Journal

Human-Avatar Interaction

2008-04-12

I recently spent a couple of hours in Second Life attending a Caroline’s grand re-opening party. This was the longest stretch of time (about 3 hours) I had been in world in quite a while. Apart from the occasional customer service issue which requires me to jump in world, I don’t visit SL much any more. I’ll have more thoughts in a post marking my 5 year rez-day in a couple of weeks.

At the party eveyone was dancing and there was a central “dance ball” that anyone could touch that would animate his/her avatar. The dances were nothing to write home about—I recognized many bits and pieces that were ripped straight from old Poser 4 (I think it was 4) stock animation and combined with other “found” animation. (Test animations I had uploaded during the 1.4 Preview back in June 2004, if that tells you anything). Other individuals had a variety of different dance animations, some of which I really liked.

While everyone dancing together and listening to the same music/dj is great fun, the only difference between last week’s experience and parties we had in 2003 was the scripted dance animation. Don’t get me wrong, I think animation is great and SL 1.4 was probably one of the most exciting releases to date. And while there are advantages to pre-scripted animation allowing everyone to type and chat, I really longed for more direct interaction.

As chance would have it I was alerted to two bits of info last week which seemed to provide a possible solution to my desire for more direct human-avatar interaction. The first was a tweet from Lordfly about a project that was started back in 2006 by a dev team at LL (Cube Linden, Aura Linden, and Ventrella Linden) called Avatar Puppeteering. Please do check out some of the videos on the site for a working example of puppeteering in action. The project certainly showed a lot of promise. That is, before it was put on indefinite hold so that the team members could work on “viewer stability, bug fixing, and performance” issues. Tateru over at Massively has done a little digging and found out that Ventrella (and, yes, he was responsible for flexi-prims) left LL last year. Her conclusion is that this project has suffered perma-death.

Which is unfortunate because Mitch Kapor, LL’s Chairman, seems to have become interested in human-avatar interaction himself. According to this article Kapor and developer Philippe Bossut have been developing a hands-free, camera-based interface for Second Life. You can visit Kapor’s site to view a demonstration.

Given these projects and the success of accelerometer-based interaction of the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone and camera-based interaction like Sony’s Eye-Toy, some form of more advanced human-avatar interaction is coming. Will it come from Linden Lab? I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Creating a Complete Avatar (Part 1)

2007-02-08

step 0I was approached a couple months ago by someone asking me to develop an avatar based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Victorian gentleman. This came at a great time because I was in the process of doing research on Late Victorian/Edwardian fashions — which would hopefully assist me in creating my line of Steampunk fashions. I decided to record the process with screenshots as I went along with the thought that people might find it helpful and maybe even interesting. This is not a tutorial. Unfortunately I just don’t have time to detail every step I took in creating the avatar. Nevertheless, I hope you find it helpful.

Shaping the Body Mesh

I started the process by finding as many source photos of Conan Doyle as possible. In speaking with the client, he specified that he wanted an older Conan Doyle, to more closely match his own age. Luckily I found some nice photos on the Web that I could use to guide the process.

step 1step 3step 4I started off using a new alt and one of the default bodies, so the process began from a completely vanilla state. As you can see in the screenshots, I did all of my initial work simply using the Second Life appearance sliders. Getting just the right look can take a fair bit of work and a lot of back and forth between different sliders.

step 5I used a separate reference photo for for fleshing out the body. Unfortunately Second Life’s avatar creation system favors perfectly formed human anatomy, so creating a stocky, heavier figure like that of the elder Conan Doyle can be an exercise in frustration. These limitations also impact texture/clothing design because the mesh (the 3d geometry that makes up the avatar) becomes more deformed, as you’ll see later on.

step 6Finally I had a completed avatar shape in Second Life. I added hair and a mustache to his body using the in-world tools, but I replaced those later on with more detailed versions.

Skinning Sir Arthur

To keep costs and design time down, my client decided he did not need a complete body skin, but only the head. For those of you who have never tried your hand at creating a skin, take it from me, it is a challenging process. If you’ve ever wondered why skins are so expensive in SL it’s because their creation really does require a good technical knowledge of Photoshop (or your tool of choice) and a lot of painstaking work (nostalgia alert: I remember the days before full body skins).

