas of SL are "damage enabled" so people can get hurt and "die"—like in combat games. Dying means being teleported back to your home.) The giants are all escapees from some 80's metal video, sporting spiked clubs and hideous mullets—truly someone's vision of Hell. And the scale of the city made even my diminutive stature a little giant-like.

Lou stares death in the face

After Higashiosaka I decided I might try somewhere more pastoral, and a landmark for SL Botanical Gardens. It is indeed more pastoral and has some beautiful locations…but somehow more clichéd and cartoony than places like the Garden of Da Vinci. I was also kinda dismayed to be vaguely trailed by a set of mullet-wearing boys speaking Italian who kept asking me to dance. It was like the giants from Higashiosaka had decided to shrink down and follow me, but were trying to be all suave.

View of the Botanical Gardens from a high, rocky terrace

Next up, I found myself at Straylight, which is both a gorgeous build and a store that sells…well, I guess, botanical stuff. Trees, shrubs, outdoor stuff, things that people use to make their own outdoorsy environments in Second Life. Some of Straylight's areas are simply gorgeous—heavily wooded areas with brick paths that look wonderful , even during SL's nightime:

While at Straylight, I remembered where I'd seen landscaping builds in a similar style: Ode, and especially Oubliette. Confession time…when I inadvertently went trespassing in Ode when I first started out in Second Life, the person I barged in on was Saiyge Lotus, proprietress of Balderdash, where she sells jewelry, gypsy wagons, and a number of landscaping, furniture, and seasonale items—there's not really a theme except for the high quality of her work. Balderdash's sim, Oubliette, has been more-or-less constantly transforming. It used to feature a lighthouse where I would hang out and write these postings, but at some point that vanished, a frozen lake appeared, and now additional low-key stores are beginning to appear around the island. And Saigye has stashed some of her wares in ingenious places—for instance, check out the mermaid ruins:

To find them, you either have to climb down (or, in my case, fall down) a well. But they're for sale! The arches, the porticos, the columns…here I am sitting on the gift box:

Oubliette also has some whimsical touches from some other vendors: I spent a few minutes picnicking with these delightful squirrels:

But after that? A quick breather before another hard-fought trivia game. I'm so cool.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Another Reason People Leave SL

Last night, I wrap up a trivia game when a new-to-SL friend pings me, says hi, and asks if I can maybe help fix his avatar—he'd been messing with settings and the results were not good! So I teleport him to my sky platform, which I usually roll out over a "sandbox"—a public area where anyone can build things and write scripts—and we chat while he goes through boxes of items he picked up somewhere and works on setting up his avatar.

I bring my sky platform down lower than usual so my friend can fly—without help, avatars can only fly up a few hundred meters—and immediately a stranger is on my platform. She leaves right away, but a few minutes later someone else appears in the sandbox…and launches an attack against me and my friend.

What's an attack in Second Life? In this case, it's a flood of cubes and particles streamed up towards us from the ground. The particles are merely annoying and slow down your Second Life client; however, the cubes are physical and follow an avatar. If you have nowhere to run, the cubes dogpile on top of you, effectively pinning you to a spot. And, of course, the cubes and the particles are festooned with a well-known obscene image that's been an Internet meme for several years. So it's about the last thing you want filling your screen.

Tens of thousands of people are logged into SL at any given moment—often over 70,000 on the weekends—but only a small portion are "griefers" who do things like this. They use throwaway accounts—easy, since Second Life accounts are free—load them up with attack scripts and tools from their primary accounts, and set out to wreak as much havoc as possible. To them it's just funny. They don't care if the account gets deleted because they'll just make another and have another go. Griefers do it for the "lulz"—a term evolved from LOL ("laugh out loud") used in instant messaging and online communications. They love to rile people up, disrupt what they're doing, shock folks…and then laugh about it. A handful of griefers have what it takes to take down a sim or seriously disrupt Second Life, and SL has at least one major group of organized griefers. They even made the news in 2007 by attacking the virtual site of one-time U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards—a prank that no doubt produced "epic lulz" they found very fulfilling. But these folks aren't confined to SL—they also roam bulletin boards, Web sites, and online games. And for the most part they're just juvenile and annoying.

