Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hawk & Bat & Dragon…

This entry shall be potpourri, so bear with me and we shall see… (OK, I'll write off the riotous riming right…now!)

Last week real life snuck up on my friend Cinna Xaris just as she was about to host a trivia game at Double Standards, so I offered to fill in for her. I've been playing trivia at DS almost as long as I've been in Second Life, and it's one of the major points on the SL trivia map. DS holds regular games with a variety of hosts, and folks can count on their trivia friends showing up—especially Saturday mornings for Thornton Writer's high-$L game that awards prizes for first, second, and third place! Double Standards is also the "Home of the Smart Ass" because their regular games feature a unique rule: the first correct answer wins a prize, but the funniest answer to a question also wins a prize! I hear Duncan Loire came up with the scheme and its a brilliant idea. Non-trivia people can have fun and win some Lindens, and helps create a lighthearted (sometimes fall-down-funny!) atmosphere.

Anyway—despite being a long-time Double Standards "customer," I'd never done much to help out, so subbing on hosting the game seemed like a perfect way to give a little tiny bit back. The game went well, but I noticed something while handing out prizes: an avatar named Mark007 Bloobury routinely wears an enormous mohawk hairdo, and it made him super easy to pick out of the crowd and pay. So I joked that I should wear a mohawk when I played trivia since it worked out so well for Mark—and that turned into a dare to wear a mohawk at my own trivia game the next day. This was the (ahem) result:

Sportin' a mohawk…and still wearing gran's earrings.

Not as spiffy as Mark's, but still a good try I thought. As a girl who's been known to spontaneously shave parts of her head I didn't think the 'hawk would raise to many eyebrows…but what was weird about it was how it seemed to transform my own view of myself. Suddenly Lou in Second Life was a lot brasher and tougher and more daring. Armed with my new kickass attitude I decided to pay a visit to Insilico, kind of Blade Runner-style city in the sky that spans several sims. I gather Insilico is a role-playing sim, and when I've been there I've generally tried to stay clear of people so I don't interfere with their fun…but it's a great place to take some wacky sci-fi screenshots and look weird.

Punk Lou taking in the cyberpunk sim Insilico.

At my mohawk-wearing trivia, I kinda flippantly announced that my trivia games had been free of carnivorous bats since May 2009—no, to my knowledge carnivorous bats have never been a real problem in Second Life and, yes, I sometimes just make stuff up. So it was tres apropos for Cinna to show up at my game—as a carnivorous bat! And so cute! The underbite and glowey eyes really made me giggle.

On the cliffs of Ode with Cinna the Carnivorous(?) Bat.

I've mentioned Relay for Life in Second Life before—SL holds regular giant snail races across multiple sims as a way to raise money and awareness for the American Cancer Society. This year, the effort has raised more than a quarter million US dollars, with a massive race held back on July 18. I wasn't able to check out the race itself, but tons of supporting organizations in Second Life took out space in the RFL sims to set up their own "campsites" an show their support. I was able to visit a few days later and some of the builds were spectacular. For instance, I found three wonders of the ancient world next to each other—all stunning builds, and all to scale, I believe!

Left to right: the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Temple of Artemis.
The tiny spec hovering in the middle? Lou.

One of my favorite sims, Armada Breakaway is going to be going through some restructuring—I'm not entirely sure what's going on, but I know there will be an "Armada is Burning" party August 2, then the reworking gets going on August 3…but Armada did make its presence known at the RFL event with a stunning enormous dragon bearing a steamship on its back—just the sort of why-the-heck-not build that gets me enthused about Second Life all over again.

Perched on the horn of Armada Breakaway's amazing dragon-bearing-a-steamship entry in the Relay for Life campsite.

And what did I find inside the steamship? Another tea set that I swear wanted to come home with me!

Once again, Lou considers pilfering a tea set.

