Building to scale in Second Life

I often call Second Life “the Land of Giants”, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. As Penny Patton has explained in her blog posts titled “A Matter of Scale” and “A Matter of Perspective“, Second Life’s default camera offsets, combined with the exaggerated height of the default avatars, make everything seem smaller than it really is. This drives us to not only design our avatars basing them on skewed, unnatural proportions (tiny heads, very short arms and torsos, extremely long legs), but also build our, erm, builds accordingly.

The default camera setting, rear view. Note how small everything seems, driving us to compensate for this by making everything considerably larger than it would be in real life.

The default camera setting, rear view. Note how small everything seems, driving us to compensate for this by making everything considerably larger than it would be in real life.

And the front view with the default settings. Note how the avatar's proportions are skewed: The head, arms and torso look larger than they are, and the legs appear shorter. To compensate for this, we design our avatars to have terribly small heads, short torsos, short arms, and disproportionately long legs. As for the avatar height, it dwarves NBA players. Also note how small the bed behind me seems.

And the front view with the default settings. Note how the avatar’s proportions are skewed: The head, arms and torso look larger than they are, and the legs appear shorter. To compensate for this, we design our avatars to have terribly small heads, short torsos, short arms, and disproportionately long legs. As for the avatar height, it dwarves NBA players. Also note how small the bed behind me seems.

From houses to furniture, everything is huge to make up for this perception of smallness. If you were to own – in Real Life (RL) – furniture with the same size as is the norm in SL, I’m pretty sure you’d have a hard time using it; you’d have to literally climb on chairs, sofas, armchairs, bar stools and beds, you wouldn’t be able to reach the writing surface of your desk, and perhaps you wouldn’t even be able to fit some of that furniture in your home. Not that the dimensions of our SL homes are any different. In SL, we tend to see stairsteps 50 cm high; interior doors 5 meters high and 2 meters wide, and exterior ones larger still; ceiling heights of 7 or even 10 meters. The average home in SL has a footprint that is much larger than its RL equivalent.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll once again attribute the perpetuation of these skewed proportions and build sizes to Second Life’s default camera offsets, which make everything appear smaller than it really is. Please note that I don’t claim to know what the situation is in OpenSim-based grids; many of them are private-use grids, and I’m not in any of the commercial ones. If they use the same default settings of the standard Second Life viewer and the TPVs that are based on it, things will be the same. If any readers are active in the commercial OpenSim grids, your experience would be most welcome.

Who’s to blame for this?

If we were to believe common Second Life “wisdom”, Linden Lab is the product of an X-rated “get-together” participating Satan, Vlad the Impaler, Idi Amin, Cthulhu, Elizabeth Báthory, William Edward Hickman, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Sithrak the Blind Gibberer from the NSFW webcomic Oglaf. So, you can blame the Lab for everything; even for that speeding ticket you got last year.

It’s true, of course, that the initial decision was the Lab’s. If I’m not mistaken, they simply copied the perspective that was used back then in 3D and pseudo-3D games, without much research, and those settings stuck.

It’s also true that the Lab is unwilling – to say the least – to fix those settings. Penny Patton’s JIRA from a very long time ago was never acted upon and, although I’ve brought the subject up at Oz Linden’s Open Development User Group meetings a few times, the answer has always been negative, even though Oz himself has said he tinkers with all sorts of different camera offsets, depending on the situation at hand. This means, of course, that people within the Lab are aware of the situation, are aware of the detrimental effect these camera offsets have on immersiveness, user experience and everything, yet they don’t touch them and they don’t provide an easy-to-use tool to change offsets on the fly.

Why don’t they touch those camera offsets? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get all sorts of different answers. Some will say that the Lab is evil and rapacious and wants to force you to build large, so that you’ll run out of prims and purchase more land. Others will say the Lab is evil and likes to torture its users while roasting their newborn babies – or something similar. Others will say that the Lab is just plain stupid. And so on.

The truth is somewhat different: These settings have been there for so long, that now there is an extremely large number of objects made with and for them. If the Lab were to change the settings and replace them with Penny Patton’s overnight, it is feared that there would be content breakage – real or perceived.

My own settings differ somewhat from Penny’s. This, as Inara Pey pointed out, essentially prompts the Lab to say “Why bother? Those who want to change those settings will do so anyway.”

“Content breakage”, you say?

Yes. Real or perceived. Actually, there wouldn’t be any real content breakage that ould result directly from the change. Your furniture would still work just fine. So would your vehicles, your homes, everything. But you’d suddenly see that everything around you and everything on you is not right. You’d realise that your builds are oversized. You’d see that your arms and torso are too short, your head is too small, and your legs too long. You’d realise your avatar is too damned tall (and, if you’re one of those people, you’d suddenly feel stupid for claiming operators of realistically-proportioned are ageplayers). And then, you’d start trying to fix things.

