My experience with the new (fitted) mesh avatars

After Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg appeared at the VWBPE sporting a new fitted mesh avatar, there has been a period of anticipation and speculation as to when these new avatars would hit the grid. Finally, on Thursday, May 15th, the Lab announced their availability – 24 new avatars in total, available through the Avatar Selector, both for new users and existing ones. The announcement reads:

Today, we’re updating Second Life’s default avatar options with 24 brand new mesh avatars. You may have spotted a sneak peek at a few of these as Lindens tried them out recently, and starting today, you can start using them yourself!

These avatars are designed to give new users a more appealing set of choices as they start their time in Second Life. Based on the most popular avatars picked at registration, these new options are much better-looking and take advantage of technology incorporated into Second Life over the past year (like fitted mesh and materials) for a more modern feel.

These new avatars are all based on the human form and are divided in three categories:

  • People;
  • Vampires;
  • Classic

By “People”, the Lab defines a bunch of normal human avatars, male and female, with some welcome ethnic diversity. “Vampires” on the other hand denotes a number of avatars that range from vampires to demons and from a werewolf-like creatore to zombies or ghouls. This, of course, makes the term “Vampires” a bit unsuitable. Maybe “Horror” (as Inara Pey proposed in her own coverage) would be more fitting. Then comes the “Classic” range; these are your typical basic avatars. No rigged mesh bodies, no fitted mesh bodies. Just the bog-standard SL avatar skeleton, with all of its well-known and well-documented faults. I’ll admit I haven’t taken those ones out for a test drive, because I had no interest in them. To be honest, I’d never consider switching to a Lab-provided starter avatar; I’m happy with my own looks, which I’ve developed through years of tweaks, thank you very much.

The "People" avatars.

The “People” avatars.

The "Vampire" avies - although, as Inara Pey said, "Horror" would be a far more fitting name for this group.

The “Vampire” avies – although, as Inara Pey said, “Horror” would be a far more fitting name for this group.

So, what do I think?

Meh. Yes, meh. First of all, I was not impressed by the skins used on the “People” avatars. They looked like… 2003. The skins were bland, featureless and completely unattractive. Furthermore, the shapes of the mesh bodies themselves were – at least in my opinion – nothing to write home about. I also considered them to be too tall for my liking. OK, maybe they were no longer the giants I remember from previous years, but they’ve still got some way to go. Their proportions also need some more work; I wish the Lab had paid more heed to Penny Patton’s articles on avatar proportions and camera positioning, but they live in (unjustifiable, if you ask me) fear of “content breakage” as far as the default camera offsets are concerned.

Yes, but they’re fitted mesh, so you can change the shape to your liking, right?

You’d be surprised rather unpleasantly. The shapes provided were non-modifiable, so there’s really no scope for adjustment for the time being. And I’m saying “for the time being”, because, after Inara Pey tweeted on this attribute to LL CEO Ebbe Altberg, he responded as follows:

Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg's response to Inara Pey on the permissions of the shapes provided with the new fitted mesh avatars. Screenshot courtesy of Inara Pey.

Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg’s response to Inara Pey on the permissions of the shapes provided with the new fitted mesh avatars. Screenshot courtesy of Inara Pey.

So, I suppose this will be fixed soon. So much the better, because the werewolf avatar’s underlying shape really needs some extra fettling by the user. In the image below, you will see that its feet are buried in the ground, so one would need to tweak the “hover” slider in the “Body” tab… I honestly expected that the Lab’s people would have spotted this issue earlier.

As you can see, the werewolf's feet are buried in the floor. This needs a "hover" adjustment to be fixed. I'd have expected LL's people to have taken care of this issue before releasing the avatar. The (temporary, as Ebbe Altberg said) lack of mod permissions means that you can't fix the underlying shape; you'd have to create one from scratch.

As you can see, the werewolf’s feet are buried in the floor. This needs a “hover” adjustment to be fixed. I’d have expected LL’s people to have taken care of this issue before releasing the avatar. The (temporary, as Ebbe Altberg said) lack of mod permissions means that you can’t fix the underlying shape; you’d have to create one from scratch.

Potential issues for newbies with the new avatars

To dress up our avatars, we either purchase old-style texture layer-based clothing, or we opt rigged mesh clothing, with fitted mesh clothing slowly getting some popularity, while unrigged mesh, and old-style prims and sculpts remaining as an option for accessories like bracelets, anklets, shoes, hair and belts. These garments and accessories are usually designed for the default avatar skeleton, for certain “after-market” avatar enhancements (such as rigged mesh hands and feet provided by several vendors out there), or for specific “after-market” rigged mesh avatar bodies.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no accessories designed for LL’s new mesh avatars, and I can easily see how this could cause confusion and frustration to new users.

