Every so often I start writing about Second Life and think to myself "You know, no matter what you say here, this is going to sound like a joke." Now would be one of those times.
However, I'm being serious when I say that in the new official Linden Lab Viewer, version 2.6.3, a new feature has been added called Enhanced Avatar Physics. In layman's terms, it means that using this new viewer (in advanced mode only- as I mentioned last week basic mode is completely nonfunctional for actual avatar editing) you can adjust bounce and jiggle of soft mesh body parts- breasts, bellies and rear ends.
This was announced by Samuel Linden on Thursday (it always seems to be a Thursday, someow), and already people are talking about it, downloading it, and trying it out.
The "New Feature" Argument
Some people are not so thrilled about this new feature. Not because they're prudes necessarily or have anything against watching things bounce around. But because this feature was created and rolled out at the expense of other problems that need to be fixed on the grid. It feels like a distraction technique- present people with something shiny to distract them from real issues at hand and the fact that they're still not being fixed. It should be noted that most of this argument doesn't work very well, as the team for fixing say, grid crossings are not the same lovely people who are working on making your ass shake. But a fair argument can be made about the fact that the Lab has yet to fix the overall avatar mesh, which is plagued with problems which have not been fixed, causing residents and merchants to constantly work around the issues.
But there are some good reasons for putting this feature out, not the least of which is it's already been done before...just far more creepily.
The Watcher and the Watched
A very similar, though not as minutely configurable feature was released in the Emerald viewer before the viewer project collapsed in the cataclysm now called Emeraldgate. The difference is in who gets to do the controlling.
In the Emerald version, you were controlling the physics of everyone else. No one else could see what settings you had created but you of course, and there was no way to differentiate one avatar from another. So whatever settings you had were global. The thing is that you were essentially deciding how other people's avatars were going to be seen by you in terms of bounce, jiggle and sway.
Now as a kind of a gag and a giggle that's not that big a deal. But when you start thinking of the mechanics of that it starts to get a little creepy. Should someone be able to decide those kinds of things for someone else's avatar? When you start thinking about how in some cases that would be wildly inappropriate (let's say on child avatars for example) you can see how another solution needed to be sought if this feature was going to continue on the grid at all. The Linden Lab version of the feature improves the feature by reversing the process, making each avatar control those parameters themselves and preventing others from making those decisions for you.
A Natural Look, and a New Industry
There are those, however that eagerly embrace this new feature, citing that it brings added realism to avatars that was previously missing. Let's have a video break to show how it looks and how to access the new controls: (lookout for the point in the video where physics are switched on/worn)
The new avatar physics settings can be saved as a wearable mesh, just like a skin, or a shirt. That's good news for shape makers, and they can now include settings with their products, giving them extra added value to those who are not comfortable with making their shapes themselves. In fact this feature has the potential to add an entirely new, previously non-existing market to the SL economy.
This may be the biggest and most obvious reason this feature was added. Let's face it, sex does sell and whatever puts eyeballs on the screen in SL or causes people to create a new account and keep it will be welcomed by the Lab. However for pre-existing adult businesses in SL, this new feature is a mixed bag.
Of Mesh and Prims
Because of the previously mentioned problems with overall avatar mesh, many people have opted to wear prim (solid) parts over their soft mesh avatar bits in order to solve some very real issues with the mesh as well as get a more realistic or enhanced look. Because the existing mesh paints shirts to your body, for example, they are incapable of behaving naturally. Have a look:
This is a photo of a dear friend of mine at the Cloisters in NYC. She's wearing a tshirt. It's behaving as you would expect. We will call her our control bee. But Second Life's avatar mesh can't currently do this simple thing on its own. When you wear a tshirt you get this result instead:
You'll notice that the SL mesh shirt doesn't behave normally. It's painted on, not stretching over the chest but following the mesh line. This is a problem when shirts don't have words on them specifically designed to allow for this problem on female avatars. They become unreadable. A fair market has come into play for cleavage enhancers which seek to somewhat work around this problem.
Many people also wear prim nipples, or piercings. It's important to know that these prim parts will not move when the soft avatar parts bounce. They will stay where they were, being left behind at every bump and jiggle. This includes bellybutton piercings, which will no longer actually stay in your bellybutton if your belly is set to jiggle. So the applications for this new physics feature are limited to avatars with no prim parts on the affected areas.
And finally, before anyone asks, no it won't work on male bits. Those are not part of the avatar mesh at all, and are always an attachment. So there will be no swing in your dingaling.
I'm hoping that this isn't just a distraction technique. I'm hoping that this is a sign that there's people actually interested in working on the many problems of the avatar mesh itself and that this is just the first sign.
Don't get me wrong- I'm not yet that optimistic. After all these years, these problems going away all of a sudden doesn't seem likely. But it's nice to hope for. I'd love for the Lab to prove me wrong. In the meantime gang, um.. Try not to give yourselves a black eye or anything.