Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Opensource avatars: Make Human

I've heard people talking about Make Human, and their opensource avatar-making tool, but I haven't had time to explore it for myself.  It was mentioned on SL Universe (SLU) today, with a link to the site, and so I thought I would share it here in advance of pootling with it myself, in case it comes in handy.  It reminds me that I have been meaning to do another round up of the free tools for all aspects of Second Life, as there are some more 3D modelling and animation tools available.

I expect there will be a lot of reviews over the next few weeks, and people will come back with the pros and cons for use specifically in Second Life.  The thread on SLU is probably one to watch. I must admit that I am quite fond of my avatar in SL and would find it hard to trade her in for a new one, however good.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Star Trek and the rights and wrongs of intellectual property in Second Life

Before I start this blog I should state that I am not a lawyer, I do not have any expertise in law and this blog is merely my opinion and not advice.

Fan builds - probably acceptable?

For those who have never been in a position to infringe someone's copyright, the law about intellectual property is something vague which mainly relates to pirated music and video, and if you don't use illegal downloads, it probably doesn't take much - or any - of your attention.  In the virtual world, where creation and uploading textures and images is so easy, it may suddenly become very relevant to your world in Second Life or OpenSim or any of the other SL-like virtual worlds which allow you to make and create things.  For many people (including me) it takes a while to sink in that if you upload a picture which you didn't take and don't own to Second Life and put it in a frame, you may be infringing someone's copyright.
Museums - probably like fan sites on the web

Eleven years ago, I didn't understand this automatically, I had to be taught.  It's become even more difficult to understand the written and unwritten rules of intellectual property as time has gone on.  Some companies have had a presence in Second Life and have left behind artefacts and objects which they produced.  Some things are not copyrightable in the real world - clothes, for example - and yet people get very hot under the collar if one SL creator makes something that looks like something another creator has made.  Sometimes it turns out that both have independently copied a real design in the real world.  As clothing is not able to be copyrighted in the real world, it would be very strange if the virtual version of it were subjected to more legal protections.

People use trademarked and copyrighted material all the time in Second Life, and so it becomes accepted that there may be people selling products that resemble real-world stars, real-world tv characters and their props and costumes.  Some people say that this encourages people to be interested in the real-world shows and may be helpful marketing; others say that any use of images and designs is an infringement of intellectual property and should be resisted.
Selling Star Trek stuff
My own opinion, and it is only an opinion, is that that there is no question that the intellectual property behind the designs of - for example - Star Trek in its various guises belongs to CBS Entertainment.  Taking their images and designs without permission or a licence and using them is wrong.  But the unwritten side of the rules is that CBS Entertainment tolerates and even promotes real world fan sites on their own website, possibly because they know that people who are really committed to the Star Terk franchise will buy a lot of their products and promoting a supportive community is a really good way of marketing those products too.  I don't know - it's the gap between the explicit letter of the law (all Star Trek stuff belong to us) and the unwritten laxity of fandom (but you can make yourself a Star Trek uniform and carry a papier mache tricorder and we won't prosecute you).

I don't know what CBS entertainment thinks of the huge number of fan builds and museums and replicas and role playing groups in Second Life.  Some people see them as infringing the copyright, plain and simple. However,  I see the fan builds and fan-made uniforms as the virtual extensions of the fan cosplay in real life.  As long as people have made their own star ship enterprise, or klingon head attachment or tricorder, I am not sure that it doesn't count as an artwork in its own right.

However, for those who are ripping commercial games and sites for meshes of Star Trek stuff, or selling uniforms and attachments without permission... that's a different thing.  It's the difference between making yourself a cosplay Captain Picard outfit and selling Captain Picard outfits on Ebay.

The law about intellectual property in the virtual world is new and relatively untested because no one thus far has made enough money to want to go into battle in court over whether IP rights for real life items like cars and motorrcycles extend into the virtual world automatically, or need claiming separately from real-world copyright design.  There is no question that using someone else's trademarked name for a design is wrong and protected by law in the real world and the virtual.  What is less certain is whether designs for cars and real world objects extend into the virtual world naturally or have to be asserted separately - whether they are the same thing if they look the same, or different because they are ultimately made of pixels, not metal, plastic and rubber.

