Friday, November 7, 2008

The next BIG thing in virtual worlds that support content creation by Residents: 3D meshes

Posted by Bettina Tizzy

With Halloween and Día de los Muertos just behind us, coupled with a dolorous week of Openspace drama, I'm weary of talking about virtual death and virtual taxes.

For a change of pace, I thought we might delve into one of the more interesting technical developments that avatars can look forward to in the months to come: support for 3D mesh objects in-world.

While the buzz about this within the sculpty community is not yet deafening, support for 3D meshes is expected to jolt content creators into a new building frenzy, and consumers will appreciate the ramped-up visual interest and detail in items, which will cost even fewer prims than before.

Sculpty magus Aminom Marvin first came to my attention when I learned that he was making good 2 prim sculpty trees about a year ago; reason enough for me to teleport immediately to see them because - and this must be said - I have had an aversion to Linden trees from the moment I layed eyes on them. The way they sway! :o Take them away!

So powerful is my contempt for Linden trees that, and I know that some will consider this heresy: I cannot love Baron Grayson's new Nameless sim because of them.

Today, Aminom is renown for making the finest sculpty bridges and staircases, among other things, in Second Life®. I especially admire a 5-prim double-helix model he developed a year ago, which features two staircases that are woven together but do not meet.

Sculpty makers point to Aminom when talk of quality modeling comes up, so I turned to him to learn more about 3D meshes.

Tell us a little about yourself. Where in the world are you and did you come here (Second Life) with experience in 3d modeling?

Aminom Marvin: I'm in Sacramento, California. I don't have any formal training in anything 3D, just messing around here and there. Before Second Life, I was working in fast food and was a biology student; worked in customer service.

I read in your profile that you started making sculpties in Photoshop.

Aminom Marvin: I started sculpting soon after sculpted prims were released. My friend, Karanadas Banjo, showed me how to make a simple sculpt plane in Photoshop, and then "paint" something somewhat like a height map. Soon after, I made Second Life's first sculpted stairs which, compared to today's standards, are very crude. The idea of this approach fascinated me, and I spent the next few months in the Beta grid, experimenting and creating sculpts entirely in Photoshop. At first they were very simple things - architectural components, basic shapes, and the like. However, this approach allowed me to discover things that were difficult to figure out in other programs - sharp edges, disconnected multiple objects on a sculpt, and how the individual polygons in a sculpt alpha sort.

"This spacecraft is sort of the culmination of that approach. It was created entirely in Photoshop," said Aminom

Aminom Marvin: From there, I learned Blender, which I selected because Domino Marama's scripts for that program were the best. They gave what I needed: flawless import and export, complete accuracy in position and representation, and relative ease of use. To this day, I still use Photoshop for sculpts a lot, often switching work to and from Photoshop and Blender, and often creating base shapes in Photoshop to be fine modeled in Blender.

Why do you prefer Blender over 3DSMax, for instance? You've been clear why you like it, but compared to other programs, how do the features and benefits stand up?

Aminom Marvin: Domino Marama has added every possible thing I can think of and more to her scripts :), including obscure things, such as making the sculpt maps optimized for the way images are compressed. Now, it's important to note that while for general 3D modeling, 3DSMax is superior, for simply designing sculpts, Blender is superior. Also, the fact that it is free and open source is good. You don't have to pay thousands of dollars or feel guilty about pirating software.

What is up with 3D mesh and why should we be excited?

Aminom Marvin: Let me (first) explain what an oblong sculpt is. Normal sculpts are fundamentally the same: analogous to a square piece of polygon "paper," 32 by 32 polygons in size. Oblong sculpts are "longer" on one side; common sizes are 16x64 polygons, 8x128 polygons, and 4x256. Oblong sculpts are useful because there are many objects that have much more detail in one axis than another. Things such as ropes, stairs, chains, and beams. In addition, they can be "cut" into many multiple elements to make very complex things.

In my own work, oblongs allow me to do what I did before, but about twice to four times better in every way. These chains are an example. The yellow chains are made using normal sculpts, and the grey ones use oblongs. Both are optimized to get as many links possible. The oblong versions have twice as many links for their respective construction types (one is more "polygonal" than the other but has more links), and they also texture much more efficiently and retain shape better from afar.

Oblongs can even be useful for complex organic things. This hand is an 8x128 sculpt cut into 8 pieces, each something like 8x13 polygons. Five of the pieces are used for the fingers, and the other three are "graphed" together to form the hand. In short, what oblong sculpts do is allow complex sculpts to approach more closely the efficiency of 3D meshes.

Moreover, making complex things with this is actually easier using oblongs than normal sculpts, which formerly could require some very complex sculpt origami. It reduces my own advantage with sculpts, but I've been pushing for oblongs for a long time because they are so useful and easier to use :)

To your knowledge what percentage of builders working with sculpties on the Second Life grid are working with oblongs?

Aminom Marvin: Not that many as of yet. It'll take a bit more time for the numerous plug-ins, scripts, and sculpt tools to integrate them.

Why then was it important to preface with an explanation about oblongs before plunging into why you are excited about 3D mesh?

