Applications and Tools, Second Life

Beyond Mesh Import: Second Life Next

Philip Rosedale confirmed at the recent Second Life Community Convention that the ability to import mesh objects (a standard format for 3D objects) into Second Life is a go, and will be rolled out in public Beta by the end of the year – bets are on a late September launch. In discussions with Philip Rosedale, I started to sense that there may be a wider expectation (by him at least) of where mesh imports could take us.

But to give a glimpse of what mesh “looks like”, here’s a little preview of what’s possible:

I’ve written at length about mesh (and have probably been writing about it since I started blogging). Most recently I wrote that some of the strategic value of mesh imports rely not on the ability to IMPORT, but rather the ability to EXPORT value:

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.

See, my theory goes something like this:

- In a world where everyone can build a model in Google Sketch-Up or, with patience, learn to build in Blender or another 3D development tool, there are still very few ways that you can actually interact with what you create in the presence of other people without highly specialized skills (building, say, a little Unity3D application).

- The ability to create content in Second Life is what defines it. While Philip might be talking about experiences as the key focus for attracting new users and sustaining the platform, there wouldn’t be any experiences at all if it wasn’t for the ability to rez a prim.

- So, with the ability to import mesh models, people will finally have a way to walk around, invite friends, and interact with their creations.

- But the tools of Second Life also allow data to flow in and out of the world. This opens up the possibility that you could import, for example, a mirror version of a physical location and then stream data out from the virtual replica to the actual space. This has all kinds of implications for augmented reality, mash-ups with mobile applications and other innovations.

- Prim-based content is not easy to link to other variations of the same objects. Let’s say you design a new pair of shoes. And let’s say you’d love to display a 3D version of those shoes on a Web site (using Papervision, Unity3D or WebGL) – it’s incredibly difficult to export the prims (which I assume, of course, you fully own and have created), optimize the resulting mesh, and then republish as an OBJ file.

- By creating an easier flow of 3D objects, I can see a time soon when you take a brief tour of a 3D build in Unity3D (with no other avatars present), view a virtual mall on a Web site with the product in 3D, and then log-in to Second Life where you interact with other avatars and can help to shape the environment.

Heritage Key is doing something similar on OpenSim.

It’s the Economy, Stupid
But there’s a challenge.

Because as much as I’m delighted by the idea of mesh, the efficiencies it will create, and the quality of content that will be the end result, I’m also highly anxious about the in-world experience and economy.

One thing to note is that mesh actually falls under the oversight of the Linden in charge of “products” – things which generate revenue for Linden Lab. This has me wondering whether the import costs for mesh, as a revenue stream to the Lab, also create a ‘trip wire’ of sorts to at least balance out the cost/value equation between mesh-based and prim-based objects.

There’s a very valid concern that the introduction of mesh will result in a flood of new content yanked from 3D repositories and that this content, because of its quality and efficiency (mesh helps to reduce lag because it reduces the number of vertices needed for a wide range of ‘builds’).

In Philip’s view, mesh will result in a “stack”, and his reasoning goes like this:

- Mesh will become a COMPONENT to “in-world” content. You can’t create a mesh object AND script it – so, let’s say you build a house in mesh, you still need to write a script for the doors and lights and you still need to add furniture and the rest of it to customize it to your tastes.

- In Philip’s view, it’s more likely that we’ll see a market for mesh sub-components, much as we see a huge market for things like sculpty pillars or staircases. The joy of creating in-world, in other words, will not be supplanted by a flood of fully-built objects, but rather new objects will be created that combine mesh, prims and scripts.

Based on my conversations with Philip, I’m of the opinion that he believes mesh will not supplant the prim-based economy, but simply add another “stack” of value on top of what already exists.

Time, of course, will tell whether that’s true.

Editable Mesh and Paintable Faces
But on one thing Philip and I agree – mesh needs to be editable.

How this happens seems like it will be a product of open source development as compared to a product feature developed by the Lab, and frankly that’s fine with me. There are already excellent examples of tools you can use to edit sculptys in world developed by Residents. Because the ability to edit mesh is something that’s a viewer-side capability than a server-side one, I don’t expect it to take long before we see the first edit tools for mesh in Second Life.

The ability to edit mesh in world would have a few benefits:

- First, it would help preserve the very unique and valuable experience of building IN-WORLD, in a collaborative environment where the results of your edits can be seen IMMEDIATELY rather than through a laborious process of tweaking, uploading and re-uploading.

- Second, this opens up the possibility that you can create a system where the edits you make in-world could be preserved in an external 3D file. With Unity3D, for example, you can link a 3DS file to a Unity file – any changes you make in 3DS are reflected in Unity. I can’t help thinking that it should be possible to edit something in-world and have that automatically update the same object as it appears in 3DS, Blender, or Sketch-Up.

But where I thought Philip had a really interesting concept was in his idea that mesh (and prims) could become paintable. Have a look at how this works in ZBrush:

Now, imagine being able to do this directly on an object INSIDE of Second Life.

Philip seems to suggest that not only is this possible (with some work) but desirable. And I can see why (although I can also see all kinds of issues around griefing and, well, grafitti but we’ll deal with that bridge when we come to it).

If we can get to a time when not only are mesh editable in world but you can paint on them as well (as in the video above), the concept of collaborative building takes on, well, a whole new dimension.

So while our initial concept of mesh is the importing of external libraries (and the chaos that could cause on the internal economy), there may just be enough in where this could take us that we see a renaissance of creativity on the platform that gave imagination its home.


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