There is no question that ripping the meshes or textures or animations from a game or an object in Second Life or a website is wrong whatever you do with it.  But I am not sure that making your own tricorder out of prims for your own use is so wrong.  The difficulty comes when you want to find other people in the fan community who share your obsession for Star Trek, because the only way to make contact with them, or attract them to your build, is to use the trademarked name for the show, which infringes the trademark.
Fan build or IP infringement?  Not sure

My own opinion is that probably it suits everyone to have the tolerance of fan creations unwritten and unstated, because anything else would be too complicated legally to administer, and thus very expensive. 

Unfortunately, people coming into SL see people using commercial and copyrighted material all over the world, and assume that it is acceptable to do this.  My feeling is that making your own uniform to enable you to role play in a Star Trek build is fine... selling it is not.  The test of whether you are infringing someone's copyright is certainly not whether you are making money at it, as giving away someone else's IP is just as much an infringement as selling it would be.  But the difference is really like the real-world one, where making your own version of a uniform is acceptable, and selling them off a market stall is not.

In the course of writing this post, I searched for Star Trek and was astonished by the number of tribute builds and RP communities there are in Second Life associated with the franchise.  There is everything from the starship enterprise to isolated communities of Vulcans and colonies of Klingons.  If you have any interest in Star Trek, it is possible to inhabit something like that world, virtually.  And long may it support the communities of fans which are obviously cherished by the programme makers and keep the franchise alive.

Usually I would credit the makers and creators of material and link to their sims.  I'm not doing that in this case because I don't want to single them out particularly, it was just an example to use with a strong fan base in real life and the virtual world.  They know who they are!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

SL Beginners: objects in Second Life

Prims twisted, hollowed and plain (top to bottom)
Over the course of four years as a mentor in Second Life, the same questions were asked by people new to Second Life, and so I thought I would blog a few of those for people unfamiliar with the virtual world.  Jargon is rife in Second Life, and it isn't always easy to find a simple explanation for the things that you hear.

Prims, or primitive objects, are the basic building blocks which every avatar in Second Life can create.  A basic prim comes in a number of shapes from cubes, cylinders and spheres to more complex rings, and toruses.  Using the build menu, basic shapes can be cut, hollowed, twisted and dimpled to make other shapes.  When I first entered Second Life, everything in world was made of prims.

Flexible prim
Renting or buying land allows you to keep a certain number of prims in world at that location.  There are public sandboxes where you can build or rez items from your inventory, but on most land you will need permission from the landowner or to be a member of a group, in order to be able to build or create objects.   Prims are textured with a default balsa wood texture when they are created, but can be retexured with anything you prefer.  They can be linked together in any combination required.

The physics shape of the object, that is the notional "solid" shape that the physics engine uses if your avatar walks over or sits on an object you have made with prims, is the same as the visual shape of the object.

Flexi prims are certain shapes of prim which can be set to have a flexible nature.  This can be useful for moving flags, flowing fabric and hair. 

Sculpties were the second type of object introduced to Second Life.  They need to be made outside Second Life, although there are a couple of gadgets which can do this in world and export the resulting texture.  Sculpties use a special texture to make the shape - the colour in the texture dictates the shape of the object.  Sculpties are one prim each unless you link them to other prims.  They can take some time to rez compared with prims and mesh, and few people create new objects as sculpties nowadays - most of those who used to create in sculpties now produce mesh instead.  If you want to see if an object is a sculpty you need to edit it by right clicking, choosing edit, and then looking at the object page of the edit window.  The cost of uploading a sculptie is L$10, like any other texture.  They are textured with a specially mapped texture to fit with the shape of the object (which will also cost L$10 to upload).

The physics shape of a sculptie is not the same as the visual shape, it's a flattened torus with the hole filled in. 

