Meshed Out!

Social impact of meshes

The biggest worry that has been raised with the whole mesh business is mostly social, although the technical issues (described below) have also been noticed. Almost everybody believes that the economy will get a huge boost: based on what happened in the past, a new technology that allows for better content design has always boosted sales, as content designers bring new items out which were previously impossible to do. We saw that happening with flexiprims and later with sculpties; with meshes, it will just be way more dramatic.

Dusan, Prokofy, and many others simply worry that with meshes proliferating in Second Life it will be the end of collaborative content in Second Life — in the sense we understand it today. Second Life was great because you could get a full-mod freebie, disassemble it to see how it works, and create new things based on that. I certainly benefited a lot from disassembling a gas lamp designed by some Linden in 2002 or 2003, which allowed me to look at the “flame” script inside and understand how particles work. Meshes will not be editable (at least for now, although a JIRA feature request has been set up to ask for mesh editing support; if implemented, it would go a long way to minimise the impact of non-editable items in Second Life) and this would mean that collaboration simply will not happen with mesh-based objects.

The discussion on the comments section of Dusan’s article shows how people feel about this: his readers reject Linden Lab’s notion that “content creators are few” and that most residents, even if they don’t actually sell content, are actively creating it (alone or, more often, with friends), and in some cases (like some niche markets) even selling it, even if they don’t make a profit of it. I personally have my doubts there. It’s true that with some other kinds of externally created content some sharing happens: one amateur creator might buy textures from another one, create a few prims, drop a handful of scripts in it, hire someone to do an animation, and sell the whole ensemble as a new item. This certainly happens today; I was told that a lot of shoe designers, for instance, might not even create their own sculpties, and definitely not the resizing scripts, but assemble the whole overall package from several sources.

Well, the way I see it, the same simply will happen with mesh-based objects too. One of the examples (not shown on the video) was an attempt to bring some mesh-bases shoes into Second Life: I got the base mesh on Google Warehouse and imported it. But I didn’t like the texturing (which was basic) and was looking at the UV map for it to see if I could improve it (content creators are usually good at “painting” UV maps — remember, the “avatar templates” used to do clothing in SL are nothing more than UV maps for the two “standard avatar meshes”, male and female). And since those meshes were relatively easy to mess with Google SketchUp, I could tweak them there, too. So while I have no personal skills nor talent to create a brand new mesh for a pair of shoes, based just on visual observation and messing around with a complex 3D modelling tool, I certainly am able to do simple, minimalist mesh tweaking and subsequent import, and I’m sure that if I can do that, everybody can.

In a sense, it’s not much different from messing around with textures — or animations. Even non-experts might have learned that textures in SL are better uploaded with sizes that are powers of 2. So the least one can do, when uploading an image found somewhere else, is to launch some external image editing software (I use Graphic Converter for the Mac, which is relatively easy to do, and cheaper than Photoshop at any case; and looks far nicer and easier to use than Gimp) and resize images properly for importing into SL. Animations, of course, are way harder to do, and require specialised software (like Maya, Blender… or Poser). Nevertheless, free animation software (like Qavimator, developed specifically for Second Life) can achieve pretty good results for the creative amateur, and it’s something relatively simple (and fun!) to use.

So the argument here is not if you can develop everything inside Second Life or not, but if you can share it and collaborate with others, manipulating assets together. Images, animations, and sounds have to be developed outside SL with specialised tools, and there are both professional tools and amateur tools for them. Once imported, textures, animations, and sounds cannot be tweaked by anyone — but they can be included in other people’s content. This is the key aspect of that “imported” content: while you cannot edit it any longer in SL, you can most definitely give it away for people to place them inside their own content. For instance, collaboration doesn’t occur at the “animation” level — that is, once you receive an animation, it’s a finished product, you cannot change it any longer, there is no way to remove some frames out of it or even change its priority (I soooooo wished to have that feature!!).

One might argue that sounds and animations are not really primary content, but just accessory content, and what counts as “collaborative work” is the ability to fix 3D content — this is, after all, a 3D virtual world, and collaboration and content sharing happens in 3D. Put into other words: sharing prims is what matters inside Second Life.

