Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Archipelago of Konica Minolta

I admit it. I am sometimes too easily dazzled by new tricks, and the new Konica sims - discovered by Blackwater Gallery owner Jurin Juran - boast a few fun ground shakers. Given the scope and the nature of this enterprise, it seemed especially important for another builder to review them, so I was pleased when Alpha Auer (aka Elif Ayiter), creator of the deservedly acclaimed Second Life® island Syncretia (teleport directly from here), agreed to critique them for this blog. Alpha is an artist, designer, educator and virtual worlds investigator who has wedded her areas of expertise to explore hybrid art forms to much success, and Second Life is part and parcel of her PhD coursework. In other words, she really knows what she is talking about. That said, I want to go on record and say that I am anxious for corporations to succeed in Second Life. - Bettina Tizzy

by Alpha Auer

Building in a three dimensional environment devoid of two of the most essential elements of volumetrics - i.e., shadows and reflectivity - can be a tough proposition. Current global bandwidth conditions as well as the hardware configurations of most of the users, not to mention discrepancies in viewing conditions between platforms would make ray tracing almost impossible to implement at this stage of technology.

Future generations of Second Life will doubtless see the incorporation of spectacular three dimensionality, but as far as current building conditions are concerned, the situation is far from perfect. Indeed, some of the builders of mettle within Second Life have been challenged with these environmental conditions to the point where they have been prompted to develop solutions and techniques to either circumvent or incorporate these conditions into their creative output. In some cases these propositions have already gone as far as engendering the first tentative steps towards the development of a three dimensional, virtual, visual language unique to the metaverse.

One of the most effective approaches is to make a virtue out of necessity and to incorporate these shortcomings into the visual language itself. Two approaches that come to mind are monochromatic structures, in which the juxtaposition of surfaces becomes sufficiently interesting in itself, thus eliminating the need for shadows...

Whitenoise Church on the island of Die Angewandte (teleport directly from here) by MosMax Hax is monochromatic

...or the usage of structures assembled out of components with high levels of transparency, wherein the construct becomes a conglomerate of layers.

Elros Tuominen creates interesting content through the use of visual layers

A second approach in circumventing the problems surrounding the absence of ray tracing, and one that is employed by the bulk of the builders of Second Life, is to incorporate heightened levels of detail, especially (but not only) where textures are concerned. In its default state, a Second Life island presents us with an almost cartoonish appearance but there are countless islands in which texturing and detail work have been implemented to achieve stunning effects. Many of the cyber punk sims would constitute good examples, however the ones that I think of foremost are Saeya Nyanda's island "Silent” and Abramelin Wolfe's "Devil's Moon."

Silent by Saeya Nyanda

At Devil's Moon by Abramelin Wolfe, effective faux reflectivity is achieved through the intelligent usage of textures alone

What these examples and many others like them show us, however, is that good building in Second Life cannot be achieved on small scale economy: Not only will you need to spend vast amounts of time and energy in the development of an effective island sim, but you will also need to devote considerable financial resources by bringing in textures, weather systems, and scripts, and by deploying huge quantities of prims in the creation of content that has the necessary "depth" for the sustenance of a credible visual language.

The Konica Minolta archipelago (teleport directly from here) is comprised of three linked-up islands and from the onset I have to voice my disappointment that a huge corporation, with all kinds of resources at its disposal, seems to have done so little towards the building of effective island sims. It would, in fact, appear to me that many private owners spend more on the propagation of islands maintained entirely out of their personal income.

True... there are a couple of scripted wonders at Konica Minolta, one being a rising pyramid and another is a water tunnel, but the wow effect is eliminated most thoroughly through the usage of very cheesy textures compounded by the absence of any detailed prim work whatsoever. Thus, the rising pyramid turns out to be nothing but a series of mottled brown surfaces, albeit rising with slow majesty out of a ground that has been simply left to its own, sad, "SL default grass texture" fate.

