Viewer 2 Released

For your information, Viewer 2 was officially released today. If you care to download it, you can get it here. Fear not, it's not a mandatory upgrade by any means (it will likely be another 4-6 months before support for 1.x viewers is discontinued - by that time any of the third-party Viewers will have most likely updated to remain compliant).

Probably the first thing to know about the 2.0 Viewer is that the overhaul was geared towards making some desperately needed improvements for new and first-time users. This is because something on the order of 90% of the people who had bothered to sign up to SL, download the software, and log in never ever came back. From a UI design and business standpoint, that's just plain tragic. The continued existence, as well as success and growth of LL's business depends on improving that number.

Does this mean that LL doesn't care about those of us who are already in-world? Of course not, that would be stupid. Just about everyone benefits from LL improving that number, too. For merchants and land baron types, it means more potential customers to do business with. For artists and creators with no commercial inclinations, it means more people will get to see and experience your creations. For RP/gamers, it means more people to play with. For those here purely for social purposes, it means the party will get bigger.

Knowing that puts the rest of it all into much-needed perspective. With that said, let me talk about the new Viewer. For experienced users, it will likely be disorienting and confusing at first. The look of the interface has changed, and buttons and controls are in different places than they used to be. Have patience, you'll get used to it in less time than you think.

My impression of the re-work is that they went for a decidedly more browser-like feel. I think that's a good thing - just about everyone using the internet is already familiar with a web browser. The chat/communications functions appear to take cues from sites like Facebook. Complain all you like about Facebook, but with 400 million users worldwide there's something to be said for using what people probably already know how to use. While it's different from the 1.x Viewer, it's not that hard to get used to. Small square icons along the bottom right of the window represent any open group chat windows or IM's, along with a "conversation feed" (that tallies up the # of unread msgs) and "notifications feed" (that tallies up and organizes notification windows). A yellow dot on a button indicates that there's something unread. Gone are the annoying blue boxes in the top left corner. Click a button, the window opens up. Click away and the window is minimized. Or click another button and it swaps windows. You can 'tear away' the chat/IM window if you like, just click and drag it.

While I don't intend to walk through the entire viewer in this post I felt it was important to point out the above since in my experience over the last month that's what people seem to have the most trouble with. You do have the option of switching back to IM's in tabs (making the change requires a restart), but my advice is to have some patience and give it a little time. During my first experience I just didn't like it at all. The next couple sessions weren't so difficult - I felt like a traveler changing trains at an unfamiliar station, not quite sure what track I was on or how to find the platform. Soon after (in my case, once I made the Facebook connection) it started to make a lot more sense. Now I'm at the point where I miss the ease of use and functionality when I jump back to using Snowglobe 1.x for any reason.

During your first session, you'll want to give yourself a little extra time, as you'll likely need to re-adjust any custom settings you've made in the past. While it appears to try and retain most of your preferences, some things needed to be re-set. Viewer 2 was certainly usable the first time I ran it, but I prefer twisting some of the knobs and adjusting the dials to improve performance on my system and get it configured to my taste. For the more technically-minded user, a page of tweaks is available on the Second Life Wiki.

Permissions Glitchery

There have been a few incidents recently involving residents experiencing problems with permissions on objects they’ve created. It is extremely frustrating - you’ve been tinkering along on a project not just for hours, but days, weeks, or even months and then one day, inexplicably, you find that you no longer have permission to modify it. Across the grid, it’s led folks to curse, scream, shake fists in the air, bang on keyboards, and in a few cases just plain throw in the towel and leave Second Life in disgust.

I can certainly relate - I’ve had it happen with a few builds and projects over the last year. In an effort to help others and raise some awareness so that maybe it eases frustrations, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so far about the issue.

First and foremost, I believe the problem to be a glitch in the server software. It isn’t some secret piece of Linden malware, and it’s not something anyone at Linden Lab is actively doing to ruin your day/week/life. I point that out because talking to folks in-world and reading posts on forums it seems LL employees are unfairly vilified, and I don’t think that’s helpful. While they don’t prioritize the things I wish they would on a lot of occasions, the people I’ve had occasion to meet are generally hard-working and trying to make SL a better place. That said, let’s talk more about the glitch.