Fortunately tools have come a long way in recent years to assist in the creation of skins. Most major 3D applications now cater more to video game designers; there was a time when baking textures was a difficult proposition. Baking is a process which allows the designer to create a texture (for skin, clothing) directly in the 3d application itself. If you’ve ever wondered how a lot of the top designers get great reflections or shadows on some of their clothing, it’s because they’ve baked the texture directly in their 3d application.

step 7I’ve recently moved away from using Maya and am now using Luxology’s Modo, primarily because I fell in love with its interface which is completely intuitive and customizable. Modo also uses a layer-like (think Photoshop) system for its texture mapping/rendering system, as opposed to the node-based system that Maya uses. Being a longtime Photoshop user I appreciated the advantages immediately.

step 8The first thing I did in Modo was import the male avatar mesh OBJ file which you can find on the SL Web site. I then applied the three SL template textures (materials) each to the Head, Upper Body, and Lower Body. I then set up some simple lighting.

step 9Moving to Photoshop I started designing the head skin. To create the skin I used a combination of stock source photos that I’ve licensed over the years (see www.3d.sk). For Sir Arthur I used 3 different images for the various features of his face. I also created a very simple lightmap using Modo and brought that in. The base skin texture was created from scratch; I want to make sure that when I created the matching (but less detailed) body skins, the color was consistent and seamless from Upper Body skin to Head skin.

step 9aAs you can see from the screenshot of my layers palette, I had quite a few layers. I make the best use of both layer and vector masks (more on the power of vector masks in the section on clothing). I also can’t say enough good things about Photoshop CS2’s Smart Objects which allow for non-destructive re-sizing of both raster and vector image data. Even more exciting are Photoshop C3’s enhancements which, among other things, allows for non-destructive filters.

step 10step 11Moving back into Modo, I updated my head texture with the Photoshop file I had just worked on. In reality I did this a couple times to align and position elements on the mesh correctly. The roundtrip between Modo and Photoshop is pretty painless and makes for a great preview of any of your avatar texturing work. The hair was looking pretty good, but as you can see from the screenshot the hairline above the forehead and near the sideburns is perfectly sharp. There are a couple things you can do when designing textures — whether for avatars or other objects — that can really set you apart from the amateurs, as well as many pros.

  • Show no seams
  • Symmetry is boring (and lazy)
  • Tidiness is also boring; make details messy

step 12With that in mind I used Modo’s wonderful paint tools to paint onto the model’s head using my hair texture as the ‘paint.’ If you’ve never painted right on a 3d surface before, it really is next evolutionary step in the creation of avatar skins and clothing. In the screenshot you can see I’ve extended the hair on his forehead, ‘roughened’ up the seams, and extended the sideburns. I also combatted the symmetry of my hair textures on top/back of his head by liberally roughening up those as well. I should mention that I’m not actually applying paint directly to my original texture, but created a separate layer on which to paint. This will allow more flexibility when I tweak my new ‘paint’ back in Photoshop.

step 13While working on the head texture I referred constantly to my source image and noticed that Sir Arthur’s brows were a little bit too low. So I used Photoshop’s Liquify filter to raise them a bit. The red part of the screenshot is the part of the image that’s frozen so that when I stretched the brow up a bit, the pixels that are frozen didn’t move. Those of you who photosource clothing are already familiar with this filter, I’m sure.

step 15step 14After finishing up my work in Modo, I’m back in Photoshop to build Sir Arthur’s walrus moustache, something not unusual in his day. (Note in the first screenshot the additional hair around the top edges of the head texture — that was all painted in Modo.) The moustache I created using the various Photoshop brushes I’ve collected over the years. The shape was created with a layer mask, which I will also use to create the alpha channel for the texture when I export it.

step 16I exported my Photoshop file (which has over 50 layers, is 1024×1024 pixels, and weighs in at 33MB) to a TGA, uploaded it to Second Life, and applied the skin to the avatar form I created in the previous section. You’ll notice that I left some moustache texture on the actual skin itself, even though most of that texture will be on a prim. This will provide a nice background for the prim moustache especially when viewed from an odd angle.

step 17aFor the moustache prim itself I used a simple cube primitive and cut it down to a triangular shape. This worked a little better than a simple flat rectangle because it gives the moustache volume even when viewed from the side. I applied the moustache texture to both sides of the prim and transparent textures to the top and bottom.

step 17Voila! Sir Arthur is looking pretty good so far. In Part Two I briefly cover the upper and lower body skins and then delve into a detailed look on how I created Sir Arthur’s clothing, shoes, and accessories.