Then, of course, the fact that the skins of the human-like avatars leave a lot to be desired makes them rather unlikely to “stick” as a choice. Unless, of course, a range of “after-market” skins, clothes and accessories becomes available for these avatars in a timely fashion.

Other issues

First of all… Lag. Sadly, it’s a fact of (Second) Life that a region where everyone is wearing (high-polygon) rigged mesh avatars, avatar components (heads, hands, feet, hair), clothing and accessories (rigged or unrigged) becomes a lag hell, with the problem becoming exacerbated by the overuse of high-resolution (1024×1024 and 512×512) textures in parts whose size simply doesn’t justify this sort of resolution. Neither SL’s infrastructure nor the capabilities of most SL users’ computers give me any reason to believe that people will not experience reduced frame rates and texture thrashing/discards (and eventual crashes) on their aging machines in regions where most residents wear these avatars (or other such avatars).

This is how the new fitted mesh avatars are rendered with SL Go. Quite disappointing, I must say.

This is how the new fitted mesh avatars are rendered with SL Go. Quite disappointing, I must say.

The second issue has to do with an officially-sanctioned third-party product: Onlive’s SL Go, which I had reviewed in an earlier post. SL Go provides people running on Android tablets, and low-spec (or old) Windows PCs and Macs with a way to enjoy SL in the highest graphical quality the official viewer can offer (however, without the tweaks you can get with an option-rich TPV like Firestorm). Where am I getting with this? Well, I first saw these avatars while they were being tested by Inara Pey. I was logged in with SL Go, because I was soon going to visit a very busy region that my laptop can’t really handle. The fitted mesh avatars (i.e. all avatars except for the demon and the werewolf) did not render correctly. All of them stretched to the region’s 0,0,0 coordinate.

This is not the first time I’m encountering fitted mesh rendering problems with SL Go. In fact, I’ve encountered them even on the official viewer and Firestorm’s most recent versions (4.6.1 and later). My own case, however, was the BUG-5139 issue, which affects certain AMD graphics card/driver combinations.

To encounter this stretch issue with SL Go was a nasty surprise. At first, I thought SL Go’s servers were relying on AMD hardware and were therefore affected by the bug. Now, after testing the fitted mesh avatars myself with SL Go and with Firestorm 4.6.5 (and I’m using an ATI Mobility Radeon HD4500 graphics chipset, which relies on the legacy drivers), I see that my own laptop renders the avatars correctly, while SL Go doesn’t. Thus, I’m led to believe that SL Go’s viewer is built on an older version of the official LL viewer that doesn’t support fitted mesh. Personally, I find this to be rather disappointing, especially considering that SL Go was developed in very close collaboration with the Lab and is promoted by the Lab itself. Also, keep in mind that quite a few users who are on Mac OS X 10.6 are currently stuck with Firestorm 4.4.2, so these avatars won’t render correctly for them either.

Conclusions

Well… I’m not thrilled. I’m not going to comment on the non-modifiable shapes right now, as this will be fixed. Most of the new avatars are – at best – nothing to write home about. I’m not into the horror movie-inspired avatars, either; horror movies have never been my favourites, after all. And, as I said, they don’t play well with SL Go. I do think, however, that there was some pressure from the community for the release of these avatars, and I’m not entirely convinced that this launch was not premature after all.

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See also:

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Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-vn

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5 thoughts on “My experience with the new (fitted) mesh avatars

  1. Good write-up, thanks for checking these out and letting us know what you think of them. From what I’ve read on your, and other blog posts, these starter avatars are going over like a dead balloon among experienced residents. I’d be interested to hear what newbies think actually, because clearly, our (and most oldbies’) experience will bias our perception in regards to how sticky these avatars will be (especially after the mod is introduced). I do take your point that these avatars might cause excessive lag, which is something I’d not considered until you pointed it out. Thanks!

    1. Sadly, it seems that downloading mesh objects (whatever they may be: avatars, clothing, houses etc) at once takes its toll on both our routers and our computers; in previous years’ iterations of the server and viewer code, there were even cases when routers mistook the concurrent mesh downloads as a DDoS attack and shut down the connection to SL – this, of course, was interpreted by the users as a viewer crash. I’ve experienced this in last year’s Fantasy Faire. Now things have changed, but still mesh is not a panacea, as an exceedinly high-poly can be tougher on the viewer. Imagine a scene full of such models… Do read Utilizator Mode’s explanations.