Since griefers only get their lulz if you get riled up about them, in Second Life the best thing to do is sit down (that way objects can't push you), file an abuse report, and just leave. Don't engage them in conversation or try to retaliate, because that's just more lulz.

So, I filed an abuse report on the avatar that launched the attack (I'll name him here—Umgah Chrome—the account has since been deleted) and got my friend to a safer spot elsewhere in SL. But I know if I'd seen that kind of thing in my first days of Second Life, I'd never have come back. The rude boys are bad enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why, I Believe I'm Smitten!

The other night one of the regular trivia events had a costume thing that was "Best in Wacky Scientist" or something, and Duncan (one of The Shotgun Wedding duo) had a jet pack and a weird helmet and the overcoat and all that stuff…and a small herd of little robots assembled around him. Except, when you're my size, the robots aren't so little! Duncan put one over next to me, and we made kind of a cute couple.

At least I know his heart is in the right place.

(OK, maybe not: the next day Duncan accused me of being Mary Lou Retton. You know, short, short hair, on a Wheaties box…sigh.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting Some Air

Since I've kinda been down on Second Life lately, I thought it might be appropriate to go do some site-seeing. You know, get out a little bit, hang with people, maybe see some cool places instead of spending all my time pushing prims around millimeter by millimeter or staring into the numbing, deep hypnotic vortex of SL's integrated script editor. (Lou, you are getting veeeery sleeeepy….) I liked getting out and seeing some of the winter-themed sims that participated in Second Life's Winterfaire event, and thought trying some other places might cheer me up a little.

The "hang with people" idea worked out great. In addition to getting some social interaction by fueling my trivia addiction, some fellow trivia peeps—actually, trivia teammates, whoohoo!—talked me into (gulp) dressing up and going to a dance club. I totally admit to having trepidations. For one thing, Lou's wardrobe is not so deep that going to a dance club even with a basic-black dress code is something I can do easily. And I somehow had the impression all SL dance clubs were the kind of places where, if a girl shows up, lots of boyz immediately try to engage her in "conversation." You know, pretty much like real dance clubs but without the smell of sweat and stale beer. And there's also the minor issue that Lou doesn't dance. In real life, I'm a complete klutz and in Second Life…well, I've tried it and it's definitely not me.

But, it was mambo night—we loves us a little top-notch mambo—and I was assured the DJ knew his stuff…and I figured "what the heck." And I am happy to report the DJ did know his stuff—his southern U.S. accent was just oddball enough to work—and I didn't get so much as a single rude (or even vaguely creepy) instant message or chat comment. No, Lou did not dance, and, yes, Lou did spend probably the first 15 minutes zoomed in on her knees trying to adjust her pants so they almost-kinda-sorta fit properly. But it was a good time and, you know, I might just try it again.

I also attempted some small amounts of site-seeing. However, in Second Life, this is sort of a chicken-and-egg problem: if you don't know of any cool places, it's kinda hard to find cool places to go. If there are tour books and visitors guides to neat places in Second Life, I haven't found them, and I gather Linden Labs has recently shaken up its pricing structure on sims such that many privately developed sims have simply vanished. That apparently means some sims that people put up just to explore ideas or do something cool have gone away, and any guide to nifty places in SL would probably need some serious updating.

So, I did the same thing in SL that I would do in real life: I started paying a little attention to places my friends mentioned or thought were fun to visit. A few of those turned out not to be so fun to visit (yes, it's true, I do not share all my friends' tastes!) but others were fun.

First up, the Garden of Da Vinci, a gorgeous, idealized Renaissance-inspired sim built in part around ideas and concepts from Leonardo da Vinci. Lots of elegant terrances and airy post-lintel-and-dome architecture abounds, there are a ton of little corners worth exploring (check out the caverns, the castle library, the observatories, and more), and users can toodle around in one of da Vinci's "air screw" helicopters, implemented as a Second Life vehicle. Best of all, no ads or stores or garish displays in sight: it seems to exist simply for its own sake, and it's worth a visit.