The parting waters of the water tunnel: Clumsy texturing wrapped around a mega prim diminishes the effect. The glowing directional arrow pad, dead center in front of it, doesn't exactly help matters either

The inside of the pyramid can be accessed through a particle door. (And again, I have seen some beautiful, graceful particle effects in Second Life - this is definitely not one of them!). Once inside, the "dramatic" Meso American exterior of the pyramid reveals itself to be nothing more than a shopping mall (with no merchandise!?)/photo booth - all very shoddily built and very, very meagerly textured.

There is a stage for posing your avatar against a backdrop illustration wrapped around a concave surface in simulation of a three dimensional photo booth. I stood there for almost 10 minutes to see if the blurriness in the photo (suspiciously like a half rezzed tga file) would eventually go away - but no, that was how it was meant to be and that is how it stayed to the very end.

The inside of the "rising" pyramid revealed itself to be nothing more than a shopping mall, with no real merchandise and a photo pose stage with a blurry photo...

Unlike mainland sims which do not give their owners the option to change ground textures, island sims have this unique advantage and much can be achieved through the importing of rich, deep textures to this end. It is surprising then that at Konica Minolta this was so totally overlooked. As far as I could tell, the ground textures on their islands are the default textures of Second Life.

It appears that economies were realized with the foliage, too. Yes, there were trees and shrubs that I recognized from my own visits to Lillith Heart's Heart Garden Centre (teleport directly from here), but the bulk of what has been rezzed in terms of planting seems to have come from the default Second Life inventory’s library folder.

One might say that there is nothing wrong with that, "how were they going to fill three islands with enough plants?" Except that there is: I have worked and worked on those trees, played with their transparencies and their color values and nothing that you do to them will make them become anything other than what they are – default trees. There are plenty of sims where I've seen the default trees and do not feel so bothered by their presence. Something that the content builders do there is obviously different than what has been done at Konica Minolta. My guess would be that there the trees are grouped differently, they are rotated to achieve a more natural look, they are scaled to form clusters of varying height and so on. But in any case, default trees are OK to use if you really and truly are on a shoestring budget. Definitely not OK when you are multimillion dollar corporation!

Color and especially the glow effect are yet more things that I had huge problems with at Konica Minolta. The glow effect is a godsend – if you know how to use it adroitly! The effect is powerful and thus really needs to be incorporated into the overall design and repeated at intervals throughout the scheme so that it does not fragment the design system. Second, it helps if the effect is used with a purpose, such as the emulation of light. Third, the effect can be absolutely lethal if you push the slider since it really does provide a very powerful input. Here it has been used haphazardly, only in isolated instances and at great force, causing the glow ridden objects to completely break away from the overall visual language.

The colors used on the glow objects has not really helped things any either: The neon purple of the particle doors and the vitriolic green of the navigational arrow platform are overwhelming in their intensity and are not present in sufficient quantities elsewhere to establish a coherent visual language, such as the glow paths by Spiral Walcher seem to have done in the Garden of NPIRL Delights sims (teleport directly from here).

Spiral Walcher's glow paths weave four sims together at the Garden

In fact, the color and glow intensity of the paths in the Garden are almost identical to the arrow pads at Konica Minolta. What seems to work remarkably well in one instance utterly fails in the other due to the fact that in the Garden, the paths achieve continuity whereas at Konica Minolta they remain as isolated objects.

The glow effect remains isolated at Konica Minolta and thus breaks down design continuity throughout the island

One of the most effective ways of dealing with the lack of volumetric perception in Second Life is the usage of weather systems and fog scripts. Besides the lack of shadows and reflective surfaces, one major perceptual problem in Second Life is the lack of aerial/atmospheric perspective so that everything you see is equally sharp regardless of whether it is foregrounded or backgrounded.

Windlight, which is now integrated into the official Second Life viewer, goes some distance towards the elimination of this problem. However, by itself, Windlight is hardly ever sufficient. I took several shots of the identical location at Konica Minolta using different windlight presets and there really was no noticeable difference in what I saw.