Of course, I still don't have a proper home in Second Life and have no idea what I'd do with one…but I'm starting to think I might have to invite people over for a spot of tea if I ever do set down roots.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stiletto Crazy After All These Years

Second Life has an enormous fashion industry—and I realize that statement probably seems like a tremendous oxymoron to anyone who isn't familiar with virtual worlds. And the notion is kind of preposterous: who would pay real money to put virtual clothes on an avatar?

The answer is "plenty of people." Clothing, accessories, and avatar items like hair and animations are probably the dominant "content creation" field in Second Life. After all, not everyone needs vehicles (everyone can fly and teleport!) and not everyone has land and therefore needs a house or abode (I've been in SL almost a year and have never owned or rented land). But everyone in Second Life has an avatar, and there can be tremendous social pressure not to "look like a noob." And Second Life is festooned with stores offering clothing, accessories, and parts of outfits. Some emulate real-life fashion like jeans and chucks or going off in fanatistical directions and offering complete avatars—I've seen huge dragons, robot spiders, tiny rodents, the occasional mythical creature, and much more—or offer clothing for Victoriana, faerie, steampunk, cyberpunk, medieval, and countless other themes. While there are tremendous amounts of "freebies" in the SL fashion industry—promoting a few free high-quality items is apparently the most common way to bring traffic to a store—it's possible to spend real money on Second Life clothing. A reasonably hip outfit can easily run $1,000 to $1,200 Lindens from head to toe—say $4.50 to $5 CAN—that may not include hair. Separates typically run anywhere from $50 to $200L apiece; lots of people (myself included) mix and match pieces to get more mileage out of the clothing we do have.

But there is definitely "high fashion" in Second Life—and it is not cheap. Some designers leverage SL's unique capabilities and create things that would be difficult to impossible in real life. Others take their cues from real life fashion. For instance, check out this shoe:

Stiletto Moody puts its best foot forward

Yep, that's a closed-toe stiletto heel—complete with foot!—crafted by Stiletto Moody, one of SL's high-end footwear designers. The foot is an interesting twist: the default feet on Second Life avatars can be altered and deformed (even into heels) using shaping controls, but they're seriously blocky and chunky. That's fine if the entire foot is going to be encased in a shoe—no one will see it—but when a well-formed foot is part and parcel of a shoe's design…SL avatars aren't up to the task. So designers are working around this problem by using 3D prims—specifically, "sculpties" created in programs outside Second Life—to create more detailed and elegant artificial feet. Avatars then wear these shoes—feet and all—over their default feet. The shoes also use prims with transparent textures to hide the default blocky feet from view. One upshot to crafting an entire foot out of prims is that one can more easily accessorize the foot: toe rings, painted nails, tatoos, and other elements that can't be done with default feet (or at least can't be done well) are all possible with fake feet. All the exquisite detail SL builders can put into, say, prim jewelry is suddenly an option. Sometimes shoes just include fake toes (often called "toesies") that just hide the front portion of an avatar's foot: other times—like on the pump above—the entire foot gets replaced.

Oh. Here's the pricetag on that shoe:

That's about $45 Canadian. Yes, I'm sure it does all sorts of tricks—Stiletto Moody's shoes are famous for having all sorts of accessories (chains, bling, charms, and accouterments), and I'm pretty sure that price includes the shoes in every available color. But it also represents more money than I've ever spent on clothing for my avatar after almost a year in Second Life. And I know where I can pick up some swell shoes here in town for under $45…and hold them in my actual hands.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Barquing for Bytes

The seventh monthly Buccaneer Bowl team trivia event was held this past weekend in Second Life, with Lillian Shippe, Lette Ponnier, and Thornton Writer once again at the helm and making a job tougher than herding cats seem easy and fun. The summer months seem to be a little more laid back for the Second Life trivia community—part of it might be the global economic woes making people put some real-life priorities above Second Life games, but I think the more immediate causes are folks taking vacations, spending time with children who are home from school, or just enjoying some time out-of-doors. At least, in the northern hemisphere. The upshot is that some Longstanding Members of the Second Life Trivia Circuit are temporarily Missing in Action or less available than in previous months…and that, in turn, means lots of juggling of teams for the Buccaneer Bowl, and opportunities for new teams to capture some glory!