You’d try to make your avatar proportionate, and then you’d realise that many of your animations simply don’t work well, because they were designed for the short arms of the default avatar. You’d try to modify your house to make it more realistic – if it came with modify permissions. And the results would depend on your building skills and your patience. I’m not sure you’d try to touch your oversized vehicles, or your scripted furniture, especially if the animations included therein cannot be adjusted. You’d end up doing an awful lot of work, through trial and error, and perhaps you’d break several of your virtual belongings in your effort to scale them more realistically. Perhaps you’d even pack or outright delete non-modifiable objects. Perhaps you’d say “it was well worth it” and not look back…

But the Lab fears (and rightly so) that you’d go up in arms in the forums, yelling, screaming and perhaps blaming those “cunning ageplayers” who “goaded the Lab into making camera offsets to accommodate kid and lolita avatars” and caused you to break everything in your inventory. A look in the official forums and other such outlets for opinion on all things SL justifies this fear. And no, I’m not exaggerating at all.

So, the Lab believes it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation, with the Lab believing that it’ll be more damned if it does. So, it opts to simply not do a thing and continue kicking the can down the road. Perhaps they’re waiting until more people have adopted better, more realistic camera offsets and then making a gradual transition, when the oversized content has become obsolete enough for people to not care about it anymore.

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19 thoughts on “Building to scale in Second Life

  1. – Being a novice, I’d guess the translation to new-mode “just” ( =) ) requires a mathematical algorithim that Linden could, after designing and testing it, make available to all users as a button-press action, reversible. It would reconfigure the SL environment AND your objects so they’d look the same but be new-mode.
    – There could be a deadline of a year ahead to when everything would be new-mode permanently.
    – Being a 65-year-old IT-background guy, I’d guess its VASTLY more complicated than that, and is a can of worms they keep well away from the can opener.
    Bruce Thomson in New Zealand.

  2. Back when I more into SL, I was one of those pedantic people who did everything to RL scale. I even made measurement prims and adjusted my body proportions against them, irrespective of what the UI was reporting. 🙂 Aside from occasonally being mistaken for an age-player, I was also accused of building places that were ‘mouse-look small’. 🙂

    1. Doing things to RL scale doesn’t classify as “pedantic”; this word is used in different situations. Anyway, people’s attitudes towards avatar and object scale within SL are changing, thankfully.

  3. Regarding open sim, as most viewers are Sl based (Firestorm, kokua, singularity and even old Imprudence or phoenix), the problem still remains, with the difference that as we dont really nee to worry about number of prims (if i wish i can make my region pass from 15000 to 45000 or even 100000 prim limit in less then a min by editing the region config file.).
    When we did build our Osgrid regions we where still using the default camera settings of imprudence that are the same as LL and almost all viewers at the time, so now that we go there with your camera settings, all seem so big, lol.

  4. And to be honest, there are already quite a few camera huds that make the same effect of changing the debug settings and many use them when riding bikes or do whatever so i cant understand the reluctance, if not of the lab, at least of some of the major Tpv players, in offering a much more realistic and useful set.
    Luckly some of the smaller and less known Tpv are already using penny settings but still what is needed is a push by the major player on Sl and open sim, Firestorm.

  5. There is one MAJOR flaw with the “lets all build to scale” concept. You presume everyone in Second Life is attempting to replicate the “reality” you desire to experience. The truth of the matter is, if everyone picked the same large or small scale, avatars and builds would all “seem normal”. But your expectations are unrealistic. There are widely diverse groups of folks using Second life and they all have different motivations for their designs. Some groups ( architects and maybe educators ) whose main purpose it is to replicate RL, would find it easy to support your “everything to scale” mandate. That group probably does not represent the majority of the user population. As someone who has briefly studied traditional animation techniques, I can tell you scale is always manipulated when it comes to heroic fantasy figures. Traditional drawing techniques for such “avatars” inflate their size by 20% to re-inforce the concept of heroic proportions (Normal avatars are ” 5 heads tall ” while heroic characters appear “6 heads tall” with bodies enlarged proportionally). Given the wide variety of fantasy use cases in Second Life, it does not surprise me at all to see 7’8″ avatars.

    The beauty of the platform is that you can make of it what you like. If you want exact RL dimensions in your regions, build them that way. Equip your friends with the knowledge they will need to change the viewer defaults to “fit your world”. Amuse yourself by measuring and comparing all the objects you encounter.
    The “casual visitor” to your space might wonder why you are one of the minority that makes doors too small for them to fit through, or rooms you cannot cam around in without having “detailed knowledge” of alternate camera setups.

