Friday, December 30, 2011

Inventory: Lag Demon, Yes or No?

A lot of us who have been in Second Life for a while have embarrassingly large inventories.  Mine recently went over 29,000 items, and I've embarked on a program to trim the darn thing down to a more manageable size.  But mine is far from the largest collection of Stuff out there.  I know people with 50,000, 60,000, or even 100,000 or more items!

I heard, at some remove, that Linden Lab once recommended that inventories be kept below 4,000 items.  This seems ridiculous, and I'm not sure that LL ever actually said that.  The Library alone...the folder of "starter items" every avatar over 2,000 items.

Still, a trim inventory does help teleports, I can report that from personal experience.  My alts, with not much more than the Library in their inventory, log on and off and teleport much faster than I do myself.

And the other day, someone passed on another unsubstantiated claim...that having a smaller inventory can help reduce lag.  When I posted this thought in a group chat, some computer-savvy people pooh-poohed the idea.  After all, the inventory is maintained on a separate server, not the region server.  But I can't help thinking that there may be something to this notion.  If a smaller inventory lets you teleport faster, then there is something about it that the region servers are doing something with.  And it would follow that a smaller inventory could possibly also reduce lag while in a region.

We'll see.  I took some frame rate measurements recently.  Using Firestorm, when I am in my skybox, I see about 22fps; on the ground at Masocado, around 10 fps.  I'll report back after I've thrown out some of this junk I'm lugging around.

Meanwhile, there is another bug you all should know about.  It appears that some people are not receiving off line IMs or inventory offers (including purchases from the Marketplace).  The workarounds for this are:
1.  Be sure you are on line and not in Busy mode when making purchases from the Marketplace or when people are sending you things, OR...
2.  If you have an empty Block (Mute) list, block someone, or some object.  The people experiencing this bug seem to have one thing in common -- nobody on their Block lists. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Outrunning the Hardware?

Over the last year, Linden Lab has introduced a lot of new features to make Second Life more attractive.  We now have Mesh objects, and options in the viewer to enable depth of field, shadows, and spotlights.  Additional functionality has been added with more flexibility in how we can attach things to our avatars, and the ability to put multiple things on a single clothing layer.  Functions like Search and the Profile have been expanded and linked more closely to the Web.

Along with all these improvements have come increasing demands on the performance of the computers we use to access SL.  My computer is about three years old, but it is still quite powerful.  It has a quad core i920 processor, 12 GB of RAM, more than a terabyte of hard drive storage, and an NVIDIA 560Ti graphics card.  I have Verizon's fastest FIOS data link.  Despite an impressive set of specifications, my frame rate when using Mesh-enabled viewers is often so low that SL becomes unusable.  Not only does movement on the screen slow to slide-show speeds, but even the entry of text begins to lag behind my typing ability.

The problem of avatar textures persistently failing to rez has gotten so widespread that the Firestorm viewer has a new pie menu function, "Tex Refresh" that you can apply to yourself or to other gray avatars that you see on your screen.

It's not just me.  The forums are full of posts from people who can't log in, or can't teleport, or can't see the world around them, or can't get their avatar to look like anything except a cloud.  Last night, I met two newcomers who had just gotten new laptops for Christmas and were trying Second Life for the first time.  These were brand new computers, and yet they could not see anything around them but gray shapes.

It's not just the official viewer, either.  ALL of the mesh enabled viewers I've tried have these problems.  Viewer 3, Phoenix, Firestorm, and Nirans.

Is anyone at Linden Lab testing the software with real world computers, on real world internet connections? When Viewer 2 was released, the vision was supposedly to make SL more accessible to Everyman.  Somehow, that has failed to occur.  Instead, SL is becoming LESS accessible.  Unless you are a computer geek with the very latest custom gaming rig, and highly knowledgeable about how to tweak and troubleshoot your machine for maximum performance, Second Life has become a very unfriendly application.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas to All!

It's hard to believe that I've been posting to this blog since May, and it's gratifying that you all have at least glanced at what I had to say almost 10,000 times!  It's been an exciting year, with both good times and bad, and I'm looking forward to 2012!

I hope you are too, and that you'll continue to share our joint adventure of exploring, and creating, virtual worlds.  May you have a joyous and blessed holiday season, both real and virtual.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Machinima: Second Life Videos

I'm sooo excited!  Yesterday, I shot, edited, and published my first Second Life video.  You would think that a person with about a decade of experience in Real Life video creation would have done this long before now.  What can I say?  Sometimes, I'm very slow.  Now that I've finally done it though, I am kicking myself for not trying this long ago.