Lou at an observatory at the Garden of Da Vinci

Visitors can also paddle around the sim in leisurely-paced gondolas. I didn't even get my feet wet!

View of birdhouse and castle in Garden of Da Vinci

Next up, the person who initially introduced me to Second Life mentioned a two-sim reproduction of Cologne (Köln) cathedral in SL—he wasn't sure if it had been completed yet, but that, last he saw, it was definitely worth a visit. The real life Cologne cathedral is an architectural marvel and one of the world's largest Christian churches. It took centuries to build—I think construction started in the late 13th century, and wasn't completed until the 19th century, and I remember from an architecture survey course that a construction crane was in place on one of its towers for over 400 years. I thought, if it takes centuries to build a church like that in real life, what would the SL version be like? It's impressive:

Lou in the nave of SL's Cologne Cathedral, viewing the apse from the crossing

Tiny Lou, still in the crossing of SL's Cologne Cathedral

For a short while in the 19th century—I think until the Eiffel Tower was completed—Cologne's completed towers were the tallest structures in the world. In Second Life, everyone can fly, so I took a quick jaunt up there. In SL, the towers are tall enough to pierce the ever-present layer of fog starting around 150m above the ground. I have no idea if the SL Cologne's spires are to scale, but if you set your client's draw distance wide enough, you can see the entirety of both sims from them.

Tiny Lou, looking up the (very uppermost) parts of Colgone Cathedral's spires

What was strange about the Cologne sims was that, in maybe an hour and a half I spent exploring there…I didn't see a single other avatar, even at a great distance. There weren't even green dots on SL's mini-map that would denote other avatars in the area. I had it all to myself.

After exploring two sites built around impressive, idealized architecture…I thought something completely different might be in order. So, somewhat arbitrarily, I found myself in Kowloon, which I gather is a sim built to simulate the now-destroyed Kowloon Walled City in British Hong Kong—an area that was controlled by the Chinese but essentially policed by no one, and was a haven for the triads, organized crimes, opium dens, and all manner of "unregulated activity." And where Cologne and the Garden of Da Vinci are bright and airy and spacious and inspiring…Kowloon is cramped and dark and bewildering and gritty.

Lou on a main drag in Kowloon

The architecture of Kowloon's streets, stores, shops, and rooms is claustrophobic—buildings and rooms jammed up right next to, against, and on top of each other—and makes almost no effort to accommodate the realities of a Second Life avatar (we tend to need high ceilings and a lot of space to move around comfortably.) And Kowloon is awash in mouldering textures, dark openings, neon, unexpected cubby-holes, and neon. The sim seems largely Japanese, including most of the items for sale in various shops and stands, and many of the avatars I encountered were from Japan. A few areas of the sim are for members only, but the nature of the streets means you can wonder between, through, and around buildings almost endlessly and scarcely be aware of whether you're retracing your own footsteps. Heck, you can be within a few meters of another avatar and not be able to see them—even with masterful SL camera control skills. Some areas in the sim are inexplicable—a winding pier that leads out to a glowing purple cloud, and pose balls that let avatars assume the roles of unfortunates passed out in an alley among them—but other parts are oddly charming, including a small (and incredibly dense) street market and the flooded-out lower floor of a store that still has stuff for sale…along with a mackerel or something swimming about.

Hmm, do I really want to go in there?

Kowloon isn't pretty, but it's certainly an experience, and I'd recommend it for anyone looking for creative builds in Second Life that aren't about platonic architectural ideals, glowing flying abstract geometry, or cybering.

Just watch your back. You never know who (or what) might be down that alley.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lou Netizen, Ignorant Fuddy Duddy

I'm having one of those moments where I think I must be one of the most boring, uninspired, and ignorant people in Second Life. Every time I log in—when I can log in, SL has been having problems with that lately—I become more and more aware of what I don't know about SL culture, how the service works, what people do, and what's exciting about Second Life.

