Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

A Mesh of Chips: Rendering Virtual Worlds and Saying Goodbye to the Second Life Prim?

I’ve been gorging on chips lately, and it feels like the time I went to the UK and discovered that the ‘crisp’ can be a meal – where I’m from you have sour cream and onion and BBQ and a few others, but over in England they pack a feast into your typical bag of crisps – think roasted chicken flavour, think beef with horseradish, or for all I know think curried goat with a side of rice and peas.

So when I got a taste of AMD’s new Radeon card, it was like getting a taste of a bigger buffet when I’ve been scarfing back little flavourless wedges. The ATI Radeon HD 4850 and more powerful ATI Radeon HD 4870 promise 3D environments that seem, well, real.

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NVIDIA and Virtual Worlds
So then we have the kick-off of Nvision08, the conference on all things 3D hosted by Nvidia, and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang has virtual worlds in his sights, speaking from the main stage, noting that:

“There are about 100 million people who are actively playing virtual world games, known as massively multiplayer online games, around the world. At some point, social networks and MMOGs will converge and become one.”

By way of a demo Huang introduced Nurien which “allows gamers to create their own virtual rooms and embed live videos in the walls, much like in worlds such as Lively by Google. Except the difference is that the Nurien technology is as close to lifelike as is possible with today’s graphics technology. Huang said such technologies would be the backbone of “the next Facebook.” He noted that Strategy Analytics predicts that one in seven people will be in such worlds by 2015.”

A recent Nurien demo gives you a sense of the rendering in the environment, the physics, and the, um, animations:

By way of understanding the advances in chip design, Venture Beat gives a summary of the Nvidia/AMD battle, and points to the processing power of the Nvidia chip:

“The GTX 280 chip has 1.4 billion transistors, compared to 754 million transistors in the GeForce 8800 GT released in October, 2007. By comparison, the PlayStation 3’s graphics chip from Nvidia has only 300 million transistors. Those numbers indicate the scale of the engineering project, which is akin to the Manhattan Project that put together the atomic bomb (Well, that’s my guess, considering that Intel made the same claim about the Pentium Pro’s design in the 1990s). Interactive entertainment is clearly leading technology forward the way that the space program did in the 1960s.”

Consumer-Driven Virtual Worlds
So where’s it all headed? With the Virtual World Conference in LA expect to hear more breathless pronouncements like those of Mycosym, which is showcasing its ‘realistic, consumer-friendly’ virtual platform, according to a blurb in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Simmersion producer Ben Hamey says the company’s Mycosm software lets developers create their own highly-realistic virtual worlds using easy-to-use tools.

“We came into it with a pretty strong emphasis on user experience, and bringing it back to a consumer level,” he says. “The virtual world space has been pretty stagnant, and it was ripe for other parties to come in who can see the problems with it, and Simmersion has done that.”

Hamey says the company has also tried to bring graphics quality up to the photo-realistic environments of computer games.”

Mycosm is looking to recruit talent, using the virtual world conference to show off its application and recruit talent:

“While Mycosm has so far only been demonstrated behind closed doors, in September, Simmersion will be returning to the Virtual Worlds Conference, this time in Los Angeles, with a public demonstration. The company will then begin beta testing, and is aiming specifically to recruit 3D artists in the hope of convincing them to create content for Mycosm’s virtual worlds.

Whither Second Life?
Meanwhile, over in the Second Life community, the debate hasn’t ended over how to make the virtual world more robust. Previous discussions about whether to include rendered shadows in the viewer tended towards the “leave it accessible to more people” school of thought. In otherwords, sacrifice richer renders for wider accessibility.

Although, you have to wonder why you can’t have your cake and eat it too. But the best cake is mesh cake, according to Adam Frisby, who is encouraging readers to vote on a current Second Life JIRA to allow the import of meshes into the grid: and current content creators be damned:

“The first argument I’m going to hear against this no doubt is “By allowing professionals to create content for Second Life effectively, the inworld tools are going to be worthless” – which is basically saying “Let’s keep the tools retarded.” – the fact is the SL building tools are not the best, and by adding complementary support for out world editors, it means that content can be designed both more efficiently and with better visual quality. If the implementation is done similar to the RealXtend implementation, it will end up being like sculpties – you can manipulate them in world, but the core shapes are developed out world.

Really the biggest argument above is a simple case of protectionism – and like real world protectionism, the people hurt the most are going to be the people who don’t adapt and see their countries (platforms) lose economic growth to competitors. Sculpties didn’t kill builders, and neither will meshes, but yes you will probably need to learn a new skill or two.”

All of which leaves us on the horns of a dilemma: with all of these richly rendered worlds and games and merging entertainments headed our way, will the simple lowly prim be sufficient? I’ve heard it argued that Second Life is currently for creative types, but that to attract a wider audience it needs to offer more, well, passive entertainments. With the emergence of new chips and new platforms that aim for either realism (in itself, I think, a mistake) or at least a more richly rendered environment (which I vote for – “realism” is an invitation to poke holes in the illusion, illusionary invites us to participate), where does it leave an environment that can’t render shadows or more than a handful of light sources and that doesn’t allow mesh imports?

Visual aesthetics aren’t what makes a grid – people are. Activities. Games even. But a bit of eye candy goes a long way, and if you’re like me you might be willing to take a dip with a new chip or two.


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