A few thoughts on camera placement

Since you’ve bothered to read my rather obscure blog, I gather that you’ve been around in Second Life long enough to be acquainted with the blogging work of other bloggers who (a) have been around much longer than yours truly, (b) have hands-on technical experience in areas that are related to Second Life’s “under the hood” aspects. One such person is Penny Patton, whose blog I consider to be a great resource for most matters that relate to making Second Life more effective and more immersive.

Two years ago, Penny had posted an extremely interesting article on her blog. Its topic was the perspective we get with SL’s default camera placement and its impact on the way we experience SL. Now, it’s no secret that, over the decades, the video game industry has gathered considerable experience on the impact camera placement has on the way someone experiences a game or a virtual world. Yet, Linden Lab has been – from day one – entirely oblivious to this experience and stubbornly refuses to incorporate the lessons learned by everyone else in this field.

Putting first-person games aside, games and virtual worlds where a third-person perspective is the default (such as Second Life and everything that resembles it) really depend on the way the camera behaves – the camera’s behaviour can really make or break the experience. Penny cites Capcom’s 2005 release “Resident Evil 4“, as its “over the shoulder” camera view became the industry standard for third-person shooter games, and for good reason, because the camera view it used did not obstruct the action at all.

There are also other reasons why this particular view works so well, as Penny explains them.

  • Environment creation: The over-the-shoulder view allows a builder to create builds like an outhouse or a small shed in the woods or a cramped washroom stall in a sleazy bar, or claustrophobic corridors in a maze-like environment (catacombs, sewers, labyrinths). Also, this view makes larger builds look more impressive. Try comparing that with SL’s default camera view; the camera hangs so high above the avatar that, the moment you enter a small room, the camera either ends up on the ceiling or on the wrong side of the walls. SL’s default (and completely crappy, if we want to be honest) camera placement forces us to upscale everything: from our own avatars to our builds, but I’ll get to that later.
  • Usability: The over-the-shoulder view provides the user with an additional advantage: a sense of place, which allows you to have a more intuitive “feel” of where your avatar is in relation to its  surroundings. It’s obvious that this allows us to navigate a region far more easily.
  • Immersion: No, I’m not going to get into the old “immersionism vs. augmentism” debate here. Placing the camera near the level of the avatar’s eyes  puts you, the avatar’s operator, into the world where the avatar moves and exists rather than making you an outside observer who merely uses a radio control system to make the avatar do whatever it must do.

This matter is quite important to all of us, and it’s no wonder (Inara Pey and Ciaran Laval have blogged about it in the past.

The camera placement’s impact on scale, lag and usability

Because of SL’s default camera offsets, we are forced to upscale everything. We make our avatars ridiculously tall, because the camera’s behaviour makes them look tiny. We make the arms stupidly short and the legs  idiotically long, to compensate for the distorted perspective we get from SL’s default camera offsets.

And we build big, exactly because of the skewed perspective we get. We make stair steps that are 50cm high – more than twice their RL height! I’ve seen “small” homes where the doors were 10 meters tall and the ceilings towered 11 or 12 meters above the floors. And all this simply to accommodate the default camera placements.

And that’s not all. Quite the contrary. In the older days, when the maximum size of a prim was 10 meters on each axis, this meant that we had to use more prims, which, of course, counted against the prim limits of our land. Also, another negative side-effect of this is that upscaling to accommodate SL’s default camera placement also dictates the use of 1024×1024 textures on certain components of our builds (such as doors) – if we had the chance to build to scale, though, we would easily get away with 256x256s. As for how texture sizes impact lag, do have a look at my previous post. Penny has put up a good number of screenshots illustrating how camera placement determines so much, and I recommend you have a look at them.

Penny also says that in a world like Second Life, where we move and really interact with others and with our environment, it just isn’t viable to keep manually correcting (using the Alt+Zoom feature) the camera as we walk around. Wouldn’t you agree that, instead of fiddling with the Alt key and the mouse while you  try to move your avatar around is a lot more cumbersome than having a default set of camera settings that would take care of that without you needing to do extra work?

Linden Lab won’t do anything about it

Exactly. Penny had filed a JIRA on it, and, as you’ll see, this JIRA is now old enough to see its grandchildren graduate from college. Has LL done anything in the meantime? Nope. It’s one of those stupid decisions that were made sometime before SL opened its doors to the public and now LL is trapped in them (or so they think). Last Wednesday, I raised this exact topic to Oz Linden at the Open Development User Group meeting, and his response was that they wouldn’t do anything, because users would go up in arms, claiming that the change would “ruin their SL” and it would “break content”.

Personally, I think that the first argument can be easily countered with a concerted effort that would involve both LL and TPV devs to inform the public – like they did with SSB/A. And I’m sure that, if they made it easy for people to change their camera and focus offsets on the fly (even having the old defaults as a selectable preset), no one would complain. As a matter of fact, I did suggest this, but Oz rejected it, as they don’t want to have many presets to handle – or at least that’s how I understood what he said.

As for the second argument, well, we all know that it’d be complete and utter bullshit. No content would be broken. Instead, some old content (which is perhaps already obsolete) will look even more obsolete than it already does. But that’s not LL’s problem and shouldn’t be; it’s just how a product’s life cycle is. Products become obsolete at one point or another. After all, it’s not like LL has any obligation, legal or otherwise, to ensure that the oversized and oh-so-2004 barstools someone made for avatars whose height would dwarf Hasheem Thabeet would not become obsolete in 2013.