From my perspective, I try to log in, I try to attend a few events where I might be able to talk to some of my friends, and often I try to pull my sky platform out of my virtual pocket to work on those jewelry commissions (which, yes, I know, I should have been done with a month ago). But every time I venture out of my little bubble—or sometimes even just return to an area of my little bubble—there's something or someone new or important and I've been completely out of the loop. Everyone else in in SL seems so much more clued-in. It's not that they're "older" and have been in Second Life longer: some of these folks only have a few months on me, and some are younger! There are fundamental things—probably many fundamental things—about Second Life I just can't pick up on.

Sure, finding clothes and decking out an avatar is one of them: I just can't seem to catch a break with that. Some people are different every time I see them, and some people can dress up on-the-fly to match the theme of events or contests. I'm lucky if I can find pants! And, as one might expect in a virtual world, some people play fast and loose and wacky and whimsical with their avatars. One of my best friends is a cat; here we are playing trivia with a cartoon bear:

But throw an event with a "redneck picnic" theme (or similar…I don't remember what it was) and you get people like Zel and Duncan—they're not a couple (I don't think!), but all evening I was mentally referring to them as The Shotgun Wedding:

Not trying to throw myself a pity party here: as frustrating as Second Life can be (don't get me started about SL's so-called "programming environment"!) I have fun and I've met great people. But I'm puzzled and confused as to why so many people are so much more in-the-loop than me…and I don't even know where to begin. So many residents seem to have no trouble expressing themselves in Second Life, and they find great and creative ways to do it. But it's almost all I can do to get to a couple events with hair on my head and pretend I understand what people are talking about.

Maybe I just need more sleep. Lots going on in real life lately…sigh.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Throwing a Fit

I've mentioned that Lou in Second Life is analogous to Lou in real life: although my avatar can't be a precise simulacrum of my Real Life Self, I try to keep the broad strokes accurate. I am slightly built, my hair is a dark muddy brown, I do have a (proportionately) large head, I am a cheeky smart-ass, I am so pale that it's probably possible to read by moonlight reflected off me at night. And, yes, I admit my Second Life self is magically able to keep her hair nicely styled despite wind and rain (and sometimes flames and smoke and weird particle-emitting objects), SL Lou actually has a cooler pair of boots than RL Lou, and SL Lou lacks the scar from that encounter with a salad fork that we won't go into here.

Anyway—if I take a deep breath, stand up straight, and try to do that "good posture" thing my dad was always on about, I top out just over 1.5m tall. (That's about 5 feet.) Therefore, Lou in Second Life is also short of stature. However, in SL avatars routinely approach (or exceed!) 2m in height, and anyone (male or female) under about 1.8m (about 6 feet) tall is considered short. (Much commentary could be made of people making themselves taller and skinnier/more muscular in SL—saving that for another day.) So, Second Life's fashion industry tends to be geared towards giants—impossibly skinny (female) or muscle-bound (male) giants. For clothing based on SL's default types, this isn't much of a problem: the graphic textures of the clothing are stretched between points like shoulders and elbows, regardless of the physical size of the avatar. In fact, since clothing textures are a fixed resolution—I think 512px for, say, pants—short avatars might have an advantage over tall ones. Why? We can cram the same number of pixels into a smaller area, so clothing on a short avatar might look marginally higher resolution than the same clothes on a lumbering giant. Call it one of Second Life's little ironies.

But one of Second Life's little cruelties is that most of the good clothes—you know, the stuff all the cool kids are wearing—isn't made solely of SL's default clothing types: a lot of it is augmented with prims of all types to supplement the basic clothing types. (These attachments work just like jewelry—they're objects attached to avatars at predefined points.) Most skirts (and, say, the bottoms of some jackets) are built using "flexi" prims that move with an avatar or the wind. Cuffs on a shirt or sweater might be made from traditional cylinders to simulate the look of a rolled-up sleeve or a thicker fabric. And pants—oh sheesh. Pants might use prims (often a special type called a scultpie that has to be created in another application) to simulate cuffs because all default pants in Second Life are floods! Yes, it's true: if you want pants that go below your anklebones, you have to effectively strap other objects to your shins to simulate the lower leg of the pants. Oh, and another funny? Default pants in Second Life simulate flares and boot cuts by bloating out your avatar's leg like a some sort of human balloon. The result looks like a really, really bad cartoon.