Well, the issue is really philosophical. Let’s imagine a scenario where builders do, indeed, build collaboratively, and set all perms to all items in the region, so that everybody can really tweak each other’s content. This certainly is possible with prims and scripts. Then someone needs to add a bench where avatars will sit, and requires a sitting animation. While the asset itself, once uploaded to Second Life, will be non-modifiable, the group of builders, in the same sharing attitude, can certainly share the BVH file — outside Second Life. Similarly, if someone thinks it would be best to add a sculpty on the build, everybody might be able to share the uploaded texture, but only the person who uploaded it will be able to make changes to the sculpty itself (except for resizing). Sculpties are often done by high-end 3D modelling tools (because few low-end ones have plugins to export to the sculpty format), which means that even if the original 3D model for the sculpty is shared outside SL, not everybody will have the required tools and/or know-how to tweak it. Nevertheless, it should be easy for content creators, working collaboratively, to share finished animations and sculpties among themselves, and incorporate them in their builds; if the original animations or sculpties require tweaking, they will just have to ask the original creator to change it, and share the uploaded item again.

With meshes it will be pretty much the same thing, except perhaps for a slight tweak: sharing the COLLADA file will allow collaborative builders to play with it in very easy-to-use 3D modelling tools like Google SketchUp. Sure, it’s not the same as playing with a prim-based object in Second Life. Even COLLADA files that have several submeshes, and which will be uploaded as separate assets in SL, will result in a different experience. Sure, you might be able to assemble objects with different meshes together, but you won’t be able, within the SL client, to modify individual sub-meshed objects (except for resizing, re-texturing, etc.).

But how important is that ability? Again, the discussion is mostly philosophical. Except for very specific groups of people, who enjoy setting everything full perms and working on each others’ prims, this way of collaborative work is not so common. Even companies that collaboratively work on the same build, but then sell the whole ensemble to a client, don’t work that way: each specialist does their own tasks, and someone will assemble the result together; but even simple tasks like re-editing a script will be handled by the script programmer, not by the 3D modeller that did, say, the sculpties, even if technically he or she could do that if the script is full perms for the group. But when developing high-quality content — which is assembled from prims, textures, sculpties, animations, sounds, clothing, scripts — specialists will be handling their own content, and just sharing assets to the whole group before delivery. Even “prims and textures” is just broadly painting a picture — furniture and interior design is usually handled by different people than the ones creating the architectural “outside” of a building, and terraforming and gardening is handled by a different team as well. While there are certainly people in SL that are good in developing all kinds of content whatsoever, collaborative work is more often done by specialists in each type of content. A fashion designer doesn’t do furniture as well as a furniture designer; and even though they might share the same toolset as a virtual architect, they rarely, if at all, do their own buildings. You can take a look at the shops in SL — it’s rare that the fashion designer creates his or her own shop, and when they do, you’ll be often surprised how a very talented sculpty boot designer actually has a horrible non-functional shop which is so hard to navigate. That’s just because the talent required for one type of content design is not always (I would even say: rarely!) the right of skill to create buildings, for instance. Specialisation is what produces higher-quality content — that applies to the physical world as well as to the virtual one.

But of course this doesn’t apply to amateurs. They enjoy doing all kinds of content tweaking, no matter what the results are. They’re the ones importing images with 4096×4096 pixels just because they can. They will eagerly assemble 250-prim-houses when just 4 sculpties would do the trick. They are happy with blank textures (which they enjoyed doing!) to be applied on untextured vehicles which they have just bought and tweaked. And so forth: amateurs rarely care about high-quality content, they’re more than happy with the ability to tweak everything, even if the result is plain ugly, non-functional, and very laggy. This is all secondary for them, and, remember, this is by far the largest group in Second Life…

