Meshed Out!

Economical impact of meshes

Dusan Writer has been very thoroughly considering both the economical and social impact of meshes in Second Life, and I would refer to his article(s) as excellent references of what all this will mean for Second Life. The most important aspect, however, is to understand that there are three main classes of content creators in Second Life, and each will be impacted differently. Let me quote Dusan, who in turn quotes Jack Linden and many other Linden employees:

  • People are already creating content externally using things like Photoshop for textures or creating animations outside of SL.
  • So, mesh is no different really – we already have content created externally, so this doesn’t represent a fundamental shift.
  • Besides which, there are actually very few content creators compared to content consumers.

The last line pretty much summarises things. This seems to be Linden Lab’s official argument, as Dusan reports Philip to have said pretty much the same thing. My own wild guess is that there are around 100,000 professional content creators in Second Life (which is a staggering number, even considering everything!). By “professional” I mean people that sell their content in SL and expect at least to cover the rent of their shops, or that use SL as a “portfolio” to show off their content for customers, even if they don’t actually sell anything. Contrast that with 1.5 million active users, most of which will be consumers, and 20 million registered users, which, for all purposes, rarely, if ever, log in to SL. The ratio of creators:consumers, if it’s 1:10 or 1:15, would be simply awesome, since on most industries — even blogging! — it’s way lower than that. Still, the principle applies: people seriously creating content in SL are few. The rest are amateurs having fun — and there is nothing against having fun building things!

Professional content creators, like Dusan points out in his article, already use external tools to create their content for SL. Textures, animations, sounds, are all created outside Second Life — and so are, of course, sculpty textures. Even if we’re just talking about modelling buildings (or furniture, or vehicles…), professional content creators don’t do it in SL directly. They get their models done in professional modelling tools — Maya, 3D Studio, Blender — to shape their creations, illuminate them properly to get perfect texturing (which is created with the rendering engines of those tools), then tweak the textures in Photoshop, export part of it as sculpties, and upload everything to SL. There is hardly a fashion designer these days that doesn’t add sclupties to their items (although I understand that a lot don’t do their own sculpties but hire modellers to do them); and, similarly, furniture and buildings, while they might still have some prim torture somewhere in them, are also mostly created outside of Second Life and use a heavy amount of sculpties to add realism.

It’s true that people still buy low-quality items all the time. I still sell a lot of L$10 “gothic” pants which I did in 2005 or 2006 for a friendly newbie 🙂 It’s worthless in quality, compared with what you can get for L$10 these days, but it still sells. It’s also hard to estimate how many low-end, poor-quality content creators (like myself) actually make a living out of SL (I don’t), and how much they will be impacted by meshes. I would say that all of those are actually such a tiny minority that the impact will be zero: they will very likely continue to sell their low quality content as before (I certainly do, to my surprise!), but those sales will have little impact on the overall SL economy anyway…

It’s just a few that will actually feel the “impact” of meshes, and they very likely will be very vocal about it, and exaggerate the importance of the “small amateur” in SL. Let’s be honest, when was the last time you bought a low quality product for L$10-50, when you can get a high-end item (with sculpties and pre-baked textures imported from a Maya rendering) for the same price?

And while sculpties were very very hard to do with “amateur tools” (even though there are some pretty geeky in-world solutions to create sculpties out of prims!), at least Google SketchUp is very easy to use: a friend of mine (long-time Mac fanatic, but who is not yet in SL, at least as far as I know…) is fond to say that Google SketchUp will do for 3D modelling what Mac Paint did for computer-based 2D graphics painting. If he’s right or not, I cannot say, but it’s true that there are lots of easy-to-use 3D modelling tools out there, a lot of which designed for amateurs. All of them will be able (with a bit of tweaking perhaps) to export models that Second Life can use. At least it will be way, way easier than sculpties.

So, if you’re a small content creator who got already scared with sculpties, and tremble with fear about meshes, take it easy: you don’t need to learn Maya, 3D Studio, or Blender to compete. You can simply get free meshes from Google 3D Warehouse or any other similar 3D mesh archive (there are lots), tweak the meshes a bit on Google SketchUp or any similarly simple 3D modelling tool, and upload everything to SL. It’s far, far easier to do that than using sculpties. In fact, before I tried the mesh preview, I thought it would be the other way round, but I’m convinced: this will open up more possibilities, even for amateurs, than sculpties did.

The third group are… educators. Well, Linden Lab pretty much kicked them all out by charging them twice the price (I might write an article on why I think they did that), but a few will remain, because they need the kind of service that Second Life provides — even at the high cost — and that is not yet available (or not reliable enough) in OpenSimulator. OpenSim will certainly fully support COLLADA meshes soon. No, wait, let me correct that statement: just one day after Linden Lab has opened the Aditi preview grid with meshes, OpenSim evangelist and developer Maria Korolov has experimented mesh import in OpenSim too. Of course it’s still buggy and has limitations, but the same applies to LL’s own developments, too. It should be interesting to watch both developments side-by-side 🙂 And if as an educator you’re really, really in a hurry to see how your meshes fare in OpenSim, you can do that now.