The Meso American "rising" pyramid, photographed under different Windlight settings

What brings out the magic of Windlight are the things you use in conjunction with it: weather systems and fog dispensers. Now, these do not come cheap. The best fog emitter that I have found in Second Life is a "no copy" object and I think I ended up buying something like 20 of them but the difference that they have made has been worth every penny spent.

The same can be said about weather systems, which give the atmospheric depth that Windlight alone achieves only to a limited extent. My guess would be that the sims of Konica Minolta would vastly benefit from a large scale introduction of atmospheric aids of many different varieties, but most particularly fog emitters.

There are spaces at Konica Minolta which, had they only been implemented with good craftsmanship, would have become highly interesting visual experiences. The Sea of Babel is the most conspicuous one. The Fireworks Tower and the submerged (amphibian) arrow pad can also be considered within this category. In all three cases, the texturing combined with the utter clumsiness and lack of detailed prim work dampened the effect.

The Sea of Babel is accessed through yet another rising edifice, this time built to the resemble the Tower of Babel in Brueghel's famous painting.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1563

Once inside (the entrance being yet another purple particle door!) one can make one's way to a basement lab where a cart will take you on a journey through the human gastrointestinal system. This is, in all likelihood, (the absence of any kind of informational material throughout the sim is somewhat bothersome, I might add) the demonstration of a medical visualization technology developed by Konica Minolta, whereby a tiny camera is swallowed for interior scans of the body.

Now, had this journey been created with attention to detail, with good textures and effects, it really could have been the sort of thing that half the metaverse would have trekked out to experience. As it stands, it is nothing more than a conglomeration of internal body shots arranged along a prim tunnel.

Journey into the human gastrointestinal system: Could have been amazing, but...

The same can be said about the Firework Tower. The poor exterior textures, not to mention the fact that the structure can only be accessed from the top, makes the tower an unattractive proposition for further investigation when looked at from the outside. I did, however, venture inside and again, if the craftsmanship had been executed with greater finesse it would have become very interesting metaverse content.

The entire effect is severely curtailed given the appalling graphic design on the huge instructional panels, that stand out in stark light contrast to the overall dark ambiance of the interior

Finally, what bothered me about the sims is a lack of clarity of purpose. I had a really hard time understanding what these sims are here for. Are they promotional or recreational or educational or artistic - what is the purpose here exactly? Not that I wish to imply in any way that purpose is essential in the creation of good metaverse content or indeed metaverse activity. However, these sims are confusing: They are obviously not "play" or artistic environments, since there are far too many Konica Minolta logotypes, far too conspicuously displayed. Then again, if they are promotional/informational sims - where exactly is this information? The note card dispensers? The bi-lingual signage? Even Japanese signs are awfully thin on the ground - English ones are pretty much non-existent.

Confusing purposes and incongruous content - both of which would probably not have raised any questions whatsoever had the visual language been strong enough to sustain them

And, how does the content actually hang together? What logic brings together the Tower of Babel, a Flying Saucer and a Fireworks tower? Why does the exterior of the shopping mall need to become a Meso American pyramid? Again, not that I am looking for logical thought processes within creative activity - I would be hard pressed indeed to explain my own creative process if I did so. But unlike a purely artistic environment, where one would certainly not pose any of these questions, these sims are caught in a twilight zone between a concern for displaying informational content and a haphazard conglomeration of structures aspiring towards artistic expression.

Sadly, neither aspiration can fulfill its brief due to the lack of a sufficiently well defined and coherent visual language and a lack of attention to detail, be it textures, prim work or atmospheric conditions.

The bottom line, for me, is that - presumably with every good intention in place - not enough time, resources and thought has been devoted to the creation of these islands. And given that a huge corporation capable of providing all that would have been needed for satisfying results is responsible for their instantiation, visiting them and writing about them has been very saddening and thought provoking indeed.

Editor's note: In fairness, Alpha contacted the creators and waited for several days to hear back before she finally went ahead and prepared this blogpost.