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Mesh & the Tyranny of Size: How Mesh Might Change Second Life Culture

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While other ongoing stories are still... ongoing, four weeks ago the much awaited release of Mesh to the full Second Life grid happened. It was right on time, according to Rod Humble's previously given timeline for release. Though "right on time" is sort of relative, as mesh had been held up in beta for an inordinately long time before release, due to viewer follies involving V2 and adoption of the codebase.

Be that as it may, it rolled out at the end of summer as predicted, though not without some challenges, causing some to speculate that the release may have been rushed in order to make that pre-ordained deadline. There are a fair number JIRA filed on mesh and related topics and the most ironic bug of all seems to be an incompatibility between new, high end Nvidia video cards and mesh enabled viewers, relating to Linden Lab's use of outdated and deprecated OpenGL technology. In short, the people with the newest, fastest hardware may not be able to run a mesh viewer at all (this puts a crimp in my new video card plans..). until a fix is in. That fix has been said to be a top priority at the Lab, so I'm sure it's coming, but it is not in as of this writing.

When the timeline was first announced, I wrote an overview containing some of the potential pros and cons of mesh. If you're still unfamiliar with it, I suggest a catch up, here. So far, it's been a mixed bag. Though a surprising number of viewers have jumped on the mesh bandwagon (even some V1 based viewers (Cool Viewer, and soon to be in Phoenix as well), due to the endless amount of work done by Henri Beauchamp, the mesh viewer code has still not been adopted by the bulk of the SL user base. When you aren't using a mesh viewer, mesh objects simply don't show up properly. But since the userbase is strongly divided on who can see them at all, some sim owners are choosing to ban mesh from their sims, rather than run the risk of people seeing things improperly. In some cases this is not really so far fetched, as with mesh clothing, a deformed mesh can lead to an avatar looking as though they are wearing no clothes at all, risking sanctions depending on the rating of the region. It has drawn battle lines between people who are interested in the upgrade, and people who aren't (for various reasons, notably performance).

But speaking of "not being able to see them at all", I have a demonstration photo. The hair I'm wearing is mesh. It's actually quite lovely, and comes from Wasabi Pills. But if you're not in a viewer that renders mesh, you would never know that.

Here's what the hairstyle looks like in a nonmesh viewer:

Second Life Non mesh viewer

Until mesh is more widely adopted, people might look a little strange out there on the grid.

Mesh Limitations

I should say up front that generally speaking, I am pro mesh. 3d modeling has always been an integral part of my trained design process, so anything that creates greater possibilities in shape and interactivity, I think is generally speaking, a good thing. Others disagree, and that's fine. I think there's some valid reasons for *not* being pro mesh, but I want to state my personal position up front so it's not misunderstood (again). But I do have a concern about mesh, specifically as it relates to clothing and avatar accessories like hair. Because mesh has some serious limitations, and those limitations have the potential to drastically alter SL culture- perhaps not for the better.

The thing about mesh when it comes to things you wear, or things you attach to your avatar, is that it is not like a traditional attachment. You cannot alter its position. You cannot resize it. You cannot recolor it. You cannot do anything at all with it other than wear it. In SL, where anyone can take on any shape or size they wish (often changing it at a whim) this lack of flexibility is problematic. It creates an environment that until now, has not really existed in SL, where the avatar is required to conform to the clothing and not the other way around. I worry about how it's going to change things.

The Alpha Layer

One of the ways content creators can get around this limitation without (in theory) forcing people to change their shape is with the use of an alpha layer. An alpha layer is a transparent layer that will make whatever is underneath it invisible. So, this will block out any parts of an avatar that might "poke through" problematically otherwise. Second Life has been using alpha layers for a while now, most notably on shoes. Previously, this was done with Invisiprims, which were, as the name suggests, invisible primitives. But they had problems, most notably, that if you were anywhere there were other transparent textures, you would experience a phenomenon called Alpha Occlusion, where the computer, not knowing which transparency to render in front, would show the invisiprim as a transparent "box" around the foot, obscuring the texture behind it. You can see that here, by my right foot. The curtains behind me have a transparent portion of the texture (the area that's clear). Because of this, the invisiprim in my shoe causes an occlusion error:

Invisiprim Alpha Occlusion

Alpha layers eliminate that problem. But they have the potential to cause others. If you don't know how to make your own alpha that is sized to your shape, you sometimes wind up with alpha layers that are intended for people of a different size, which causes momentary trouble until either a) you create your own or b) you move the attachment (in this case the shoe) into a position where it isnt a problem anymore. Like this:

Alpha Mis Size

My right foot shows you that this alpha texture was made on someone much, much taller than me (and it was). However, this is easily fixed by either making my own, or barring that, simply moving the shoe up so it is in the correct location, as it is on my left foot.

