Hang onto your hats, there are BIG changes coming soon. Or maybe not so big, depending on what sort of computer and graphics you are using for Second Life.
If you follow the news about upcoming changes to SL, you may have heard mysterious terms like "server side baking", "server side appearance", or "materials processing". I'm going to try to explain what these are, what they mean to you, and how to get ready for them.
Server side baking and server side appearance are two words for the same thing. Our avatars are made up of several texture layers...the skin, the undershirt, shirt, jacket, eyes, and so on. If our computers had to download all these textures every time we looked at ourselves or at another avatar, Second Life would be a lot slower than it already is! So, these textures are "baked" into a much smaller number of composite textures...your eyes, head, upper body and lower body. You see this baking process when you change one of these clothing layers -- your avatar becomes blurry for a few moments and then (if all goes well) comes into sharp focus.
If you watch carefully, you will see that this process actually happens TWICE. This is because your computer and graphics card are doing the baking. First you see the result locally, and then, after it is transmitted back to SL's servers, you see the result from in world.
But, because of all the changes and upgrades that have been made to SL's graphics in the last year or so, this process is failing more often, and the result is a "cloudy" avatar -- you appear as a mere cloud of vapor -- or other forms of "bake fail", which can include gray skin, or may result in you seeing yourself differently from how others see you. ("Hey Lindal, did you know you are naked?" "EEEK!")
Server side baking/server side appearance will move the job of baking textures off your computer and onto LL's servers. The hope is that this will greatly reduce the number of bake fail issues that have plagued us all, and speed up performance as well. This has been tested, and is nearly ready for rolling out to the main grid. LL has said it could happen as early as July 9.
BUT! You must have a viewer that is capable of working with this new baking method. If you don't, you will not see yourself or others correctly. The official SL viewer is up to date and ready for SSA, and so is the latest edition of Firestorm (4.4.1) If you are using another viewer, either make sure it has been updated in readiness for SSA, or keep one of the above viewers handy as a backup.
Materials processing is another new feature we can expect soon, either with SSA or shortly afterwards. There is a project viewer from LL which already has this feature, and you can download it and see what all the fuss is about.
Textures in Second Life have always been rather basic, compared to most major 3D modeling and rendering software. We have only a basic color layer, plus a rudimentary method of applying a few pre-made "bump maps" to the surface, and three levels of "shininess", none of which supports real reflections.
Materials processing will greatly improve this situation. I have not yet played with it myself, but the results I've seen posted by others show that textures can now look much more realistic, without having to add a lot of "tricks" and workarounds in programs like Photoshop. Soon, creators will be making even more amazing Stuff for us, using these new tools.
The downside to all of these new improvements is the usual one...Linden Lab does not have the world's greatest track record when it comes to implementing new features. As often as not, the new capabilities come with a significant number of new bugs. So, keep your fingers crossed and your Grid Crash Protection Boxes handy!