Mesh plant under edit
Mesh is the newest form of object, and it can be as detailed as necessary, incorporating complicated shapes.  These can be made within Second Life using a commercial tool to convert linked prims into a mesh object, but it must then be exported, and will need to be reimported to become a mesh into Second Life.  That isn't a very clean way of making meshes, which can be much better designed and controlled in an external program.  It is possible to convert a prim shape into a basic mesh using the in-world commercial tool and then to clean it up in blender or another program before uploading to SL. The cost of uploading a mesh model varies with size and complexity and is calculated on upload.

You can set the physics shape of the object as you upload it, from a detailed physics shape which reflects the visual shape of the object to a much simplified cube or similar and everything in between.  How detailed you need the physics shape to be depends upon what it is going to be used for.

Mesh being edited to highlight the mesh

There are a lot of commercial and free and open source programs available to make meshes.  The shape of the object can be a lot more detailed, and can be textured in detail too, by "unwrapping" the  object.  It can be hard to tell whether an object you want to buy is mesh, sculpty or prim.  One the whole, very detailed objects which are also low prim count will be mesh or sculpty.  It is hard to tell with a complex linked object, which can contain both mesh prims and ordinary prims, for example.  On the whole, it is fairly easy to see mesh if you use your camera to "see" into the object, which looks like a lot of little triangles, as can be seen in the picture above.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The most boring game in the SL universe...

Pretty but tedious....
I'm not averse to treasure hunts, as anyone who knows me would say.  I've run a few myself - in fact I went on one recently and spent a happy few hours touring about 60 sims in pursuit of my inner slut and collected a lot of very nice prizes.  I'm not averse to hard intellectual games - I finished Cyan's Riven in a couple of weeks with no clues and no walkthroughs, and I spent many a happy hour beta testing Uru.

I have to say that I had high hopes for the MadPea Buried hunt.  The Heads-up diplay (HUD) costs $300 but it gave the impression of being just my sort of thing.  There were clues around the set of Islands where the hunt begins, and one had to solve six of those to be given the first location of the hunt.  The HUD was shiny, with the appearance of a cross between an ipad and an iphone.  It looked interesting and well done.

It took a while to find the clues - the sim was very laggy due to the number of avatars blundering around, and the clues are somewhat misleading, but that part of the hunt I enjoyed.  The game clues were obfuscated by the fact that having used a lot of commercial props and furniture in the sim, there were a lot of things which responded to a mouse over which weren't actually clues at all.

I hoped that there would be more clues to follow for the rest of the hunt.  However, instead of being given a clue to the first location at the first sim, a small, faint wireframe map of part of the first sim appeared in the HUD.I could barely read anything in the hud at any stage.  It was too small and faint for me.

Most grid hunts in SL involve going to relatively popular locations with a lot of objects, but the first location gave my computer serious problems.  There were things I couldn't see obstructing my way, and the image in the HUD looked so small in my viewer that I couldn't relate anything I could see in the map with what I could see in world. 

Eventually I asked in the MadPea group for a clue of some sort, and I was immediately given a spoiler.  I was quite sniffy with the person who gave me that spoiler, because I'd hoped for a clue which wasn't the actual location of the object.  One unfortunate aspect of the hunt is that unlike the normal hunts in SL, and despite having paid $300 for the HUD, you don't get to see the object you are searching for before the first location, and so have no idea what you are searching for.  And it is TINY.

By the third sim I was ready to hug anyone who would help.  Even with clues from fellow players, I was still failing to find the tiny capsule.  

Even with help, even with clues and people offering to take to me to the location of the capsules, I was taking an average of an hour a sim.  It's a needle in a haystack.  The wireframe clues are virtually useless in most of the sims, because you can orbit your camera in wireframe view and never find anything to match the picture in the viewer.  And so what you are left with is the prospect of searching a busy sim centimetre by centimetre for an obscure tiny object.

I have no doubt that the prizes are great - although you only get them at the end of the hunt, in one batch, rather than sim by sim.  But my life is too short to spend 25 hours doing something that is simply raising my blood pressure and, yes, stupendously boring.  So having failed to find number 6 after an hour, I detached the HUD and gave up. 