But mesh attachments, unlike these shoes (which are sculpted), are not adjustable in ANY way. You cannot even move them, never mind resize them. So if the alpha layer does not fit you, your only choice is to have one made for your own personal shape, or deal with the alpha occlusion issue. Let's go back to that mesh hair for a second.

Alpha Misize MEsh

As you can see, this hair has an alpha layer that does not fit my head quite right. But because the hair is mesh, I cannot alter it. I cannot even move it to attempt to solve the problem in the way I would the shoes. My only option is to create a new alpha layer, that fits my head more exactly. Since it is unreasonable to think that every creator would create an alpha layer for every possible sized head in SL (if it were even possible), people's only option would be to either self-create, live with the occlusion, pay someone to make them a custom alpha (whole new market, folks), or simply choose not to wear mesh hair. For me, this is a simple fix. For other people, perhaps not so much.

Mesh attachments aren't like traditional attachments, and because of that they cannot be moved from their fixed postion. Sometimes that causes problems when your avatar moves. I took these shots whilst dancing. You can see that at times, my forehead pokes through the front of the mesh, and from the back there's some weird rumpling going on I can't do anything about.



But hair can at least be sized pretty reasonably. That's been going on for years. Many designers choose to make a small/medium/large size of hair to avoid the use of resize scripts and eliminate (most of) the need for hand sizing, particularly for people who are awkward with Second Life building controls. So although mesh hair has some problems, they are not insurmountable, nor are they likely to cause real problems.

The part that worries me is clothes.

The Tyranny of Sizing

Up until now, clothing could generally be altered to fit any shape you decided to have. The sheer array of possible shapes are endless, and so too are the avatars that use them. From ultra tall, very attenuated model figures that are similar to model drawings (ten heads high), to furry shapes, to very hippy, or very busty or very muscular or all of those, fat, short, and everything in between, to people who try to mimic their RL proportions as closely as possible. Because prim and sculpted parts could be adjusted, though admittedly not always easily for certain problems, at least it was technically possible to get clothing to fit.

But mesh clothing is not adjustable *at all*. Period. In any way. That brings a new element into SL. Clothing sizes. For the first time, the designer of the clothing determines absolutely what shapes you can have to fit into their clothing. With that comes bias- both cultural and aesthetic bias, as well as simple *time* bias- there is only so much time one can devote to attempt to anticipate every possible shape. While there is no question that dedicated high quality designers will do their best to make sure that everyone has a shot at the mesh ring, as it were, in many places it's going to fail. I worry about a mesh clothing culture cutting down on what shapes are "acceptable" in SL in order to be fashionable. Goodness knows we get enough of that in real life. It's bad enough that people with "unacceptable" shapes get snide commentary in SL *NOW*, be they "too fat", "too short", "too skinny" or "too realistic" (as in RL sizes and proportions). It's an ugly part of RL that I would just as soon not see replicated in SL.

Just like with hair, many designers will choose to alter shapes using alpha layers or inivisiprims. This already happens with SL corsetry. Sometimes you'll find alphas and invisiprims don't quite fit you, like in the example below:

See through corset 1

But because these items are adjustable attachments, this is easily fixed. Ok, well at least possibly fixed. Admittedly this took a while and a little headdesking, but it is doable:

Corset fixed 1

Corset fixed 2

What To Know About Mesh Clothing

There's a few things to keep in mind before you leap into purchasing mesh clothing. It's good to know, for example, that meshes are linked to bone length, so height isnt a problem. In fact one of the advantages of mesh clothing is that you won't have to worry about it being too long or too short, which can be a big problem with things like prim skirts (where the waist fits, but the length is too long- been there too many times to count).. Mesh dresses fit themselves to the length of your body. But they do not fit themselves to the flesh you put on it. That sizing is set by the designer, and depending on their sizes, they may not have one that will work for you.