      The key to reducing lag is optimising the mesh model by removing unnecessary geometry, and also being judicious about texture resolution.

  2. There seems to be a clique of content creators against Fitted Mesh, and taking the chance to attack the new Avatars. I’d say the Fitted Mesh clothing items are the supermarket denim jeans of SL fashion. Like the clothing of the older defaults, not a total waste, but limited. Within those limits…

    1. Well, there was quite a bit of upset surrounding the mesh deformer, and more than a few conspiracy theories – and this explains in part why there was so much negativity against Fitted Mesh. To the best of my understanding (correct me if I’m wrong), things seem to be as follows:

      First of all, there was – and, at least in some circles, there still seems to be – a cult of personality of sorts around Qarl; to many people’s eyes, he’s THE coders’ coder and the bee’s knees. Although it seems many viewer developers (both within the Lab and within TPV teams) have criticised his code. And there are quite a few conspiracy theories, according to which the Lab is somehow jealous of Qarl’s super-duper coding skills and won’t adopt his code out of pettiness. Fact is… These theories are hogwash – and even Qarl himself admitted that fitted mesh makes more sense for software engineers, as it’s simpler to do and easier to maintain in the long run.

      Then, there are certain misconceptions. The first one: Many users believe that, just because they buy L$, rent land (either directly from LL or, like me, from landlords), purchase stuff, upload content, and/or even have a commercial presence within Second Life, they are investors. However, one can only be viewed as an investor in a company if they have put money in the company itself, if they have bought shares, if they directly fund the company’s expenses and whatnot. To claim that purchase or usage of a certain product or service makes one an investor and not just a customer is, to say the least, delusional. Does, for instance, my ownership of a certain car make me an investor in that particular car manufacturer? Of course not. And it’s exactly the same with SL. It doesn’t matter if I use SL to make a buck or simply for leisure, and it doesn’t matter if I use my car to carry products to customers or if I use it as a taxi or if I use it just to commute to work and for a trip to the local supermarket.

      The second misconception is that, just because a number of residents hired a developer to do something for them, the Lab is under any obligation to adopt these contributions. Sorry guys, that’s just not the case. Let’s take another recent issue as an example: The advent of materials has brought about the removal of two rendering capabilities from the shaders: now, local lights are no longer reflected in Linden water, and also, if an object that has shininess or materials is reflected in Linden water, then shininess and materials won’t be rendered in its reflection. Quite a disappointment for SL photographers, and, although I filed a JIRA (BUG-5575), it was closed as “expected behaviour”, because such rendering would be “too expensive” for the rendering timeline. I gave Oz Linden a counterproposal (“give us an option to enable this rendering for snapshots and for those of us whose machines can handle it”), but, like most software engineers, he’s quite averse to giving users a big number of options, and for quite good reason, if I’m honest. Let’s suppose now that I decide to hire a good coder (or a bunch of good coders) to put together some custom shaders that will bring back these abilities to the viewer, and we put them on a repo (as a matter of fact, the Black Dragon viewer already brought these capabilities back). Will the Lab be obliged to adopt them? No. Not at all. I might present them to a TPV, which may or may not adopt them, but whether the Lab will be convinced to adopt them in the future is a wholly different discussion.

      That said, there is some serious reluctance towards the adoption of Fitted Mesh. First of all, rigging for Fitted Mesh is not easy. It requires a fair bit of work, it’s not straightforward, there have been bugs and even errors in the templates provided, and the documentation is still incomplete. So, I understand why certain creators prefer to wait until the smoke clears and/or until they feel confident that they can produce consistently good results with Fitted Mesh. Also, we need to take into account that (i) many users of older Macs are stuck with older viewers (like Firestorm 4.4.2) thanks to Cocoa issues, (ii) SL Go itself hasn’t incorporated the rendering of Fitted Mesh in its own viewer (an unjustifiable omission, to be honest), (iii) many SL users who use AMD (formerly ATI) graphics cards with certain drivers see weird stretching of Fitted Mesh garments and accessories – and this isn’t even something LL can do something about. Those users who are stuck with laptops that have built-in “legacy” ATI graphics cards are out of luck here.

      Fitted Mesh has still some way to go, but it’s still a considerable step forward nonetheless. And one must always remember that SL is always under heavy development.

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