Applications and Tools, Collaboration, Virtual World Platforms

Mesh In, Wisdom Out: How Second Life May Inform the Next Generation of 3D Content

Concerns over a wave of content creators arriving in virtual worlds with a bag of mesh objects created in programs like the (free) Blender or the (incredibly expensive) Maya seems to cause jitters amongst the current content creators who have created businesses within Second Life.

We discussed this a bit on today’s Metanomics (video and transcript will be up tomorrow) and I concluded by saying that while the ability to IMPORT objects (including content that exists elsewhere) might seem like the main shift in dynamic, I actually think it’s what Second Life will EXPORT that has the potentially deeper value for the economy.

With the launch of “mesh import” into Second Life seemingly imminent (so imminent that they jumped the gun on lifting the NDA for those testing the technology, before capping it – although what a difference 5 minutes can make to our knowledge of what’s going on) there are valid concerns for what this might do to the virtual goods economy.

A few of the likely implications:

Shifting Markets
- Not unlike the introduction of sculptys, (a variation of mesh objects created using external tools to form ’sculpt-like’ prims), mesh will widen rather than replace the content creation tool kit. As this happens, new best practices and standards will emerge. With the advent of sculptys, to use a simple example, we saw the addition of collars, cuffs and ‘rolls’ to avatar clothing.

- This will lead to entire segments of the virtual goods economy change. I think of it like a store needing to changes its stock: the hot outfit of yesteryear doesn’t sell this year. For a while, it seemed like everyone in Second Life was wearing baggy pants with incredible sags and rolls in the legs. Or think of Nekos – they’re still everywhere, but with any new tool we’ll see new trends – and I expect all sorts of aliens, dragons, and other attachments and protrusions on tomorrow’s fashionable avatar.

- Speaking of attachments, I’ll leave speculation about the adult-oriented industry to others. But I’d expect a new line of, um, richly rendered experiences.

- In particular, I’d expect to see the building/prefab market overturned. While things like guns or chairs need to be combined with complex scripts to do anything more than look good, buildings don’t need that much additional effort to add an out-of-the-box security system, doors and a few others bells and whistles. The external content market (on sites like Renderosity, for example) includes a lot of castles, um, moats, and other environments. Especially during the initial wave following the introduction of mesh, I’d expect to see these kinds of things popping up all over the Grid. Worn or collapsing walls, facades with more extrusions and edging (and fewer prims) and other ‘built environments’ will probably be some of the first things people gravitate towards.

New Innovations
- But there are some things that aren’t so easily ‘importable’. One of the “leaks” about mesh is that it will also allow the creation of avatars in external programs that can then be imported. Right now, custom avatars are handled with non-flexible attachments and by making the ‘base’ avatar invisible. While it’s a lot of speculation, it sounds as if you’ll be able to model and animate avatars using external tools which opens up an even richer range of avatar types and expression.

- There is also an implication for clothing. Instead of clothing being primarily ‘painted’ on an avatar and then supplemented with prims and attachments, it sounds as thought we’ll see things like flowing cloaks, capes, dresses and other forms of dress. What’s interesting about this is that although it will require that Second Life fashion designers get used to a new set of tools, it seems to me that only those with a familiarity with Second Life itself will really be able to get it to “work”. I can’t help wondering whether some dress that you can buy that was made in 3DAZ will be easily adapted to an avatar in SL, which has a different ’skeleton’ and joints, but I’m not entirely sure. Therefore fashion, always competitive, will still be the domain of people who understand how avatars move, are animated, and dress in the virtual world.

Painterly terrains (hey, I’m into DRD, what can I say)

- Terraforming and landscaping will also undergo an overhaul. Based on guesses and anecdotal comments, there will be no particular limit to mesh objects. There will be limits, but it sounds like those limits might be based on the number of polygons in your object which will apply to your prim usage (land limits). Based on this, you’d theoretically be able to create a full island replete with tunnels, mountain ranges, fields and furrows – and to then finely texture it. Currently, you are limited to four textures for your region’s “ground” which are then tiled and blended according to a sort of automated formula. Creating the “ground” for regions will become a big new business on its own assuming mesh is supported the way we’re told and assuming the collision system works well and we don’t have avatars sinking into the sand (like they did with sculptys for a long time).