If you are going to use a tiny object in a hunt, there need to be clues that work better than the wireframe thing.  If there were clues to the location I'd have enjoyed solving those no matter how obscure, because then you can use your brain, work it out.  This way, in most of the sims, there seems to be nothing to be done except to get down on your hands and knees, virtually, and search every little bit.  Most people, I predict, will cheat by finding out the locations from people who have managed to do the hunt, but I couldn't see the point of that.  It's just tediously, tediously dull.  And not worth the rage and frustration...honestly!

Understanding poses and animations in SL and OpenSim

Cali runs her hand through her hair....
All Second Life and Open Sim avatars already use animations, as all avatars are born with the default set of animations.  That's how your avatar walks, runs, flies, sits, types.  They're not terrifically good (especially the walk) and so most people replace them.  You can turn off those that you dislike (many people do this with the typing animation which an avatar makes when talking).

Before I explain how, I should mention the differences between poses and animations.  It may seem obvious to most, but I have frequently seen poses sold as animations and vice versa.  A pose will put your avatar into a stance or sit or other pose. It is possible for a pose to leave your avatar free to move or walk around - it depends which parts of the avatar are controlled by the pose, but things like a handbag-carrying pose or wine-glass-holding pose may only lock the arm into place and leave the avatar free to move around as normal.

A pose, though, would normally be a static thing, not an animation.

An animation, on the other hand, will make the avatar move in a particular way.  What part of the avatar is locked to the animation, depends upon the settings used by the creator.  The priority given to the animation when it was uploaded dictate whether it will override other default animations or work with them.

The animation which is used in Second Life, uses a system of joints and bones which can be moved or locked into place to allow animation.  It is a very complex subject, as some things can be set in the animation creating program, and some can be set when the animation file is uploaded to Second Life or OpenSim.  Some existing animations which can be bought outside Second Life are unsuitable for uploading because the format is wrong, or the animation does not provide the necessary information about positioning of the avatar body.

Animations and poses can be created inside Second Life using the AnyPose tool (which is a commercial gadget and very easy to use) but these are saved outside SL and have to be uploaded from the external file.  Certain choices have to be made on upload... what priority should be given to the animation, whether it should loop or play through once, what position the avatar hands should be in, etc.  There are a number of commercial programs which can be used outside SL to create poses and animations, including costly commercial programs like Poser, those which have a free and a paid version, like Mixamo, and free ones such as Daz, Qavimator,and many others.  The SL wiki is useful for the explanation of technical terms, although it may be a bit out of date. There is a Blender rig available here, which allows one to use Blender for animations.

Animations and poses can be bought within Second Life, and they are subject to the same permissions system as objects.  Thus you can buy full permissions animations which can be copied or transferred (and modified, although that's actually impossible, except the ability to put them into or remove them from objects for example.  The actual animation cannot be changed once uploaded to SL, it has to be re-uploaded to change the priority, for example, or change the fixing of the hands etc.)

Be aware that animations or scripts with limited permissions may change the available permissions if you drop them into an object.  A no-mod animation dropped into a modable object may restrict your ability to edit it if you pass it to another person, and then take it back, even if the object and the animation is transferable.  Be careful when adding no mod animations or scripts to any object you value and which you do not have in a copyable form.  I try not to buy or use no mod scripts and animations for that reason.  I do not think it is good practice to set animations no mod, given that it is impossible to alter them anyway.

There are a number of ways to use poses and animations.

You can click on them directly from your inventory (double left click) to open and then choose to run them locally (no one else sees them, good for trying out animations) or in world, which means any other avatar in the vicinity will see you move.  You can put them into pose balls or furniture, so that when a person clicks on the object, they are animated or moved into the pose.  This normally requires a script in addition to the animation or pose. 

Most usefully, you can add them into an Animation Overrider (AO), which may be an attachment that your avatar wears, or more and more, may be something which is part of your Second Life viewer.  Firestorm has a built-in AO that you can drop alternative animations into.

The point of an AO is that you can choose which animations should replace the default animations.  You can choose a different walk, a different sit, a special flying animation etc.  You can have a series of animations which plays when your avatar is idle, and special animations for particular circumstances, like dances or gymnastics. 