Nevertheless, even among the ugliness of most of the mainland, you’ll see that most people don’t work that way. They buy content (or get some freebies) which is most often non-modify, and just drop it around their property, adding some personal touches here and there, but not really changing the original content. I’m sure that there are exceptions to this, and that we can even count those exceptions, and arrive at “hundreds of thousands” of residents who are happily tweaking full-perm content all the time. It’s not a tiny group — but is it the majority? If it is, I have to spend more time in SL, because it’s not what I see. What the majority of content around SL seems to be is pre-assembled from different sources, most often non-perm, and just stuck together by the owners on their land, with some content added on top of everything (like, say, simple frames for pictures that the land owner has made on their own). Many might invite friends to help them to build together, but in reality, they will be just dropping items out of their inventories and arranging them in-world according to their personal tastes. Now and then some full-perm freebie will be added and tweaked by the team of friends, but these will be exceptions, not the rule. And maybe a few of the group of friends are actually reasonably good content creators themselves and might set their own creations full-perm for the group, not minding that their friends change it (most often breaking it forever…). But is this the mainstream collaborative use of content in SL? If it is, I don’t see it happening in the majority of cases, so I have to agree with the official Linden stance here: most content in SL is not full-perms and is not being modified thoroughly by a majority of users. While there certainly is a lot of full-perm content, and many (as said, hundreds of thousands) of residents are tweaking that full-perm content to their tastes, this is not what happens in the vast majority of all cases.

Linden Lab has long been criticised for paying too much attention to edge cases, and ignoring the majority of users. Let’s see a typical example: the vast majority of residents hate the Viewer 2 UI, but LL is reluctant to let it go. A few (myself included) actually love the Viewer 2 UI, and to explain why, I would have to resort to a discussion of user interface design and human-computer interfaces, as well as principles of software ergonomics, and I’m sure that even so I wouldn’t be able to “persuade” anyone — at some point, subjective factors become prevalent. If good UI design and ergonomics were absolute qualities that we used to evaluate the software products we use, we’d be all using Mac OS X — which is a case study of good UI design, unlike anything that came out of Redmond. Clearly, “theory” is not compelling enough to make a case 🙂 Nevertheless, this is a good example of something which Linden Lab stubbornly refuses to “let go” — because a small minority of residents are actually sensitive to the superiority of the UI design on Viewer 2 (no matter if that “superiority” is purely academic theory, and easily disputed), including of course many Lindens in that group, they feel “justified” to impose that to the majority of users. The same applies to a lot of very strange decisions taken by Linden Lab which only seem to have been implemented to harm the majority of residents — even though a very tiny minority might indeed have been benefited by those decisions. Ruling out the majority by addressing just the edge cases is typical for a Silicon Valley corporation, and LL is just true to their heritage when doing that — constantly.

Surprisingly, with meshes, they seem to adopt the reverse approach. Meshes, in general, will benefit the vast majority of users because of the superior quality of content that can be used, and the ease of upload of millions (billions?) of already existing 3D content, most of which can be created with simple 3D modelling tools like Google SketchUp and don’t require specialised software costing 4 figures to develop. It’s true that a few users — and “few” in this context, as said, might mean “a few hundreds of thousands” — might be negatively affected by the impact of meshes (because they have good prim-gluing skills but no experience in using even the most simple 3D modelling tools). These are the “edge cases” which allegedly has made LL be very careful about when to release meshes into SL, even when the work was pretty much complete. I argue that this is pretty much the same group that already feared the impact of sculpties (which do require way more complex tools to be created!) but, over time, they have dealt with the issue and taken sculpties for granted. It’s also true that there are limits to what you can do with sculpties (and which can be achieved with prims better), while with meshes, there are really no limits, so the “perceived threat” of a fully-meshed world that would shut out prim-gluers is not only real, but will definitely have a measurable impact: in a few years, nobody will wish to use prims except for very specialised (or very simple) tasks. This just mirrors what happened on the 3D modelling world, too — there are still 3D modelling tools that directly support prims. Prim-based modelling, in fact, is not completely dead: sometimes it’s easier to use prim shapes to assemble a complex mesh, by adding and subtracting prims from it — and at the end, the tool will just export the resulting mesh. Now if Linden Lab would just implement that in the Second Life viewer, we’d all be happy…

In short: yes, a few people will be affected by the introduction of meshes (and that number is not “a handful” but more likely “a few hundreds of thousands”), but, in general, the impact on the vast majority of users will be far more positive.

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