What happens is that occasionally during a rolling restart, the sim applies what are called ‘next owner’ permissions on some or all of the prims that are rezzed on that sim. I say some or all because I’ve heard varying reports. Personally I’ve only experienced it happening to some of my objects, but others have had wholesale problems. Being a proper glitch, it’s sporadic and random like that. It also doesn’t appear to affect all residents or all regions at once.

What exactly does that mean? If you build things in Second Life, it means that you run the risk of losing full permission/control over your creations. When you rez a prim in Second Life, the object has default ‘next owner’ permissions of no modify, no copy, and transfer (as seen in the image above). You can bend it, twist it, shape it, link it, and even script it. But when you sell or give that object to someone else, that next owner will not be able to modify or make copies. They can sell or give the item away, but they can’t make changes. The glitch effectively locks you out of your own creations!

To safeguard your creations, I recommend that builders take a couple precautions. First, change the perms on your prims when you rez them. As soon as you see that plywood prim, click the general tab of the Build menu and check the Modify, Copy, and Transfer boxes. This way, should the unthinkable happen on one of your builds or a work-in-progress, you’ll still have full permissions on your creation. Second, back up your work. Well, back it up at least within the scope of SL. That part’s easy - just select the item and take a copy into your inventory. While it can be a bit tedious or take a while to get into the habit of doing that, it’s far less painful than getting locked out of your own work. Use the same rule of thumb for backing up SL builds as for backing up your computer data.... You don’t have to back up everything - just the stuff you want to keep.

It’s worth pointing out that setting an item’s ‘next owner’ perms does not mean that anybody can take their own full permissions copies of your work. If you look closely at the image above, you’ll see a separate checkbox that allows you to set whether anyone can copy your object. Once you’re finished with your creation and ready to give or sell the item, you can then modify the ‘next owner’ permissions to be whatever you’d like, and then you’re good to go. In an ideal world, bugs and glitches in computer code could be instantly found and someone could get that problem resolved and we’d never need to take precautionary steps or make backup copies - but as it stands we aren’t there yet.

When Sculpties Attack

Sculpties can be a great building tool in Second Life, particularly when you need to create organic shapes that may either not be possible with conventional prims, or would require dozens, if not hundreds, to achieve the desired effect. Unfortunately, there aren’t any rules governing their use, and as a result they often get over-used.

Over-used, you say? How is that even possible? Easy. While a sculpty only counts as a single prim for things like sim and parcel prim counts, they carry a relatively high price when it comes to computing. After some research, I’ve come to understand that a single sculpt requires the same amount of computing power on the Viewer end as rendering 12 tortured and twisted prims. Additionally, the sculpt map itself eats up a modest amount of texture memory. It’s usually tiny (under 256K per sculpty, depending on the resolution of the sculpt map used), but it’s there consuming a very limited resource nevertheless. And that’s on top of the amount of video memory that will be used for the actual surface texture. A sculpt that uses a 256x256 sculpt map and a 256x256 texture, for example, uses 512MB of video memory compared with only 256K of video memory on a regular prim using the same texture.

Individually, that may not sound too bad. And when you use them judiciously in a build, they look great and everything rezzes quickly for most visitors. But when used excessively in builds, it can increase viewer lag dramatically (each prim taking 12 times more computing power to render, and double the video memory consumption). The end result for visitors can be as extreme as causing their Viewer to crash (because the video card was overwhelmed), or more likely lower frame rates, a field of gray blobs, and untextured prims that takes an unusually long time to load. While some folks have patience and will come back, crash after crash, moving in slowly and dialing back settings & draw distance until they can get through, or on beefier machines just sitting it out and waiting the additional time it can take... most people don’t.

For my case study, I submit the photos below. Periodically, I like to try and “see the world through a visitor’s eyes” as much as my computer will allow. To do this, clear your cache and re-log into Second Life and then explore. While my current machine isn’t the latest and greatest CPU and graphics card combo, it is ahead of the ‘average’ system out there with plenty of RAM, discrete GPU & plenty of video memory and very fast internet connection. So my assumption is that the world is rezzing more quickly for me than it is for most others. It took just over 2 minutes to render the scene below (each shot is approximately 10 seconds apart).

I’m not picking on any one build (either pictured, or anywhere else on the grid). It is worth pointing out that the scene above actually shows several different builds across a number of parcels, and includes a few of my own objects as well as those of the neighbors. These photos are intended merely to illustrate the cumulative effects.