This doesn't stop you from using specific animations straight from your inventory, or clicking on furniture to sit, but it sometimes means that you will need to switch off your AO in order to use the built-in animations for a bed or sofa, for example, rather than the ones in your AO.  If you find your avatar's head is buried in the seat of a chair, it's usually an indication that your AO needs to be suspended while you sit in that chair... and turning it off usually fixes the problem.

There are very annoying AOs which come with a mix of animations and sounds.  In general the only person enjoying this type of AO is the wearer - they are an intrusive nuisance for most of the avatars in the vicinity of a giggling teenager sound effect, or ickle baby - or more alarmingly, pregnant stomach or unborn baby.  The most ridiculous things can talk in Second Life, from a shoulder pet to a vagina, but that doesn't mean it is a good idea, or welcome to your fellow residents (who can, it must be said, mute the object or turn off their sound if such an attachment becomes unbearably annoying).

Avatar attachments in Second Life

Avatar attachment is a very big category of wearable items nowadays.  Once upon a time the most that your avatar would have been able to attach was the odd bracelet or earring.  Then the arrival of attachable genitalia brought a whole new category of "attachment" to the fore.  It's still a very big class of attachments, and includes those which chat to you, those with clickable responses and those with special effects.  On the whole, this article is not about that!  Look on the marketplace and google for the best genitalia if that's what you are after.

Since the arrival of mesh in Second Life, a whole new range of items have become mainstream, from attachable feet and hands, bouncing breasts, whole mesh avatars in large or small or fairy sizes.  It's becoming normal for creators in Second Life to have to accommodate a range of attachments which may make their creations more or less wearable for an avatar.

Prim hair and its laggy properties have been replaced with mesh hair which moves with the avatar but may not react in the way that real hair would.  However the mantra for any sort of mesh or prim attachment has to be to try the demo before buying.  This applies to hair, shoes, clothing, and any body part.  If there is a demo it makes sense to find out whether the attachment will work with your avatar before you buy it.

Mesh avatars are worn over your system avatar, and will usually be rigged to work in the same way as your avatar.  Most are adjustable using the sliders, although this is usually explained in the documentation accompanying any purchase.  Many of the mainstream makers of avatar attachments have in-world assistants or webpages to answer queries.

Mesh attachments for feet or hands are fairly simple to use, but may come with complicated instructions for making them blend with your skin.  More and more creators in the skin business are producing appliers for use with avatar enhancements like prettier feet, and they sell them in world.  Appliers make blending your skin onto the attachment very easy indeed (just wear the hud and touch the button) but you will need to check that your skin maker makes an applier in the shade of skin you wear - older ones may not be available.
System feet left, mesh feet and shoes right (Slink)

Once you are wearing a mesh avatar enhancement, you will need to be aware that system clothing will not extend to the attachment.  Thus socks or tights worn on your avatar will stop at the join between base avatar body and mesh attachment.  More and more creators will provide appliers for those things too.

Breasts are even more problematical, as clothing will not show over the breasts unless the creator has provided an applier to work with the breasts.  Lolas, tangos and other makes are often cross-compatible with each other, and it is certainly something to consider if you wish to be able to wear your breasts with clothing!  Often, making breasts blend in with the body of the avatar can be tricky, as SL treats light falling on objects slightly different from light falling on avatars, and so even with great blending you can find that the breasts suddenly look a bit different.  I loathe avatar lights, because they interfere with a lot of other things and can give a very odd effect for other avatars.  Once again - try the demos!

For myself, I find the vast difference in appearance between system feet and mesh feet makes it worth having to change feet when I change shoes from flat to mid high, and I like a lot of the shoes which work with mesh feet and don't work with system feet.  But I haven't found the big breasts worth the effort.  I think that if you spend a lot of time naked, and can overcome the lighting problems, it's probably worth it, but otherwise, not.

I do however have both petite and animal mesh avatars which I like to wear from time to time, and I feel sure that as technology moves on, the additional attachments for the avatar will become simpler and more workable.  It's still not going to make me want a vagina that has independent thought and talks, however!

