Hair Fair 2008

hair fair_001Second Life’s Annual Hair Fair has launched a few days ago, and naturally enough, I couldn’t resist to drop by and have a look at it. After all, it’s just once per year that Six Kennedy and my good friends Washu Zebrastripe, Paisley Poindexter, Mikayla Kohl, among many others, put up this amazing (and rather unique!) fair up and running, showing off the best of the best of what has been done in the hair department lately.

Sponsored by Rezzable, Hair Fair 2008 proudly features four full sims, packed with the major movers and shakers of the SL industry. The architecture shows the hallmark of Washu’s “dream team” builders: rising from the hot sands of a desert, strange pyramids and ruins emerge from the ground, in a mix of Mayan, Aztecan, and fantasy architecture. Ruins of an ancient civilisation that now features as their most precious treasure… hair. It’s the El Dorado of hair!

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Most hair designers give half of the proceedings to a charity (Locks Of Love) which provide hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children in the United States and Canada under age 18 suffering from long-term medical hair loss from any diagnosis. Thanks to the incredible volume of sales on the first few days, I’m sure that a lot of children will smile happily at their new hair, although they might find it very strange if they’re told where the money actually came from!

hair fair_007This is the third time the Hair Fair is set up. Originally an idea of Six Kennedy from GurlyWood (still my favourite hair designer — sorry, Washu! — where I have bought almost all hair that I regularly use), it soon expanded to around 90 designers who have set up their booths on the fair. There is definitely more than enough to suit all tastes, even if the booths naturally have a limited footprint to show the full range of each designers’ offerings.

You can’t skip this opportunity to look at the incredible amount of talent and choices that are available — but so can’t anyone else in SL! The fair is quite heavily visited — after a few days, traffic on each sim boasted over 60k, and it’s quite hard to be there with less than 20 or 30 avatars in each of the four sims. So that means going there only at the wee hours — 2 or 3 AM SLT seems to work best, as Americans are already yawning and going to bed, and most Europeans will be at their work. Still you’ll experience very slow rezzing images — no wonder, when each sim will have perhaps 10,000 different, high-quality textures to rez — and you need to see them to compare the styles you might be tempted to buy!

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Surprisingly, and in spite of the warnings of the many friendly people demanding that you visit to the Hair Fair basically undressed and without attachments, the lag is not extreme. The pictures on this article come from my low-powered, two-year-old iMac with an outdated, low-end graphics card. When pushing all settings to Ultra for taking pictures, and using a drawing distance of 512 m to give a perspective of the vastness of the 4 sims, I was quite surprised to see that I still got some 7 FPS on my old machine — not so bad! However, to wait for all textures to load for one of the pictures, it took me almost half an hour of waiting, and that using the old trick of “priority queuing”: this basically means that you hover your mouse cursor on a texture you wish to load, count to ten (without moving the mouse), and move to the next texture, repeating the count, and so on. This will tell your SL client which textures it should load first. As you can imagine, when visiting huge shops, and wanting to take a picture of several of them with hundreds or thousands of pictures (which was the case on one of the pictures), it takes quite a long time for the textures to appear.

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Also, if you have a super-powerful machine and have your network settings to pull 1 Mbps of streaming data — you’ll lag the sim while moving, an incredible effect that I first found out back in late 2005 when I first saw SL on a machine doing 50 FPS easily.

The explanation is simple. 20-30 people all downloading thousands of textures simultaneously at 1 Mbps will quickly exhaust the sim’s server bandwidth — thus forcing the whole sim to drop time dilation in an effort to deal with the huge demands. You can’t avoid it — you need to see the textures of the hair styles to know what you buy! — so there is certainly some server-side lag.

hair fair_005Avatars with high ARC are, however, a different story. They create client-side lag (not server-side). These days, even a huge amount of scripted attachments will have little impact on server-side lag, since the simulator server software deals with it pretty efficiently (all scripts just run slower, but it won’t impact the server as it did in the pre-2006 days). Avatars with high ARC, however, will affect your SL client — to a degree. How bad is it?

It’s hard to say, since people with underpowered and misconfigured hardware (the majority of SL users) will naturally suffer much more. However, the current batch of SL clients are actually quite good at dealing with “avatar lag”. First, you only render 30 avatars in an area, even if there are more around. Each avatar has a mesh of 7,500 polygons (a prim cube just has 6…), so that’s a heavy toll on your poor graphics card — but only three textures (for head, torso, and legs). You can add a handful of more textures for the hair, of course (most hair designers use 2-3 different textures on the hair), as well as more polygons, and possibly a few more textures for the rest of your attachments. So a fully clothed, high-ARC avatar will very likely be using 20-50,000 polygons (bad) and a few dozen of textures (quite good). Since a low-end graphics card can only render 5 million polygons a second, you can see where the trouble is! 

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But the SL client is clever. You almost never see those dozens of thousands of polygons. As the avatar moves away from your field of vision, the SL client aggressively culls it down, reducing the meshes, and showing low-polygon meshes for both the avatar and the attachments. That’s why your hair sometimes disappear when seen from a distance. And, of course, avatars can get replaced by “impostors” which are just one flat texture rendered on a single polygon.

What this technical mumbo-jumbo actually means is that you have a very good strategy to deal with avatar-generated, client-side lag. First, from the Preferences, make sure that you have avatar impostors turned on. Then use the slider for “Avatars” and put it on the lowest position: this means that after just a few metres, SL will show an impostor instead of a meshed avatar. Keep drawing distance low — the excellent builders of the Hair Fair have used good building techniques: open space, yes, but all booths have a “solid wall” behind it. This strategy allows SL to “forget” what’s behind the wall and only focus (and rez) what is in front of it: namely, the lovely hair styles on their vendors, which is what you wish to see, one booth at a time. And oh yes — even with a high density of avatars, you’ll be able to get 20-30 FPS from your underpowered computer, and still watch how your new hair fits your avatar.

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Fight lag, yes, but fight it cleverly. It’s pointless to run around naked expecting lag to drop, since your avatar mesh — which you can’t change — is always 7,500 polygons in size. If you have a way large drawing distance (256 m or more), have the “avatar” slider set to maximum, and refuse to view the pixelated avatar impostors, your graphics card will still have to deal with all those polygons. Sure, attachments add to the polygon count — when viewed close up. A few metres away they simply disappear from the rendering queue, only to reappear when you zoom in on them. Sure, a hair style with 182 prims and an ARC rating of 4600 (which is what I’ve bought!) will give you a visible hit on performance if you view it up very close. However, the psychological effect of ordering everybody to run around naked to reduce client-side lag is a very old urban legend, deeply ingrained in our collective minds (since, in fact, this happened to be real facts for the 2003-2006 SL rendering engine), and it will not disappear. As community rules go, if the organisation tells you to run around naked, you should comply with their community rules — or face banning and getting kicked out — even if they have just a marginal technical argument. That’s not the point; respect their rules, and enjoy the Hair Fair!

Congratulations to the fantastic organisation that managed to set this whole venue up, in spite of many last-minute surprises!

Oh… and make sure you bring plenty of L$ with you 😉

(continues with a list of SLURLs)

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