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15 thoughts on “A few thoughts on camera placement

    1. Penny did some excellent work in this department. Also, last night I found a prime example of completely out-of-scale building at one of my favourite sims: a set of bar counter and bar stools that’s completely out of whack. The bar stools are about 2 meters tall, and the counter is taller than that.

  1. While I actually use Penny’s offsets – and have done for the past 3 years-ish – the fact that you have stated elsewhere that you find them “too conservative” highlights the core problem with LL adopting them / changing their current defaults. That is: whatever is done won’t please everyone. Ergo, the Lab won’t see this as a priority item, and will take the view that, as people who want to will change their default camera placement will do so regardless, why should they bother changing something people will revise?

    Perhaps a better campaign to have would be to encourage TPVs to offer-up the camera offset debugs through a UI floater (if possible) which makes it easier for people to adjust their offsets without having to dig into the Debug settings.

    This would score in two ways: firstly, make the options easier to change (and perhaps enable the settings to be saved as a part of a settings back-up for those viewers which support such an ability); secondly, encourage people who might otherwise be put off at the idea of playing with Debug settings to have a little play with the camera settings. Who knows, if such a capability was well-coded and contributed via Snowstorm, it might eventually even end up in the official viewer (although I personally wouldn’t hold my breath on that).

    1. Thank You for Your comment. It seems crazy, though: Akismet had thrown it in the spam folder and I had to retrieve it from there (while it allowed an obvious spam comment to get through to the pending ones). WordPress/Akismet shenanigans aside, it’s time for me to get down to business and respond to Your comment properly.

      Indeed, it’s impossible to please everyone. Designing anything, after all, as all engineers say, a process that involves multiple compromises.

      I disagree, however, with the “people will change the settings, so why bother?” attitude that seems to characterise LL’s mentality. The reason is that it simply doesn’t hurt at all to have a good base to start with. And Penny’s settings are a really good place to start. And yes, they allow for better immersion and, of course, they enable people to build to scale.

      The idea of encouraging TPVs to make the camera offset debug settings easily accessible is really good. As a matter of fact, I had filed a JIRA for Firestorm not that long ago, suggesting that these settings become part of the Phototools floater.

      Also, I think it’d be great if some influential TPVs campaigned to advertise these improved offsets (and the offset tweaking ability) – that way, users (new and old) would end up actually wanting these settings.

      Would this “break content”, though? I think not. What I believe would happen is that some already obsolete and out of scale content would become even more obsolete. Then again, as I said, that’s what a product’s life cycle is like.

      1. I’m not saying the Lab’s attitude makes sense, I’m just saying that I can see that’s how they view things.

        As to the FS JIRA – well done. I’ll go vote / watch it when I can get over there.

        As to WP and screw-ups. No worries. I’m having severe issues myself at the moment as my ISP seems to be blocking WordPress.com access periodically (as has been reported in the WP forums – bot WP’s fault, but annoying to those of us experiencing things). I also note that, again, the like I gave this post on reading it has vanished.

        1. Certainly, we can both see how LL looks at things and this “why bother?” outlook is frustrating. As for Your idea for TPVs, I fully endorse it. After all, TPVs can far more easily do pioneering work for SL.

  2. I used penny’s in all the viewers i have till i replaced them with Niran’s default one that i’m more used to (Yes i know you think Niran’s is shit, but is the only viewer that comes by default with scaled propotional camera !)

  3. I’ve used Penny’s settings in the past and they work well, there’s some extremely useful advice in Penny’s blogs but I can’t see LL setting the default views to Penny’s suggestions, largely because there would be a backlash, although if people stuck with those settings, they’d sure see the benefits.

    1. And this brings us to something that Exotix (Inara Pey) pointed out a few comments back:

      Perhaps a better campaign to have would be to encourage TPVs to offer-up the camera offset debugs through a UI floater (if possible) which makes it easier for people to adjust their offsets without having to dig into the Debug settings.

      TPVs could more easily offer these camera settings as default or as an option (perhaps with a capability for the users to make their own presets, why not?). In fact, I believe that Firestorm’s Phototools floater could be easily enhanced like this (see the JIRA I filed on this). Newer users, who are perhaps familiar with the camera settings that Resident Evil 4 used (and became the industry standard ever since), will certainly appreciate this. And older users (hey, who said older users are really that fond of the default settings would perhaps notice that these offer an improved experience.

  4. Thanks for providing an update to this important subject. I’ve used Penny’s settings for sometime, but your article prompted me to review and tweak them. I’ve very much in the immersive/realism camp and I find these camera settings further serve to enrich my experience in SL, in addition to my proportions, which I’ve adjusted to approximate my RL self as much as possible. While doubtful that the idea will take off, I’m just glad that I’ve got this perspective on the world, as it makes a massive difference to my enjoyment. Thanks!

    1. Thank you Becky. It’s unfortunate that, when I brought this subject to Oz in the Open Dev User Group meeting, he said this would never be considered, because of the (perceived) fear of people protesting something like that (I think I explained it in my post). But really, these settings improve my SL experience a lot and I wish the wide-angle lens perspective that is the default in SL behaved like an orthographic lens and did away with the barrel distortion in the centre of the field-of-view and the sloping verticals near the edges.

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