Free stuff for avatars

Goddess Couture hair freebie from hunt for your inner slut
Many people are reluctant to spend money on Second Life when they first arrive in the world.  For some, it's a reluctance to invest in something if they aren't sure it is for them, and for others it is a matter of necessity because they can't afford to buy Linden dollars or aren't able to verify their account for some reason.

There are quite a lot of shops which offer special freebies for people with an account younger than 30 days old.  There are a variety of blogs which outline the best: FabFree in Second Life maintains a list of 30 days and under freebies.

If you are more than 30 days old, there is a lot of free stuff in Second Life, but much of it is pirated or of poor quality.  It can be a depressing experience to trail from freebie place to freebie place looking for something good.  The best ways to get good quality free stuff are to join groups or follow a grid hunt.

Joining Groups

Nearly every creator in Second Life will have a membership group for their brand, and most are free - but check what you are clicking on when you join a group.  Some of the designers ask for $50, $100 or $150 Lindens to join, but that's a minority.  Most realise that a good freebie will speak for them in ways they can't necessarily predict.

Normally there will be a board in a shop which you click and which will speak the name of the group in local chat.  Open up local chat, click on the name of the group and the group joining window will open on the screen.  Click the button to join the group which is about a third of the way down the window on the right, and confirm that you want to join.

Once upon a time you would automatically be wearing the tag of the group you just joined, but I've noticed that this doesn't happen for all (I'm not sure why).  You will normally need to be wearing the tag for the group before you will be allowed to pick up freebies.  If you aren't wearing it automatically, open up the groups window (under contacts, groups) and then click on the group you wish to activate and choose "activate" in the right hand list of actions.

There are usually boxes around the store with "group gift" on them, which you can click and collect if you are a member of the shop's group.  You may need to be somewhere where you can rez items in order to unpack the boxes, although many creators make their boxes wearable nowadays to overcome this limitation.

The best way to find the sorts of groups you'd like to join, is to look online.  SL Universe, for example, includes a very long Fashionista thread, which lists the names of the creators featured in the pictures.  You could try using the links often given under the photographs for the things you like.  Some of my favourite freebies are from CoCo Designs (clothing), Pink Fuel (skins).

Grid Hunts

Amazingly good quality items are often available exclusively in the course of grid hunts inside Second Life.  Creators band together to create a themed hunt which takes hunters from shop to shop, finding a grid hunt object, which remain the same for every shop in the hunt.  Usually nowadays, the search item will be displayed with a poster for the hunt at most of the venues.

The convention for how a grid hunt works is that you start off with an easy find in the first shop, which gives you a prize from that location and a landmark for the next location, and familiarises the hunters with the object they are hunting for.  You then click the landmark in your inventory, to take you to the next location and find the same object there.  Hunt often publish a list of locations and hints for the next location to help anyone who has failed to find an object at a particular location or who is lazy!  Currently the annual "Hunt for your Inner Slut" is running, with a golden model of male genitalia as the hunt object, and the list of clues is here.

Some hunts charge L$1 or 2 to collect the items, but most are free.

It makes sense for participating creators to give high quality items for the grid hunts, as customers who later decide to bring money into Second Life are certainly likely to remember the quality of those creations they like from a hunt... and they will generally have an inventory full of landmarks to those shops as the result of having done the hunt.  The hunters will often turn into walking advertisements for their shops, if they wear the items they have found.

One word of advice:  sort the folders from a grid hunt quickly, and assess whether you are likely to use an item, then file those you will, renaming the folders to identify the contents to you, and delete those you don't want.  Keep the landmarks for the places you like, and discard those for the places you don't.  You'll thank me in the end - there's nothing worse than vaguely remembering a really lovely shop and having to visit 60 locations to identify which one it was!

Different hunts have a range of items, but the "hunt for your inner slut" hunt which is ongoing includes a hair with a variety of colours, shoes, clothing, furniture, jewellery and skins and makeup.   There are a couple of objects which include couples sex animations, too.