As mentioned recently, things have been busy down at Linden Lab. While search is scheduled to be revamped, the other big news, announced on May 31 was the promised timeline for the introduction of Mesh to the live Second Life grid. According to the announcement, mesh will be available gridwide by the end of the summer.
For those who do not create content in Second Life (and in fact, for many who do), mesh is a confusing unknown; a mystery that has become so convoluted it’s a lot like… advanced calculus. If you’re already familiar with the ins and outs of mesh, you’re way ahead of the game. But for those who are still fumbling in the dark (and frankly, that’s the vast majority of people), I’m going to do my best to explain this all so it makes some kind of sense.
What is Mesh, and how is it different?
In order to understand what mesh is, it’s probably best to explain what it isn’t. Originally in Second Life there was only one way to build things- prims. Prim is an abbreviation for the word “primitive”, which means a standard 3d building block. They come in a variety of shapes, and there’s a limited(but reasonably extensive) number of ways you can manipulate them to form larger, more complex objects. Anyone in SL has the ability (if not the desire or talent) to build using prims. They are a part of everyone’s viewer, using the build menu, which looks like this:
While you can go a long way only building using prims(and people did for years), eventually you run into some problems. Complex organic shapes are very difficult. Because the ways one can manipulate prims are fixed, many times it’s sort of like wanting to use clay, and being stuck with building blocks. There’s just some things you can’t do, and many more you can, but it isn’t worth it.
The reason it’s often not worth it is because of how many prims it takes to create the object. Even if you could eventually come up with whatever it was you wanted, prims are a fixed resource in Second Life. Each full sim only gets 15,000. This seems like a lot. It isn’t- when you build with any complexity you start running out of them quickly, especially on a fully built sim. So the quest is always for the most complexity you can get, while using the fewest number of prims to do it. It’s a complex puzzle. The longer you build in SL, the more adept you get at saving prims. One here, 3 there… It adds up. But there’s only so much you can do.
Because of these limitations, SL began to run into a ceiling in terms of what was possible with prims alone. Compared to other 3d platforms it began to look dated.
In 2007, a new kind of object was allowed on the Second Life grid, called sculpted prims, or sculpts, or more commonly, sculpties. The introduction of sculpts solved some of the problems that simple prim building could not. You could create much more complicated, organic shapes and objects, and use significantly fewer prims to do them.
But sculpties cannot be created within Second Life itself. They must be created in an outside 3d graphics program. The most commonly one used is Blender, a free, open souce program. But Blender suffers from a notably confusing UI(it’s supposedly been improved somewhat recently), and those unfamiliar with 3d modeling can easily find it too difficult to pick up, let alone master, on one’s own. Unfortunately, most other 3d solutions come at significant monetary expense, so Blender became the go-to program on that basis alone.
Furthermore, sculpted objects take more processing power to render. Therefore, their rez time (the time it takes for them to render inworld) is often greater, and can be the source of lag in a location with a large number of sculpted prims. When a sim is busy or crowded with objects, this time can increase even more, and people with older, less powerful computers can have significant problems rezzing the scene fully.
But due to the significant prim savings that sculpties represented, and their ability to create much more complex objects, they were quickly adopted by a large number of content creators for everything from parts of clothes, to hair, to houses, to furniture and everything in between.
Still, if you were willing to figure out blender, you too could enter into the sculpty market. If not, there are plenty of sculptors who sell their products with full permissions to other creators, creating another, previously nonexistent(and thriving) market.
One More Step
But in the world of computer graphics, 2007 is an age ago. Other 3d platforms and games in the meantime began using mesh objects as the basis for their visuals. Second Life was lagging behind. Talk about mesh has gone on for more than a year, with the project starting and stalling again at various points due to a number of problems.
Essentially, mesh is a far more complex 3 dimensional object than a sculpty. It also allows for much more detailed and complex manipulation, essentially advancing what can be created by orders of magnitude. It is based on a file format called Collada, and can be used for everything from making trees, to creating entire avatars with more realism and complexity that have been possible thus far.
Why is Mesh Important?
Mesh has the potential to be a game changer for Second Life. That doesn’t mean it will be, it means it has the potential to be. This is a huge project for Linden Lab, and an enormous amount of time, money and energy has gone into bringing it to fruition. It should be noted that mesh has been in beta, available on the Aditi test grid for months- well longer than the vast majority of Linden Lab projects remain in beta. In fact the Lab is well, well known for pushing projects to the live grid LONG before they’re ready (oh, hi Marketplace and v2) so for mesh to have been in testing so long is a significant departure from standard operating procedure for the Lab.