- If this is true, the other major innovation is that mesh is actually opening the door to megaprims. Currently, there is a size limit to an individual prim in Second Life. Mesh will remove this limit (and smartly, I might add – by having to rez 4 cubes to make a 40 x 40 meter platform, you’re also adding 100s of unneeded polygons to a build and thus increasing lag and “rez time”).

Mirroring the World
At a much broader level than the ‘object economy’, however, are the types of uses that this opens up which were previously difficult or impossible. Architecture or prototyping are the most obvious examples. You’d no longer need to build something once as a “sketch” in Second Life and then twice when you go to build it in a professional program like Revit. This opens the possibility that architects, engineers, product designers and others can now take the work they’re doing in 3D and easily import it into a collaborative environment for walk-throughs, team reviews, and refinement before exporting it again.

This further opens the door to procedural modeling, simulation, or extrapolation of geographical data into 3D builds.

Consider this video:

Or this:

The possibilities for creating 3D objects based on LIDAR data and then importing those objects into Second Life could mean the start of mirror environments based on highly accurate real-world data.

The ability to then script these objects opens the door to virtual world environments that feed to real-world ones and back again.

Or consider the possibility of scanning real-world objects. In this case, a 3D object being scanned and converted to a mesh object:

New Competition?
The range of tools that will be available to build content for Second Life will widen. For someone developing at home, on their own, they rarely have a chance to walk through their creations with someone else. Poser and Blender are used pretty much as they sound – to pose. To create post cards. People are creating scenes and, sometimes, movies – but they’re not usually much more than static images.

Now, they’ll have somewhere to actually PUT the things they make, walk around them, and show them to their friends.

In fact, if someone was smart, they’d create a little business around a “view in 3D now” function. Click a button in Blender, it automatically imports it (through a bot) into Second Life on a parcel of land, and either charge a few bucks to view it for an hour or two or treat is as a temporary sandbox, but pick up new tenants who want nothing more (to start) than a place to view their creations.

If you want to get your land rentals business up and running, prep yourself for running banner ads on the major 3D design Web sites. Make it dead easy. “Click here to view your 3D creations in an immersive collaborative space with your friends”. Someone who can develop a 3D model can surely figure out how to navigate their SL avatar.

But what I think is MORE interesting isn’t the people who might come IN to Second Life, but the talents and community they’ll meet, and the cross-over of skills and ideas that happens as a result. The content creators in SL have talents that you just don’t NEED if you’re working in Sketch-Up: how to advertise, use the SL Marketplace, run a community, promote, hold events, create machimima, how to work with scripters and texture artists and multi-disciplinary teams, how to handle the unique challenges of groups or parcel media, and all sorts of other skills.

Someone in SL who will need to learn a new tool is working with one hand tied behind their back until they pick it up. Someone from outside of SL trying to make a go at the in-world economy will be working with, well, dozens of hands tied behind their backs.

My suspicion is that the TRUE skill sets of Second Life would become MORE valuable: community building, marketing, and understanding the many little tricks that are unique to the platform.

Exporting Value

But what happens when the architectural model in Second Life starts to send data OUT? What happens when the robust tools WITHIN Second Life become the source of even BETTER machinima, of entire movies built because we now have access to more tools for avatar creation, more realistic environments, and more richly detailed worlds?

As realities merge and send back both data and media – whether a “build” in Second Life influencing a physical world artefact (think Brooklyn is Watching on steroids), or a machinima, I suspect that the multi-disciplinary talents that are ONLY facilitated in a rich, collaborative world will start to have a larger voice in the larger digital landscape that includes augmented reality, 3D Web sites and other macro trends.

The “walls” that Philip speaks of aren’t just about walls to usage, they’re about building a bridge across that moat so that the deep lessons and talents, the new possibilities offered in richly immersive worlds help to shape the wider digital landscape as well. Content being created in Second Life won’t just inspire those inside it, but will contribute to a wider grammar of experiences that is the new language of our lives online.


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