The Frivolous Corsairs on deck in July!
Left to right: Lebn Bucyk, Rain Ninetails, AnaMaria Quintessa, and Your Humble Correspondent

For folks unfamiliar with the Buccaneer Bowl (and how can you not be? I write about it every month!), here's the basics. The Buccaneer Bowl has evolved into the pre-eminent trivia contest in Second Life. The game allows up to 10 teams to compete at general knowledge trivia for a share of a $10,000 Linden prize pot—in Second Life that's major money, although it works out to only about $42 Canadian. The game is divided into five rounds of five questions each: during the general rounds, all players can try to answer questions in open chat, with the first three correct answers getting points (and money!) for their team. At the end of each round, the team with the most points in the round gets a bonus question that only they may answer: if they get it right, they win more money! If they don't get it right, the bonus money is divided evenly among the other teams. This month introduced a new bonus question format modeled on the game Outburst: players had 60 seconds to shout out as many correct answers to a question as possible, and they won the question if they got 10 or more correct.

At the end of the Buccaneer Bowl, the team with the most points wins not only a nice pile of Linden Dollars, but also bragging rights for a month! A team called the Triviators has been making a solid showing at Buccaneer Bowls past, taking the top spot in four of the previous six months' games. But the team Boomfire Circeschism—made of up Chaddington Boomhauer, Shale Nightfire, Circe Falta, and JoshuaStephen Schism—took the top spot, marking their second victory in the Buccaneer Bowl! Congratulations all!

This month my team, the Frivolous Corsairs, managed a second place finish: I think that's the second or third time we've been Number Two. (Always the bridesmaid, never the bride!) We managed it in no small part thanks to Special Guest Corsair AnaMaria Quintessa, who is well-known as a formidable player on the SL trivia circuit as well as an able trivia host and the owner of at least one very expensive pair of virtual shoes! Ana normally plays on the Trumpton Trivials with Maelstrom Janus, Cully Andel, and Stiggs McMinnar—making them a powerhouse team representing the UK—and the Trumptons were the winners of the very first Buccaneer Bowl! But those summer real-life scheduling headaches left Ana on her own for July, and we were absolutely thrilled to be able to play with her rather than against her this time around. I wish we could have sailed into a win this month, but I'm told second place is very respectable in a game against most of SL's top trivia players.

As always, a big thank-you to Thorn, Lette, and Lillian for all the footwork and homework putting together the Buccaneer Bowl—it's no small feat, and all the effort is truly appreciated. For folks curious what it all looks like—a giant pirate ship up in the sky—there's a Buccaneer Bowl photo stream on Flickr that (I assume) will be updated with events from recent games as they come in.

And for next month…I think I'm bringing some exploding barnacles.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mao Than Meets the Eye

In Second Life, there's a meme dubbed NPIRL, or Not Possible in Real Life, which basically explores the idea of using virtual worlds to create environments, objects, clothes, stories, or (dare we say?) art that would be difficult to impossible to achieve out here in "meatspace." I don't know much about the NPIRL idea, if there's a centralized group or movement, if they have a manifesto, or if there's a secret handshake, or if you have to have a union card to talk about it. I do know there are some spectacular places in Second Life that fall into the NPIRL bailiwick, including builds by the likes of AM Radio, Bryn Oh, Zero Point, Omega Point, and the (long-since vanished) sim Wintermute, and they represent some high points of creativity in the virtual world.

Perched on the pagoda in Kanto, looking into portions of three sims.
You can see a bit of the Great Wall in the distance to the right of the image.