And those prim attachments? That's where being short can bite you. Unlike default SL clothing that scales automatically to an avatar's size, prim attachments are the same as any other object like a chair, wall, or building: they're a particular size until their owner or someone with "modify" permission changes them. And because something like 90 million percent of Second Life's population are gigantic amazons Barbies or Conan the Barbarians, most prim attachments are way too big for avatars who are a normal, realistic size. Like 150 cm tall.

The result? If I buy a pair of pants with prim cuffs, they might look good when I first put them on…but as soon as I bend my leg or sit down, the problem becomes apparent: the cuff objects are way too big for my legs, and wind up sticking out of the tops of my knees like some kind of hockey or BMX gear:

Now, if I want hockey or BMX gear? Not a problem. If I want a simple pair of cotton pants? Kind of a problem!

Fortunately, many designers who make clothing with prim attachments give buyers "modify" permission so they can resize and reposition the items to fit their avatars. So, in the case of the pants above, I was able to fairly easily shrink down the cuff attachments and make them work. However, even with modify permission, it doesn't always work: with the resizing, textures and seams often fail to line up, with the result that fabrics that display a gradient or pattern fall apart where the prims meet default SL clothes. So, the best prim-enhanced clothing items tend to be simple, plain colors…because they're less likely to fall apart when resized.

Just because most designers give buyers permission to resize prim objects doesn't mean they all do. That cool pair of boots I mentioned earlier? Even though they claim to be made for "size zero" feet, they almost make me look like a cartoon character because they're too big for my frame…and I can't resize them. Yes, the boots came in two sizes…but the other size is even bigger!

Similarly, I've seen many clothing items I would like to buy, but I can't tell if they'll work on my frame. Sometimes when you want to buy something, you're presented with a list of the objects you're buying. For instance, a sweater might consist of two versions of a sweater (one as a shirt, one as a jacket, so you can choose what layer it's on) along with prim cuffs and maybe a collar. Usually you can see whether you'll be able to modify the objects. But sometimes—typically when designers use product vendors—all you get to see is a low resolution picture of a product, and your only option is to pay money. You can't see how they're made, what you're getting, and what permissions you'll have if you make a purchase.

So, all you SL fashion designers who read this blog (ha!), let me throw this down on behalf of all the short people out there. You can sell us a lot more stuff if you:

  • Tell us whether items use prim attachments
  • Tell us what kind of attachments they are (flexies? scultpies?)
  • Tell us whether we have modify permissions so we can resize attachments
  • If no modify permissions, do attachments include scripts so users can resize them?
Oh, and here's another thing: don't tell us we can make all these problems go away if we just made our avatars taller. (Which two designers said to me when I asked if their clothes would work on someone my size.) My response: hey, if you made your clothing smarter—or described what you're selling adequately—I wouldn't be your problem.

There ya go. Get on it, peeps.

(P.S.: Yes, it's true: Lou in SL is significantly taller than Lou in RL, coming in at about 160cm, or about 5′4″ tall. Not because I can't make my avatar 150cm tall…but because that's as short as I could get and still make most of my pants fit. How sad is that?)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Shades of Grey

In between bouts of trivia—and little bits of exploring—I have continued to work on jewelry items in Second Life…in part because I want to do something useful, but also because I still have commissions to fulfill! One of the things that was most fun (and most frustrating!) about the Polaris piece was building the gem: it's kind of an unwieldy gaggle of prims, and only works because it takes advantage of gaffes and goofs in SL's rendering to appear to shift and gleam when it moves or nearby lighting changes.