New Music In Rotation

Believe it or not, the music you hear at the Main Store, Caledon Oxbridge, and New Babbage locations is from me. And a short while ago, I added a new mix into rotation. The set is a bit of a throwback for me, what I'd call a 'needle-drop' mix. While other mixes are beat-matched and feature lots of additional loops and other elements, this one has none of that. Everything lies in track selection and timing, just like in the early days.

I cut my teeth as a DJ with vinyl, eventually moved to CD's, and a couple years back went to a digital workflow (using laptop and other bits of hardware), which lets me blur the lines a bit as I remix and perform tracks during a set.
Going 'old school' was not only an exercise in basic skills, but allowed me to knock it out quickly for BlakOpal. She loves the band Muse as much as I do, and I thought it'd be nice to have something to listen to that included some of our favorite album tracks, singles, and rarities... and to share some of the music we love so much with you. If you aren't familiar with the band, we hope this gives you an opportunity to discover a wonderful band. If you do know them, we hope you enjoy the mix as much as we do, and get the chance to hear something you may not have heard before. :-)

A Glimpse Of The Future!

At last week's Game Developer Conference, nVidia was seen sneak-previewing their soon-to-be-released (March 26) graphics technology. While the cards may well be prohibitively expensive at launch, the nature of technology is such that within the next few years we may very well see this kind of performance on most video cards. The clip below shows a demonstration of real-time hair rendering:

That, my friends, is the future of prim hair. 18,000 prim hair, to be exact :) No, LL has not announced any specific plans to support that many prims, but this is exactly the sort of thing we'll see in a few years (assuming those Mayan chaps weren't right and things don't all end horribly before then).

For those with a more technical interest, I'd like to point out what happens as they zoom out from the head of hair - the frame rate increases substantially. What's happening is something called "tessellation" which will likely be a popular buzzword in the realm of graphics over the next couple years. DirectX 11 (and DirectX 11 compatible video cards, like ATI's Radeon HD5xxx series) have been calling the feature out, not only because it's remarkable technology but because it was something only they offered. In a nutshell, tessellation lets the graphics card reduce the complexity of a 3D object as it gets further away. Lower complexity means fewer triangles to calculate and render, and ultimately better performance and faster frame rates. It's worth pointing out that at last week's show, the OpenGL standards group also announced their OpenGL 4.0 standard (which will likely eventually be incorporated into SL), which also supports tessellation. Fascinating.

Marching Forth

Despite us being relatively low key in the new release department in the month of February, it was quite a busy month. Starting with getting things established on Avatars United, we had a couple of our best-ever days in the shoppe, appeared in the Modavia Fashion Directory XIV, and even made our first appearance in the Second Life Destination Guide! I also spent quite a bit of time doing some software testing, ranging from projects I can’t talk about to Snowglobe 1.3 and then towards the end of the month with the SL Viewer. There were a few other bits and bobs in-world, but a lot of time was also spent with upgrades here in our RL studio. I’m happy to report that BlakOpal’s machine is running beautifully and exceeding all our expectations, plus my redesign of our wired and wireless networking, and backup strategy seems to both be running well and ready for the next steps.

In getting ready for those next steps, I think it’s time to pull a few things off the fire. Linden Lab will be retiring the Battery Street Irregulars (viewer testing group), and the time seems ideal to back away from a few other testing programs as well. There are a couple I’m very interested in, and will not only continue with but likely become more involved with them. And I’ll likely continue to fumble my way through the Viewer 2.0 Open Beta, wrapping my head around its features and functions. But involvement in too many projects starts to stretch me thin, and worse it seems to invite some people to treat me like a personal tech support department or target me as a person to sound off on when they feel the need to vent regarding something LL does or says (and believe me, there have been some doozies). I’m happy to participate in technical group chat conversations from time to time, but that’s about the extent of it. Except for Miss BlakOpal, of course, as I do happen to be her IT department :-)

That said, I’m very excited indeed about the next steps ahead. BlakOpal’s first machinima video on her new machine came out looking great, and I’m looking forward to seeing more videos from her soon. Additionally, we’re both bubbling with excitement over ideas for outfits and builds, and I’m looking forwards to some big improvements in computing/rendering power on our next system upgrade (once certain hardware is released and we’ve saved enough lindens). There will hopefully be a couple new shoppe locations in there as well. It’s going to be an exciting month - I’m excited.