The potential of mesh is huge. It could, for example create boots that flex realistically at the ankle(this seems like a small thing- trust me, this gets out on the grid and that small thing will be a HUGE seller.) It could create entire, fantastic avatars that to date have seemed clunky and ill fitting. It would be a particular boost to the virtual architecture industry, as more organic and complex shapes and structures could be created with far less effort.
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But… It’s Not All Sunshine and Roses
Before anyone gets too excited, it should be noted that there are significant issues surrounding mesh and its introduction to the grid.
First of all, there seem to be two opposing schools of thought as regards mesh. One is that it will be the greatest thing in the history of ever, and the other is that it will be a giant, expensive flop. Which side you tend to be on is usually related to where you stand on one or more of the problems surrounding mesh:
- Mesh cannot be seen by older (1.x) viewers. One of the reasons 2.x was rushed to the grid as quickly as it was, was due to the mesh project. However 2.x was not quickly adopted by the SL community (to say the least) and it pushed the mesh project ever further back. Viewers that cannot render mesh objects will see them as a triangle. Again, this is just another thing in a long series of things that makes 1.x use more and more of a frustrating(some might say losing) proposition. The official Linden Lab 1.23 viewer has no plans to incorporate mesh viewing, and so it is up to third party viewer developers to try to backport that code (if it’s even possible, and if they think it’s worth bothering with.)
However, the steadfastness of some to change to a 2.x based viewer will slow the growth and expansion of mesh, creating a sort of circular logic- “I won’t use mesh until everyone can see it.” vs. “If no one uses it, no one will be encouraged to change viewers in order to see it.” It goes round and round in circles like that.
- Things start to get even uglier when you understand that what mesh does is create an even smaller(sculpties did this too, but this significantly furthers this process) pool of people with the skills to create this kind of content. Though Blender will support and export Collada files, most programs are more professionally oriented, like 3d Studio Max, Form Z and Maya, largely putting the realm of mesh into the hands of professionally trained designers and computer graphics specialists. As you may well imagine, this does not sit well with others, who worry (whether with good reason or not remains to be seen) that building and sale of content within Second Life is headed into a realm where only a few people will be able to do it well enough to make sales. It pits the professional against the hobbyist, with money on the table at stake. It’s gonna get ugly.
- But the biggest problem with mesh is that there’s an absolutely ENORMOUS amount of pre-existing mesh objects (many of them free to download) already existing on the web, on sites like Tubrosquid and Renderosity. The issue of ripped, stolen content, already pre-existing on the web being uploaded to Second Life en masse, furthering the previously discussed issues with copyright and application of the DMCA are HUGE. In fact, a number of photos of stolen IP content have already shown up from the beta grid at Aditi featuring World of Warcraft models and characters from well known anime series.
Because of the potential for rampant IP theft, Linden Lab has done a number of things, some of them really inconveniencing legitimate creators, like disallowing UUID swapping. But the latest one to come down the pipe is the fact that in order to upload mesh assets to the live Second Life grid, you must have payment info on file (PIOF) with the Lab. Basically it means that the lab seeks to assure no one can truly upload mesh content and remain anonymous, in order to be able to identify potential IP infringers should they need to do so. It also creates a situation where it is very difficult for someone to lose their upload privileges and then re-establish them in five minutes on another alternate account.
The potential for IP theft to take place in extraordinary amounts is great here, and this is likely only the beginning of the list of ways the Lab will have to attempt to combat it. However, it should be noted that many existing creators are angry about the fact that to date, Linden Lab’s record for protecting original content created by existing residents has been spotty at best, and it would seem that the Lab only really gets interested in IP when fearing the deep pockets of things like the Disney legal department(who are notoriously ruthless and will spend insane amounts of money to protect their IP rights).
What To Expect
At this point, the Lab claims they will begin rolling mesh out to Angi(the live grid) in limited fashion in July, and expect all regions to be able to upload and access mesh assets by the end of the summer. This may be slightly overly optimistic, as no rollout goes smoothly and for the Lab, that seems to be doubly so. So fall may be a more realistic assessment.
But things are definitely about to change significantly in Second Life. How it all shakes out is something we’ll just have to find out when we get there.