Year Four

2006-05-10

Three years have come and gone, and Second Life appears to be doing quite well. Twas not always the case. When I paid $160 for a lifetime account back in June 2003, money was tight at Linden Lab. That $160 was considered a bit of a risk. But I know all lifetime account holders felt it was worth it, felt there was something special about our little (see Fig. 1) virtual world. I don’t want to spend a lot of time reminiscing about the “good old days” because either you remember them or you don’t, and if you don’t, you probably don’t care. Suffice it to say that first year was special, and I’m sorry most of you didn’t get to experience it. There was a sense we were a tight-knit creative community building a world together free from the inevitable commercial interests. I didn’t do much socializing after that first year — indeed most of my Calling Cards are pre-2004 and I’m always happy to see how many oldies are logged in, even if we haven’t spoken in ages.

The truth is I rarely spend any time in-world. The bulk of my Second Life experience takes place in my imagination, my sketchpad, and Photoshop. I like being a content provider as opposed to consumer. Enhancing someone else’s virtual experience is very rewarding. My biggest thrill nowadays is when I receive an IM from a stranger saying how much they like my creations.

What will the future bring? Hopefully with LL’s rapid growth we’ll start to see some more features and a revamped client user interface. Given Linden Lab’s track record so far, it’s safe to say I won’t be holding my breath.

The Trough of Disillusionment

2007-09-26

Being a data junky I’ve enjoyed watching the stats for this Web site over the past couple years. I’m actually just about to hit 150,000 unique visitors which I suppose is a good enough milestone as any to reveal some statistics. Not so much as an exercise in egotism, but as a casual examination of Second Life’s popularity filtered through this site over the past ten months. I’ve had this site for over 2 years now, and prior to 2007, visits were few but steady. But as we all know, SL exploded this year with meteoric hype.

I reference two pieces as a preface to this one: Hobson’s The Second Life Hype Cycle which talks about the Gartner hype cycle and Pixeleen Mistral’s article Second Life’s Slide vs. Everyone Else over at the venerable SL Herald in which she compares Alexa data from Second Life to some other virtual worlds. Alexa rankings are always a challenge because they rely on users having the Alexa toolbar installed, and it’s not clear who those users are. Of course this site’s Alexa ranking is a paltry 576,134 so I can’t compare it to my actual traffic statistics.
So just what are the statistics for NicolaEscher.com? Here are the unique visitors since December 1 of 2006:

If you’ve been following SL’s rise over the last year, the trend shouldn’t be surprising.

Who Are My Visitors?

Examining both the keywords used to find this site, referrering sites, and the emails I receive, people visiting this site are without a doubt new SL users. The ones that stay longer are usually new SL designers. After a certain point those users don’t return to my site (this journal generates very minimal traffic) because I don’t have anything else to offer them. It’s my opinion that NicolaEscher.com traffic is a fair indicator of recently converted Second Life users—people who’ve experienced SL and need more help.

The Crest of the Wave

One interesting thing to note, and something I unfortunately can’t quite get the break down for from Google Analytics (which might be my own ignorance) is that there was a relatively sizeable wave of PR which started in the US and quickly spread across the rest of the World. Whilst watching the numbers in May and June I saw a big drop-off in US/UK visitors and a huge surge in visitors from Germany. Recently there’s a been a surge in Brasilian and Dutch users.

Country Unique Visitors
Germany 40,450
US 30,558
Brazil 7,512
UK 6,985
Netherlands 6,386
Italy 3,474
Canada 3,245
France 2,711
Australia 2,467
China 2,234
Switzerland 1,867

As you can see more Germans have visited (and are visiting) NicolaEscher.com than US and UK combined in the last 10 months. (Note that all my tutorials exist in both German and English language versions.) The thing I’d like to be able to do is view the US visitors vs. the rest of the World as I think we’d see a steeper decline in the US numbers. The news here of course is that outside the US, SL is probably still in the Peak of Inflated Expectations.

The Trough

There’s no question in my mind that SL in the US has slipped into the Trough of Disillusionment. I think the hard data is there to back it up, and I would wager there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence as well. The PR machine has certainly quieted down a bit and we’ve even seen a backlash in recent months.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the 6 months. Not only are a whole slew of new MMOs being released, but potentialy SL competitors like MetaPlace, VastPark, Lego Universe are launching with others maturing like HiPiHi, Kaneva, and Multiverse. And I wouldn’t discount Makena either.

Addendum

I realize that there are many other variables at play here, so expect some margin for error. Certainly the appearance of a couple of tutorial sites and the some other resources (Robin, Torley, etc.) could account for some of the drop-off. Of course, sites like SLTutorials.net end up re-directing traffic back to my tutorials, so…