    Personally, I enjoy the variety of “abnormal” shapes and sizes I find in avatars, buildings, and the rest of the “things” people build. I’m way happier in a world that encourages “artistic license” in public places. If I had the “prim police” visiting my regions to tell me my castle doors and step sizes are over sized, I’d be looking for a different place to explore. Maybe you just need to recognize that you are engaging a highly creative population with vivid imaginations whose first concern is not to “measure up” to your demands that everything fits the scale you have decided to use. I prefer my heroically scaled fantasy avatar because I’m tired of every aspect of my RL being measured, scrutinized, minimized, and policed. I prefer to engage my friends in the spaces they create to share the wonders of their imaginations, rather than to diminish those building efforts by noting that they have exceptionally large or small petunias…

    1. You begin from a flawed assumption: That those who strive for more accurate and realistic builds and avatars are pedants who try to stifle people’s creativity. This assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, people who sized and shaped their avatars and builds realistically have been for far too long on the receiving end of false “ageplayer” accusations from others who made their avatars extremely tall. Have you read Penny Patton’s articles? If you have, then I’m sure you’ve seen those bits where she says she wants people to make informed decisions about their builds and avatars. This means, quite simply:

      “Do you want your avatar to be an amazon, or a huge, hulking warrior? Great. Go ahead. But know that, if all avatars are as tall as yours, then yours won’t stand out at all. Nor will a menacing Minotaur tower over a warrior if both are the same size.”

      Those of us who strive for better building and avatar proportions strive not only for realism, but for better immersion and a more atmospheric experience. If the “typical” RL height for a person was the once-typical for SL, then you wouldn’t have those fairy tales and legends about giants or anything, because extremely tall people wouldn’t stand out.

      That said, no one prevents you from making “abnormal” builds. Go ahead – but do it because you want to get a certain result from a creative standpoint, not because that’s the norm in SL and similar virtual worlds. Let’s face it: an “abnormal”, huge, “built-for-giants” building will be far more impressive and imposing if the others aren’t that big.

      1. Where did I say anything about the size of your avatar? Why is your response based on characterizing me as someone accusing you of anything? My avatar is 6’2 in SL, I feel tiny sometimes, but that’s got NOTHING to do with designing sims for the widest audience. I’m also curious about how you deal with the fact that avatars move at totally unrealistic speeds. There is nothing natural about taking 4 steps and crossing a 20 meter space in 3 seconds. How much of the “expanded scale” in buildings is to counteract effects like that?

        Your desire to characterize RL scale enforcement as randomly “better” seems odd. I do scale building all the time, but I use 1/2 scale to maximize the “apparent size” of the space and get 4 regions worth of content on a single region. On my sims, You are the Outsider Giants, who interrupt the realism and immersion of my spaces. The folks paying for 1 sim instead of 4 seem to think its a good idea.

        I think a more logical response to the various build scales is not to mandate a single “normal” but make it easier for you to adapt your avatar to the changing scales.

        1. It’s obvious that you come here with the preconception that everyone is trying to impose something on you and to force you to do something. I’d suggest starting to read more carefully, without jumping into conclusions about people’s intentions.

  6. Building to scale may become all the more important in the next few years as more people access virtual worlds using HMDs, where scale is much much more apparent than on a 2D monitor, AND SL begins to see some real well-funded competition, grids built out to scale from the start. If SL is to continue to stay relevant into the future, creators need to embrace realistic scale in a big way.

    Whether you buy that HMD mass-adoption will happen or not, another big technological change just round the corner will be the ability to scan in real-world buildings at 1:1 ratio into mesh objects. Google’s Project Tango promises to make this 3D scanning technology accessible to everyone in the form of inexpensive android devices within just the next couple of years. How big of an effect this will have on virtual world architecture is hard to say, however in 3-5 years time I would expect it to be common for the average virtual world user to want to import their self-scanned or otherwise acquired 3D scans of RL locations, requiring props and furniture acquired in-world to be of equally realistic scale. This is one more reason why creators ought to be thinking about scale now.

  7. I don’t think that having a better camera angle of view by default has anything to do with trying to impose any to anybody, just being logical!
    Default ones are just to obnoxious and for long i struggle with them, same with the v3 interface, i used, for over 1 year after mesh appeared, a non mesh viewer.
    But one day i realized that the hassle (And it was for me, 1 week to manage to use the v3 interface as used i was to v1) of learning a new interface then i could also try some i had rad on a blog, about diff camera angles settings.
    Since then my all experience in Sl and Open sim has changed and i dont regret it at all.
    Still i agree that the last we need is user community self imposed rules.
    Tos ones are more then enough and i just wish all follow a simple one, My freedom ends when it collides with others.
    And the last thing i will wish for Second Life is a standard of any kind, even if that will mean no VR future.

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