But sometimes making something PRL—Possible in Real Life—is quite the challenge in Second Life…and part of the result is that vast swaths of the Second Life mainland look like really bad cartoon strip malls. But every now and again you come across something spectacular like Al-Andalus, and another great example is the sim Mao with its three companion sims Japan Kansei, Japan Kanto, and Japan Chubu. Mao is dominated by a gorgeous recreation of the Great Wall of China—and, like so many things in Second Life, the component pieces are for sale for anyone who wants to keep out their own Mongol hordes. But the commercial aspect isn't overwhelming, and the build is very elegant: the sim has a Buddhist shrine and elegant views, and the Wall winds up and down through the landscape like a living thing. The textures used to build the wall are nicely high-rez, and while I'm sure purists would take issue with some aspects of the build, it successfully captures the spirit and sheer sense of mass that the real Great Wall inspires—all without being scaled to giant Conan and Barbie avatars! Some of the doorways are snug even for my little frame.

Next door in Kanto and Chubu—you have to go past the protection of the Great Wall to get there!—is a build inspired by the Horyu-ji Buddhist temple complex in Nara, Japan, complete with a version of the five-storey pagoda that dates back to the sixth century (which makes it one of the oldest wooden buildings on the planet) and supposedly houses a bone fragment of Buddha himself. (That's me perched on the second or third tier in the image above.) Like the real pagoda, there's nothing on in the upper storeys to see—it's not like a Bruce Lee movie where you fight your way up levels of transcendence or something. The pagoda is designed to inspire visitors with its outside appearance…which is totally spectacular.

It's probably not kosher to wear my kitshickers into the temple, huh?

Underneath the temple courtyard, however, the sim isn't quite like Horyu-ji—behind gilded doors is an simple and elegant pool for meditation that uses Second Life's "Linden water" and translucent textures to to great effect.

At the edge of the ocean (and the edge of the sim) in Oubliette.

There are other places in Second Life that do neat things with water too: one technique I'm seeing more often is to layer semi-transparent textures for "sea foam" over the Second Life's "natural" water to create a more realistic shoreline. A great example is at the ever-changing Oubliette; check out the froth and foam on the water in the picture above! Builders on private sims that don't immediately border another sim have also come up with a way to make their sims look bigger than they are: they cantilever megaprims (often shaped like rocks, using sculptie textures) out into virtual space beyond the edge of the sim. Megaprims are objects larger than the 10m³ maximum object size you can create using Second Life's built-in content creation tools. Although avatars can't make megaprims anymore (apparently it was possible in Ye Olde Dayes), ancient (and not-so-ancient) megaprims can still be found on the grid and builders use them for all sorts of cool things. Megaprims are not without problems and must be used carefully, but in this case, so long as the center of the megaprim remains in the boundaries of the sim, about half the prim can extend beyond the edge of the sim. And lo, behold, virtual off-sim rock formations you can see...but you can't touch or reach via foot, air, or teleportation.

The daring young av on the flying trapeze…

Every now and again you stumble across something in Second Life that just tickles your fancy…and one day it was a circus tent perched on top of a mafia-theme dance club that was hosting a trivia event. (Yes, I know that's a mouthful!) I spied it while camming around—and, um, not dancing—then popped up during an intermission. The tent is intended as a backdrop for taking circus-themed photos: there was a tightrope and a trapeze, and the owner had a few other props for taming lions and other acts. I didn't put a lot of time into it, but I got a good giggle out of the trapeze: when I was a little girl, like many little girls I wanted nothing so much as to be a graceful gymnast or acrobat. Never did it in real life, but in Second Life I briefly got to walk a tightrope wearing heels!

Lou and Mia sit for tea in Kanto.

And lately there's been another minor theme in my Second Life wanderings: I seem to find exquisite tea sets.

Lou contemplates theft in Al-Andalus

Do I drink tea? No, not really, except maybe a little in the winter when I fear I might be overdosing on coffee. But would I like to take some of these tea sets home with me? Absolutely.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Emote in Gawd's Eye

One oddity about Second Life is that most avatars look and behave like zombies. We amble rather clumsily from place to place, then sit (or stand, or dance) repeating the same motions in a loop over and over again, like we're on some really good virtual medication. Adding to the effect is that most avatars wear the same botox-inspired impassive expression 99 percent of the time, which makes us all seem like stoned dullards. (Or, another thought: maybe we're all royalty?)