The process of using a virtual world (or any video game engine that has player characters) to make movies and video is called "machinima", a neologism that I hate.  You can get a general overview of it from the FAQ page at the Academy of Machinima Arts.  For a hilarious example of machinima, check out the "Red vs. Blue" series made using Halo soldiers.

The thing I filmed (Taped?  So many of our terms are getting technologically obsolete.  "Captured," perhaps) was a Trans Siberian Orchestra concert performed in SL by a very talented TSO tribute group, Rising Star Entertainment.   I didn't plan to make a video, I just attended to enjoy the show.  But as I watched and listened, I realized that still pictures wouldn't do a very good job of capturing the flavor of the event, and decided to try to get video.

I used a screen capture program called FRAPS as my recorder.  To move my point of view smoothly, I used the Flycam function of my Space Navigator 3D "mouse" device.  Once I had opened FRAPS and set a couple of things, the whole thing was as simple as hitting the F9 function key and then being a bit gentle with moving the camera with the Space Navigator.

FRAPS can capture audio too, which is great for recording a live performance like this one.  I captured about three songs before Real Life intruded and I had to leave.

The next step was to edit the video.  Editing is something that I love and dread...because, like creating a great retouched image in Photoshop, it is both a satisfying creative process and a very intense, all-absorbing one.  My editing software is Sony's Vegas Pro, but you can use the free Windows Movie Maker and get good results.  I took the three song clips that I'd recorded and picked the one I liked best.  Then I chopped out the parts of the video clip that were not very good...unplanned, un-motivated camera moves, poorly lit bits, and the like...and filled the gaps with video snippets taken from the other song clips. 

I also found that, unlike the Snapshot camera in the viewer, FRAPS records the entire screen, including any windows or HUDs that you happen to have open.  As a result, I wound up doing a good bit of cropping to get a (relatively) clean set of images.  Then I added titles and credits and saved the final version.  While I was scratching my head and trying to figure out how I should render the final movie for uploading to YouTube, I discovered that the nice people at Sony had done my work for me.  There was a button in Vegas for "Upload to YouTube".  Wow, one button ease of use!
So I did, and you can see the result here:  Trans Siberian Orchestra in Second Life

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Linden Realms

Sigh.  Another day, another controversy.

I’m very much undecided about the new Linden Realms game within Second Life.  Public opinion is divided, too.

First of all, what is it?  Linden Realms is a treasure hunt type game that you can access from within the Second Life virtual world.  You can’t get there by an ordinary teleport – you go to one of several “Linden Realms portals,” walk through an archway that is reminiscent of a “Stargate” type teleport, and find yourself in Linden Realms.  Or maybe not…I tried the portal that’s located at Welcome Island Public and nothing happened when I walked through it.  Possibly it wasn’t live, or perhaps the game area was full and the entry was temporarily disabled.  I don’t know, because it didn’t give me any sort of error message at all.
A Non-Working Portal at Welcome Island

In Linden Realms.  Note Score HUD at the top
Anyway, when and if you get there, a HUD automatically attaches to your screen.  This HUD is used to keep score.  The object of the game is to collect crystals, while avoiding being killed by Rock Monsters and other hazards.  A lot of people think this is fun, at least as a short term amusement.  Others think that it’s a game aimed at about a 12-year old level…and point out that there are no 12 year olds in Second Life. 

Well, yes…the game is cute.  And yes, compared to other games out there, it’s very simplistic.  We are not talking World of Warcraft here, or even Myst.  There are several possible reasons for this, and depending on your level of cynicism, you can take your pick:
  • The CEO of Linden Lab also made The Sims – another rather simplistic game.  Linden Realms is a reflection of the top management’s vision, or lack of it.
  • The game was conceived as a development platform for new scripting tools that LL says will soon be made available to Residents to design their own games.
  •  LL only intends the game to be used as an introduction to Second Life, a sort of orientation/training exercise.
  •  Another epic fail by LL at attempting to develop content.

Some people complain that LL is, once again, competing with its own residents.  Why not just develop the darn tools and let the residents get on with making GOOD games with them?  Instead, LL is pushing Linden Realms hard in the blogs, the Destination Guide, and even putting portals at the Welcome Islands.