There was a new mesh clothing release at Pixel Dolls today, and since I was writing this anyway (holy crap how do people run fashion blogs? This photography takes forever!) I figured I'd made it my first piece of mesh clothing. I ran down there and grabbed the Tropico dress in black. We'll look at in in a second But first, here's some things you should look for in a mesh outfit:

1. A Demo. I am, admittedly, not a fan of demos. I usually just buy what I want and fight with it later. But there IS NO FIGHTING with mesh. You cannot alter it *in any way*. I cannot stress this enough. So a demo is CRUCIAL. Get a demo. Try it first.

2. A glitch layer. A glitch layer is a layer of normal system clothing that matches the mesh clothing over it. It's there in case a body part "pokes through" so it's not obvious.

3. If you have a shape that is larger than average in places, you may find that solid color clotheslook best. This is because meshes stretch, like a stretchy fabric. When they do that, the texture stretches and deforms also. A solid color is just that- solid, so there's no worry about the pattern deforming. But when it comes to patterns, any stretching will be very obvious.

4. Does it include an alpha layer? If so, you can assume that the designer's intent is to fit your shape to their outfit, but at least you don't actually have to change your shape itself, provided the alpha layer fits your body. It's a personal call as to whether or not that's okay with you. ALso, they may be including *an entirely different shape* to wear with their outfit- same thing applies. In cases like corsetry, which can be expected to alter your shape, that ,ight be logical. However for other garments, altering your shape is a way for the designer to not have to worry about the issue of sizing. This lack of worry comes with a price- it means that the avatar will be required to change for the clothing, and not the other way around.

So back to the mesh dress. Overall it works on my shape, but that's primarily due to the creator's wise choice in creating a glitch layer. If it didn't have one, this dress simply *would not fit*, as my hips would be too wide.

Since it does, however, it works just fine, and it's a pretty dress:

Mesh Dress 1

But to illustrate what I mean about pattern deformation, this shot as taken with just my AO on. Look at the bottom of the skirt:

Mesh Dress 2

There's no way to avoid that stretching other than to change poses/positions, in my case. But if you have an avatar with different proportions, the pattern stretching may be a problem for you if it's in a more obvious place.

The Advantages of Mesh Clothing

While I am admittedly worried about how the introduction of mesh sizing will change SL fashion culture, there are some advantages to mesh as well. One of them is the fact that you no longer have to worry about height. For me, with a much shorter than average avatar (I use my RL proportions for mine) issues with height/waist incompatibility are a constant issue. In the case of prim skirts, often when the waist fits, the length is a foot or more too long, and because of how prim skirts are constructed, fixing this problem is at *best* a time consuming process. If you are not experienced with it, it may very well venture unto impossibility.

Another advantage is the fact that you can actually sit normally in a mesh dress. To illustrate, here I am sitting in the dress I got from Pixel Dolls:

Mesh Dress sitting

It looks basically, like a dress. However, compare it to a traditionally constructed dress:

Non Mesh Dress

You can see the prim parts settle around the body, revealing the glitch layer. In fact, you can even see where the glitch layer ends and my ankle begins (see the arrow). This has always been a limitation of prim skirts. System skirts have an additional issue- they make you look larger unless you alter your shape, as they add thickness to your body that you didn't originally intend. Admittedly though, I refuse to alter my shape for any clothing, and so I am okay with my behind looking bigger in a system skirt. I'll cope.

Finally, mesh allows designers to experiment with clothing styles they could not create well previously- fishtail dresses with long trains, like Morticia Addams (and if someone wants to get on making me one I'd gladly pay for it)., where the ends trail naturally and the fabric drapes properly. It allows shoes and boots that flex naturally at the ankle and knee- which is a big deal we haven't had previously (though again, I worry about sizing for people with larger body types, as calf thickness can be an issue).

I don't think that mesh clothing will replace prims and sculpts. It can't, because there's just too many body types out there, and just too many different people with their own preferences. Again, I am generally pro mesh, particularly where it concerns things like building parts, and accessories. But when you introduce the concept of clothing sizes, you also introduce bias on many levels, and I worry that "fashion bias" will have a negative impact on creativity and culture. I would hate to see people's freedom to be whatever size and shape they want to be curtailed by fashion. But in the meantime I encourage people to go out and try it and see what you think, as it is certainly very different from what we've had until now.

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