Most avatars talk using open chat, but our faces don't move or animate when we do it. By default there's a typing animation that plays when we're typing in public—we lean to one side and wave our hands over an invisible keyboard while a typing sound plays—but that's over-ridden for many folks who have custom animations, and our faces don't move when we type or (I believe) even when people use Second Life's voice feature, which lets people talk to each other a la Skype.

It's not that Second Life avatars are incapable of facial expressions: there are several "emotes" available by default, and a bunch of in-world tools (or HUDs) that can let avatars use facial expressions. And some animations also have expressions built into them by default: for instance, when many people stand up, they smile by default, as if standing up somehow amuses them. But all these expressions are generic and typically way over the top: the pictures to the right show what I mean. They're expressions a stage actor might give trying to emote to the back of the house, but not the sort of thing people do much in real life. Some so-called "modeling poses"—static poses avatars can use for portraits or to model clothes—also have facial expressions, and they're also usually exaggerated and outlandish.

So, most of the time, most avatars have no facial expression at all.

In part it's a limitation of today's computers: creating some sort of interface that can be used quickly and intuitively to manage an avatar's facial expresson would be no small feat—especially considering that, in Second Life, users already have to figure out so much just to get around in the world. Walking, talking, sitting, touching and manipulating objects, flying, creating and personalizing your avatar, finding and fitting clothes and hair…it's already enough to drive you dingy.

And in part it's the nature of Second Life's client software: even when you're standing right in front of an avatar "speaking" with them, your client's camera is a few meters above and behind you, and the other avatar's face is perhaps the size of an icon on your desktop. That's not really enough real estate to calculate and communicate meaningful facial expressions on the fly. And you don't want to be in a situation where you're zooming your camera from face to face in a group conversation, trying to read intent. You'd never be able to keep up.

But the lack of facial expressions in SL is also one more thing that makes it so cartoony. Already you can't rely on an avatar's body language to tell you much about the person—we're nearly all running default animations, or else animations we found around the grid or purchased from in-world businesses. The number of people who have done motion capture of their own body language and are using it in-world in Second Life can probably be counted on the fingers (or thumb!) of one hand.

The situation is probably fine for folks who are essentially playing characters: I have no doubt many of the people I call friends in Second Life bear little-to-no resemblance to their avatars. Those of us who model our avatars on our real-life selves are providing only a vague approximation—even if we're good at it! Sure, some of the standing animations I use are kind of Lou-like, but no one on Second Life is seeing my typical slouchy bad posture, my tendency to wrap my legs around themselves into a knot under the table when I'm writing, or my bizarre need today to constantly contort my left arm behind me to scratch my back (where I swear some mutant mosquito must have detonated a small explosive…scritch scritch scritch.)

I was thinking today about video chat software, how some applications now have the ability to put cartoony avatars over people's images in video chat, tracking facial motion and letting people use their real expressions to drive their on-camera appearance. And I suddenly wondered whether one day that might be applicable to Second Life. Sure, the processing required would be significant and I'm sure most of the time people would want to disable it or play pre-programmed facial expression sequences so other SL users don't see their avatars eating dinner, picking their teeth, blowing their noses, or doing other things. But that kind of technology, one day, might make virtual worlds a little more compelling…at least for users who understand the technology.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Zoo-Bar-be-Zindra, Zip-a-Dee-Ay

The Continent of Dildos and Heaving Bazooms (© and ® me, yada yada) has claimed its first victim in my Second Life: after real life kept me out of SL for a couple days, I logged back in to find that Chaddington Boomhauer & Shale Nightfire's Zoo La La, home of Zoo Bar and the much-loved weekly Shotgun Trivia game, was being packed up and shipped off to Zindra, Second Life's new continent exclusively for adult content.

The gutted shell of the floating Zoo Bar in Ishel Down.