Aminom Marvin: There's a chain of progression from normal sculpts, to oblong sculpts, to meshes. Complex oblong sculpts waste a certain number of polygons to form multiple disconnected shapes. Also, the texturing is tied to how the polygons stretch - which means you either have to live with the texture stretching, or waste more verts to make it texture acceptably. Finally, the major thing is that the precision in vertex values of sculpts is limited to 256 values per axis; i.e. the smallest "jump" from one vertex position to another is 1/256 of the sculpt size. This is a huge pain. To make this house, for example, I had to spend more than half the total time just working with this, often moving vertices by their smallest possible values. 3D meshes don't have these precision limitations, and so right there it would mean an increase in quality and less time spent just to make something look good.

Aminom made this Tudor house with 250 prims. Nearly everything is sculpted. "It has the visual detail of approximately 3000 prims. That is, it would take 3000 conventional prims to replicate," he explained

Aminom Marvin: 3D meshes would give one total freedom in how the 3D model is constructed, how individual polygons are textures (UV mapped), and use of numerous other 3D modeling tools that you can't use on sculpts. To model something with a sculpt, you can't extrude, add geometry, or anything else; you can only manipulate vertex positions. In addition, you wouldn't have to use all 1024 polygons. You could only use what you need.

Originally I was worried that by allowing mesh import, it would result in the mass piracy and importation of content from 3D games and websites. This still worries me. However, many of these models are either not optimized for games, or optimized for Second Life. I think creativity and innovation will survive because those who model for Second Life will always make the best stuff. There will be limitations of some kind, of course. For example, each "mesh prim" could have a maximum of 2048 tris (triangles) on high LOD, 512 on medium, and so on.

I have heard that rendering 3D mesh objects in Second Life is going to be very hard on people's systems. Your opinion?

Aminom Marvin: They won't be more hard than sculpts. In fact, they will be less hard, as it will encourage and allow much, much greater efficiency.

Openlife is expected to enable 3D mesh imports as soon as December. I have no idea what the schedule is for Second Life. Is there any possibility that you may stray for a while to experiment?

Aminom Marvin: Definitely, if not just to see how they implement meshes.

You seem very positive about this, other than your expressed concern regarding mass piracy and importation of content from the web/games (which would, indeed, be serious). Do you have any other concerns?

Aminom Marvin: It seems everything comes back to the Openspace issue. When meshes are introduced and widely used, it will mean that content rezzed on land such as buildings, furniture, and landscaping will be hyper-low-prim and very efficient. This would make low-prim land very attractive, as people would need space more than prims. I'll be interested to see how the Openspace issue changes when this happens.

This entire staircase by Aminom... every bit of it, is one prim.

Who is the key Linden liaison for this? Qarl Linden? If so, do you attend his office hours? If you were to hazard a guess then, when do you think LL might enable support?

Aminom Marvin: Qarl Linden. I try to attend his office hours frequently. He is one of the most innovative Lindens in my opinion, and is also one of the (Lindens) most in touch with the community. However, he makes sure not to promise or suggest things that he or Linden Lab are not ready to fulfill, so no idea :)

A wise move on his part, to be sure. But if you were a gambling man... C'mon, give us a wild guess. If Opensims can do it, what would hold Second Life back?

Aminom Marvin: Uhm... a year maybe? They'd probably want to focus on the way Second Life works with materials and textures first (something that is planned), so that when they add meshes, they can take advantage of texture/materials enhancements. Second Life is a lot larger platform than Openlife, and needs to account for that, and also future scalability, so naturally, you'd see a lot more immediate innovation on smaller projects like Openlife.

Moving on to other topics, please tell us about the monument you've created to Gene Replacement and placed at your store, Sculptomancy. I found it especially interesting since NPIRLers have been asking Linden Lab for scaleable megas for over one year. In fact, for 8 months we kept a daily count of how many days had transpired since Michael Linden had initiated a discussion on the Second Life blog asking if Linden Lab should keep megas or do away with them. There is an interesting chat log posted here.

A gagged and blindfolded Gene Replacement... The plaque reads: In Memory of Gene Replacement

Aminom Marvin: Gene Replacement was an alt of Plastic Duck, who was the most famous "griefer" on the grid a few years ago. However, he was also a fiddler and very creative, and did much good for Second Life. For example, he found a serious bug that allowed a modified LibSL client to pay another avatar negatively, and in effect take money from an avatar. This bug, if abused, could have shut down the Second Life economy massively for some time. He reported it to Philip Linden instead, who thanked him, and the Lab implimented a fix before anyone else discovered it and abused it. He also created the original megaprims which, to me, are the most important resident-created building tools Second Life has ever seen. A lot of my products would have been impossible without them, and Desmond Shang has commented that without the prim-saving ability of megaprims, turning a profit on Caledon would have been almost imposssible.

I notice you belong to many in-world groups devoted to sculpties. Is there any one group that you would most recommend to the beginner who wishes to plunge into sculpty creation?

Aminom Marvin: Sculpties is the "main" sculpt group, I guess, and would be the best place to ask for general help, such as where to find learning resources. Sculptie Dev is more technically minded.

Finally, where did your name come from?

Aminom Marvin: I made my Second Life account and just came up with a random psudo-word, not expecting that I would be heavily involved. Of course now I'm stuck with it ;)

You can visit Sculptomancy, Aminom's store, by teleporting directly from here.


Corcosman said...

A very interesting and inspiring interview.