In my development as a Second Life (cue fanfare!) Content Creator (da ta dum!), I thought I would spend some time trying to come up with other ways to make gems. The technique I used in Polaris is very time- and labor-intensive, but it also isn't applicable to other types of stones. What if you want something round, or teardrop-shaped…or with no facets at all? So (I admit!) I spent a lot of time admiring the jewelry worn by other people in SL—zooming in embarassingly close with Second Life's built-in camera, and then trying to recreate interesting bits of what I'd seen. After a little while, I could recognize how different builders had approached creating different types of jewelry, and I built a few experiments of my own to see what I could do.

One of the main things about gems is how they focus and diffuse light. Second Life enables builders to set the color and opacity of prims, so objects can have a somewhat translucent quality. Object sides can also have textures, which are essentially bitmap graphics splattered across the surface of an object. Textures might sound like a great way to get (say) a sphere to resemble a cut gem—and, to a small extent, it works, although the results really do look painted-on: they have no depth, no sparkle…and mostly look like cartoons.

Also, no matter how you play with objects' opacity, they never reflect or refract light accurately. Sure, Second Life supports three levels of "shiny" (how much light an object reflects) and it's somewhat effective for, say, representing objects made of glass or metal. But it's not particularly useful for creating an object that both reflects light and lets light pass through it…particularly if that light can get refracted from any number of angles. Second Life's shininess, opacity, textures, and colors are just a simplified mimic of real life…they don't follow the same rules or offer the same wealth of possibilities.

So I started to look at how Second Life's properties might be used to create something…well, if not real, then at least interesting. One property a prim can have is emitting light—and, within some limits, creators can control its color and intensity. Although Second Life is capable of rendering (at most) nearby eight light sources at the same time (the sun and moon count as two—it's always a full moon in SL!—so really six other sources can be active), the lighting property is useful for creating lamps, torches, fires, beacons, lightsabers (I'm sure!) and other light-emitting items. One very common application of this lighting property is "face lighting"—if you ever see a woman (or even a guy!) walking around SL like they have their own personal spotlight following them, they probably wear face lighting as part of their hair. It's usually built as a little, invisible, light-emitting prim that sits about 20 cm in front of their face in order to let them "look their best" no matter the local lighting. Unfortunately, the light tends to bleed all around them, at best making them look ridiculously vain, and at worst like they've got some sort of lightbulb stuck in their mouth.

So, I thought: maybe there's a way to combine transparency, opacity, textures, and this light thing to make something interesting? After some experiments, I came up with this:

I know it sort of resembles a translucent almond (yay Lou!), but it was just a proof of concept and here was the best part: if you turn out the lights and wait until the sun goes down:

…it has just a hint of a glow. Subtle. The kind of thing someone else would only notice up close, like the detail in fine jewelry. Here I'm showing it next to our old friend, the 1cm×2cm cylinder, for scale…and so you can see the light would get picked up by something close, like a mounting, clothing, or skin.

Now, I realized I was playing a little close to the edge with this. First of all, not everyone in SL sees lighting: sometimes their graphic cards only have enough oomph to handle the sun and moon. And that's fine: The Almond is still gem-like without the light. Similarly, some people don't have graphics cards that let them see "bump mapping" and Second Life's "shiny" effect—and that's OK with The Almond too, because it doesn't rely on either property.

But where I made my mistake was assuming that if a user's video card could handle spiffier graphics, their display of light-emitting objects would be more accurate and more realistic than folks with fewer graphics options. Wow, was I wrong. Here's The Almond (at night) with an option called "Basic Shaders" disabled…and right next to it, the same Almond (in the same place, no properties changed) with Basic Shaders enabled:

That's quite a difference…and where one is a subtle effect suitable for use in jewelry, the other is a horrendous, garish, frickin' airplane landing light.

And there doesn't appear to be a way to create light-emitting objects that reliably offer a subtle lighting effect across both sets of settings. And who knows what people with even spiffier graphics capabilities might see! Grr.

I tell you, it's enough to keep a girl confined to text-based trivia.