I guess I should have told Chadd & Shale that if they wanted to ban me from the parcel, they could just use the access controls—there was no need to run off to a whole new continent! I had no idea I inspired that kind of fear in people. (Kidding!)

Zoo had kind of become a touchstone for me in Second Life: I stumbled into Chadd & Shale's weekly Shotgun Trivia event shortly after starting in SL, and being "noticed" there was the precipitating reason for starting this Lou's Clues blog in the first place. For folks who don't know Chadd & Shale, they are key figures in the Second Life trivia scene—check out the two part (one and two!) interview Lette Ponnier did with them on her Virtual Trivia blog. But they're so much more than trivia. Chadd is famous (infamous?) as much for his sharp wit, impish whimsy, and enthusiasm as well as for his elaborate duck avatars—I made Chadd a badge!—although I've also seen Chadd as a raven, dragon, wolf, strange little anime characters, and even a human! And it's no small compliment that I refer to Shale as the brains of the outfit—tall, elegant, with way-cool hair, often a strange shade of grey or turquoise—I'm pretty sure Shale built most of Zoo, and her style, grace, and often hilarious demeanor probably defined the place for me more than anything else—I recently had a long conversation with Shale while on Zoo's little patch of shoreline watching the sun come up…and at some point I noticed I was my usual fashion disaster, and Shale's avatar was a 2m tall line drawing of a stick figure. I laughed until my sides hurt!

Chadd has a habit of randomly giving me wacky things (what immediately springs to mind? A gun, a clown nose, and an afro! Oh, and a landmark to the pits of hell!), I'd pepper Shale with questions about building and land (and Shale tried to help track me down when I was a disconnected ghost avatar). Every once in a while I'll get a random teleport offer from Chadd—one was to see a spectacular fireworks display being put on by New Citizens Incorporated (NCI) in celebration of an anniversary; one was to attend a Linden's office hours in about the transition to the new Adult Continent, where many residents—including Chadd—were protesting its creation. For all the good that did: the Lindens' minds were already made up.

Chadd & Shale have become central figures in my Second Life experience—they're smart, funny, way patient, and infinitely more knowledgeable than me…and they both kick my butt at trivia, which just makes them that much cooler.

All that was left: a floor, some stairs, and a Zoo La La sign.

Looking back, Zoo Bar's official opening in late 2008 was probably my first real non-trivia social event in Second Life—I even expanded my wardrobe to attend…and it was also the occasion for the first commission piece I ever built. Chadd & Shale made a real effort to set up Zoo Bar as a hang out for their friends and acquaintances, even creating an area where "homeless" regulars could set as their default location for logging in or emergency teleports—I certainly took advantage of that, and Zoo Bar became my de facto rez point whenever I logged out, logged in, or just needed somewhere to go. You never quite knew what you might find at Zoo…I recently stumbled into the making of a music video, was bodily consumed by a giant spider Shale had let take up residence over the patio…and once was greeted by the sight of random ride-able "newbie" mannequins flying around through the place.

I don't really know why Chadd & Shale have decided to move Zoo Bar to the Zindra: I don't think anything I saw at Zoo would have qualified as "adult" under Linden Lab's new content regime. I suspect the move has to do with avoiding headaches: on Zindra, Second Life residents will be able to do pretty much anything they want without fear of repercussions or being reported for somehow violating terms of service or offending someone. Plus, everyone on Zindra will be verified with Linden Labs (or will have at least lied their way through the Lindens' age verification system), meaning Zindra will be less prone to griefers and disruption than other portions of the Second Life grid. That just means fewer headaches for everyone—or, at least, everyone who can go to Zindra.

I wish Chadd & Shale and all the Zoo regulars well in their new home, and I hope to see you all around the grid!
[Just a quick note, 04-Jul-2009: I'll fix typos and formatting glitches and maybe add links to these entries after I've posted, but I don't go back and try to edit history: I wrote what I wrote and I'll live with it. So I'm not changing anything above about Zoo's move to Zindra; however, please click through to the comments to see what Chadd had to say about the move. First-party information beats my speculation any day.]