Now why are educators so happy about meshes? For two reasons, really. In the past decade, a lot of effort and money has been spent in creating 3D models — it’s not really a “novelty”, and areas from history to architecture to computer programming to education sciences have been producing all those models for the past years. Some universities have really invested a lot in 3D content, but it was mostly employed as “illustration material” for their papers, conferences, and thesis. The possibilities of reusing all that content, and putting it to good use inside a virtual world, instead of merely rendering it on server farms until they got a nice picture (or movie), has caught their attention. Except for Second Life/OpenSim, all other virtual world platforms allowed their content to be reused.

But there is more. Educators routinely exchange 3D models among themselves for their projects… and are intense users of Google Warehouse and other free sources of 3D content. One of the appeals that Second Life had for many educators was that it was already full 0f good content, much of it for free, but… you had no way to use your own models. Other platforms simply allowed you to use the content you already had, and you could simply get more from the free 3D repositories. Meshes in Second Life gives them the best of both worlds — the ability to internally justify using Second Life as the virtual world platform of choice (and thus get funding for it!), re-use their own content instead of learning a new tool (or hiring 3D modellers to port the content over), and, of course, the continued access to an almost-limitless supply of free content from the 3D repositories all over the Internet. And remember that free content matters a lot for educators — most are seriously underfunded and have no choice but to get their content for free. I have to admit some shock when attending an academic conference where one speaker demonstrated to his peers how easy it was to get free content and import it into a certain virtual world platform; when asked about the use of Second Life (which also has plenty of freebies…) they discarded it because, well, there might be some free content, but not a massive amount of it, and certainly not so easily searchable like what you can do on Google Warehouse and similar repositories…

A pity that Linden Lab pretty much pushed educators out of SL — they would certainly be first adopters and the primary users of meshes…

What my video doesn’t show (because I’m no expert) is a another aspect of meshes, which is perhaps even more dramatic: meshes can be rigged — a technology allowing them to be part of the avatar’s skeleton. While completely replacing the standard avatar skeleton is not yet possible, it can be transformed and animated in completely new ways. Unlike what happens with normal attachments (sculpties or not), rigged meshes “flow” with the skeleton’s animation, bending where it should, and adding a new level of realism to avatars. It’s not only for non-human avatars that this is a bliss — even clothes, hair, and even knee-high boots can benefit from rigging, and this allows the same level of realism for clothes and accessories that games, MMORPGs, and virtual worlds like Blue Mars can exhibit. Fashion designers will soon start bringing out jackets, trenchcoats, shawls and boots that will realistically cover the avatar, fluidly moving and bending with the avatar’s motions. No more skirts showing through prims when sitting down 🙂 As soon as this technique gets mastered by fashion designers, it will dramatically change the way we think about clothes — and probably push people to spend more to renovate all their wardrobe. Or, well, to get completely new non-human avatars. It is said that this technique cannot — yet! — give us realistically-looking hands and feet that animate and bend at each joint as it should, but it can probably come closer to that dream. Feet are already often done as sculpties to replace the ugliness of the Linden Lab feet; when done as meshes, specially because Viewer 2 allows parts of the body to be alpha’ed out (without the use of the invisiprim trick), I’m sure we’ll start seeing far better and nicer shoes, too 🙂 Designers like Damien Fate and Washu Zebrastripe and their cute Loco Pocos avatars will be able not only to redesign the way their avatars look and feel like, but they will be able to create much better-fitting clothes and accessories for them, using meshes.

There was some concern that the current clothing model will not fit rigged avatars at all (or just not perfectly enough): they will require to be specially designed for them. This can be both an advantage or a disadvantage. For content creators like Damien and Washu, it means that only Loco Pocos clothes and accessories will fit Loco Pocos avatars, and none other — you’ll be stuck with them to supply you with nice fashion items. But the truth is that this already happens today. Tinies have their own market for clothes, accessories, furniture and even animations, as designers agree on special characteristics and design their items having those special settings in mind. I’m sure that a similar development will happen with rigged avatars. Some designers will make sure that only they will be able to sell accessories and updates to their specific type of rigged avatars, while others will adhere to common guidelines and create content with those guidelines in mind. So, in a sense, instead of a one-size-fits-all model, you’ll see clothes and accessories designed specifically for some rigged avatars. Even outside the virtual world business, this is not uncommon: DAZ3D, which produces awesome human figures for 3D models, also has different types of accessories depending on the figure you’re using: “old” clothes won’t fit the latest generation of 3D human figures, because they have more sophisticated skeletons and meshes and different ways to attach accessories to them. Designers will just need to adapt; sometimes, market fragmentation can lead to more sales — we shall have to see how this evolves in the next year or so.

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