The thing is, Linden Realms IS a pretty good introduction to Second Life.  This is an answer to all the people who ask me, “How do you play this game?”  Let’s set aside, for a moment, all the scope and possibility of an open-ended virtual world, and just GIVE them a game to play.  In doing so, they can learn the basics of movement, clicking objects, getting things, and communicating.  Of course, you wouldn’t want people to think that Linden Realms is ALL there is to Second Life, but it can serve as an introductory exercise, instead of simply tossing the newcomer into the wide world and saying, “go forth and use your imagination”.

There is even an incentive.  You can exchange the crystals you collect for $L.  A perennial question from newcomers is “How do I get money on here?”  With the demise of most camping, money trees, and gambling, there really haven’t been all that many ways for new residents to get money other than taking the plunge and buying some $L with their credit card.  Linden Realms gives newcomers the chance to accumulate enough $L to begin to enjoy the delights of shopping and purchasing virtual goods.

What nobody really knows, and what’s causing a lot of us to feel uneasy, is what the Lab is REALLY thinking.  If LR is intended as a newcomer experience, a training exercise…well then, that’s great.  On the other hand, if LL is thinking that Second Life should be more “like a game”, or that it is important for LL to provide content for SL, then they are (once again) going off down a blind alley, failing to see what Second Life really is, and failing to understand their own proper role. 

At least they are probably not thinking of themselves as competing with the residents financially this time, or not directly.  After all, they are giving $L away!  That’s very unusual.  Someone seems to have been farsighted enough to guess that giving newcomers a little virtual money could attract more people to SL, and get them to stick around longer. 

It’s this last point that gives me hope.  On the whole, I think I have to say Linden Realms is a good idea.  Kudos, LL!

Now…get busy and fix the lag!

Here's a Portal location for you!

Edited to add:  Couldn't they have made the darn trees phantom?  Ouch!
Edited:  As of December 22, the portal at Welcome Island Public is live.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Not Now, I'm Busy!

Today it's back to basics for newcomers!  Specifically, let's talk about the Away and Busy modes.

"Away" or AFK just means you've stepped away from your keyboard for a moment.  It's polite to activate this if anyone is nearby, because it lets them know why you aren't responding to their remarks to you.

You can activate Away mode by simply minimizing the Second Life user interface window.  Or you can type "AFK" in local chat, without the quotes.  You can activate Away from the top menu by choosing Comm/Online Status/Away. Your avatar can be set to automatically enter Away mode after a set period of time; this is the same idea as having your computer turn off the screen or activate a screen saver if you haven't input anything for a while.  Un-minimizing the SL window, hitting a key or moving the mouse cancels Away mode. 
When Away mode is activated, your avatar appears to "fall asleep", and the word (Away) appears in the nametag over your head.  Some viewers give you the option to also force your avatar to sit while Away, which may be a bit more realistic than the "standing slump".  If your Animation Overrider contains high priority animations, it will override the Away "napping" animation, making it harder for people to see that you are Away.

Stop Poking Me!  Can't You See I'm Sleeping?
Busy mode tells people that you're...well, busy.  If someone IMs you, they will receive your Busy message. Nearby avatars can see you're Busy by the (Busy) notice that appears in your nametag.  Busy mode is used by creators to discourage people from bothering them while they are concentrating on making something.

There are a couple of problems with Busy mode.  For one thing, being in Busy mode does not stop the phone from ringing -- if someone IMs you, a tab or toast still appears and flashes at you, and you get an "incoming IM" sound.  If you are like me and can't resist answering every phone call, or at least seeing who it is, this is nearly as distracting as not being in Busy mode at all.

Busy Mode Notification Options
But the real danger of Busy mode is that, while it is active, nobody can give you anything.  This includes vendors and the Marketplace.  If you try to buy something while in Busy mode, delivery is attempted, but your avatar refuses it -- and the item vanishes into digital limbo.  You can set your UI to give you a warning notice if you forget and try to buy something while Busy, but that won't help you if you are buying something from the Marketplace.
All in all, I very seldom use Busy mode.  If someone calls and I'm busy, I just type a brusque "sry, busy ATM" and get on with it.  Sometimes, doing things yourself is easier, quicker, and safer than using an automated feature.  If I simply must have some solitude, I can log in with an alt or log in to another, quieter grid, or even use OpenSim in standalone mode to log into a region completely disconnected from the internet.