Friday, July 22, 2011

Another Fine Mesh

One of the most talked about new additions to Second Life is mesh. This hasn’t been implemented on the main grid yet, but is still in public beta. Still, it’s close enough that Linden Lab has announced it. The original date announced for mesh was July, but that’s slipped. I’m now hearing “August”.

What IS “mesh”? Second Life objects are made of geometric primitives, or “prims” for short. These simple shapes are easy to describe with mathematical expressions, which makes rendering them faster and easier. We have all, I think, seen wireframe representations of 3D models. These can be a lot more complex than the simple shapes possible with prims…and that’s what mesh is. A new way of building arbitrarily-shaped objects for Second Life.

Like the other arbitrary object type, sculpties, mesh objects are created using third party software outside of SL and then imported. You can use any 3D modeling program that can export a model in the Collada file format.  I use LightWave 3D for modeling, but unless you want to invest a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in a professional 3D modeling and animation package, the free Blender software is what you should take a look at first.

The promise of mesh has builders and creators wild with excitement. However, there’s at least one very tricky part of this whole issue, and I am very afraid that Linden Lab will fumble the ball, as they so often seem to do. The tricky part is this: how do you equate a mesh object and a prim object?

As we all know, the thing that makes virtual land valuable is that it supports prims. The more land one has, the more prims one can rez on it, up to a maximum of 15,000 prims per region. How do mesh objects fit into this economic model? Rather arbitrarily, it would seem. Every mesh object is given a “Prim Equivalent” value, or PE. What that value is depends on a complicated scoring system. The size of the mesh object and the number of vertices (the level of detail, in other words), determine how many prims the object is “worth”.

Creators are already objecting to the formula that LL seems to want to use, one that will cause, for example, a mesh tree to have a prim equivalent score of around 500. That high a value would make mesh impractical for anything except avatar attachments, which are not counted against a region's prim allowance. In addition, mesh will not be flexible, which will make it unusable for realistic clothing or hair.

One can build three identical objects, one from ordinary prims, another with sculpted prims, and the third as a mesh, and get three very different prim values. This worries me, but not because it’s not logical, or unfair. No, what worries me is that the act of creation is about to become MUCH more complicated. For one thing, the third party software used to create meshes can be difficult to master. I recently started dusting off my LightWave 3D skills and ran head on into the fact that, without regular practice, I had forgotten nearly all I’d ever learned about that massive software package. Maya and 3DS Max aren’t any easier. Not only that, but once you have created the mesh object, choosing the settings for how you import it into SL involves knowing quite a lot about a number of non-obvious object properties. Choices must be made that affect the object’s final appearance and its prim equivalent value.

Anyone can rez a cube in Second Life. It’s not too much harder to learn one’s way around the building tools and create very presentable objects. In general, SL has always been an “easy” platform for people to create on, and for. If creation is made more difficult, there will be a lot fewer creators. And that’s what is bothering me. If creating high quality objects in SL becomes the province of a small number of highly skilled specialists, what will happen to the virtual economy?

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