Ever since Second Life opened its virtual doors way back in 2003, it’s been saddled with one of the many bad decisions that were made by Linden Lab back then: the camera offsets, on which I’ve written quite a few times in the past. I’m certainly not the first SL blogger to write about it: many others came before me, and the first one to do so was Penny Patton, way back in 2011 with her seminal posts “A Matter of Scale” and “A Matter of Perspective” (archived, as some image links are now dead) and the JIRA she had filed. The default camera offsets greatly affect the way we see our virtual environment, the way we move inside it, the way we perceive the space that’s available to us, and the way we build, scale, and shape things – from our avatar shapes to our furniture and builds.
Before I go any further, allow me to demonstrate the default settings and how they affect the way we experience our in-world surroundings:
The topic of Second Life’s default camera offset is an old one. The first SL blogger / user who brought it to people’s attention was Penny Patton, with her seminal post “A Matter of Perspective” from as far back as 2011. Ever since then, various other bloggers have written about it, basing their work on her own, hoping to get people to understand how and why the way the way we see the virtual world through the placement and behaviour of our camera affects the way we experience and use it. As a matter of fact, it even has a major impact on the very usefulness of the platform itself. I had written about the issue four years ago, and I have been pestering Oz Linden himself about it in various Open Development User Group meetings, but to no avail; he acknowledges the issue, but he cites the risk of potential complaints about “content breakage” as the main deterrent.
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.
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 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.
It’s a matter of time… Or is it?
I’ve gone on record numerous times for being more than a tad sceptical about VR goggles like the Oculus Rift. I simply don’t believe the hype that they’ll replace the display/keyboard/mouse combination anytime soon, for a number of reasons that are far outside the scope of this article. I do, however, hope that they catch on, although not in the sanctimonious “oh, if you don’t use the Oculus/Hydra/voice combination, you must get with the programme or sod off” way in which they’re being (over)hyped right now.
One benefit I can easily see in such devices is that they might make people wake up to the fact that everything around them is oversized and that the default camera settings are not right. That way, I believe they’ll adopt improved camera settings for their non-Oculus usage of SL and similar virtual words and, hopefully, exert pressure on the Lab to improve them and (perhaps more importantly) on content creators to finally start building to scale.
I also believe and hope that, as more SL bloggers experiment with improved camera offsets and share their experiences with their readers, more people will experiment and adopt camera settings that make the whole virtual environment look more natural and will subsequently scale their avatars and builds down to more realistic proportions.
What can I do to improve things for myself?
First of all, change your camera settings.
In my previous posts on the matter, I explain how this is done, and so do Penny Patton and other people who followed suit afterwards. You will be surprised by how much more proportionate, natural and realistic your environment will look and feel. You will also see that you have more space at your disposal than you thought. You’ll also start working on your avatar’s proportions, eventually.
Second: Educate yourself about building
I mentioned earlier in this post that what we build is oversized because of the default camera offsets that give a distorted view. That’s true. However, ever since my first days, most of the building instructors I’ve known have never said that we don’t need to make the things we create that big. In fact, all of my old notecards from building classes give sizing figures that are at least 30% larger than what the same object would be in RL.
In RL, we don’t build entirely arbitrarily. There are standards we follow, so that the average person will easily use something. In RL, if you were to go up a staircase whose steps have a rise of 50 cm and a tread depth of 1 meter, you’d soon end up wondering what idiot thought this would make any sense to anyone. The same goes for doors; if you encountered an interior door that would be 2.5 meters wide, 5.5 meters tall and 20 cm thick, and its doorknob was above your eye level, you’d get another “WTF?” moment. And a bedroom whose ceiling was 7 meters above the floor would definitely not make sense to you – in RL. Yet, this is the norm in Second Life – and if the rooms, doors and stairsteps are built like that, imagine what the furniture is like. Think I’m exaggerating? I have quite a few pieces of oversized stuff in my inventory: houses, furniture, the works – there’s no need for me to name and shame content creators…
But you can begin building to scale today. Besides changing your camera offsets to something sensible, you can observe (and measure) how things are sized in RL. You can also find and download the International Residential Code, as well as its subsets (such as the Stair Building Code from the Stairway Manufacturers’ Association) and inform yourselves. Below, I’ll give you both the RL standards and the figures I usually use when building.
Minimum headroom depth: 6′ 8″ – 2.032 m
Minimum tread depth: 10″ – 25.4 cm
Maximum rise: 7.75″ – 19.685 cm
Maximum tread depth variability: 3/8″ – 0.953 cm
Maximum rise variability: 3/8″ – 0.953 cm
Maximum slope of riser: 30°
Personally, I apply these to my SL building as follows, to accommodate even extremely tall avatars (even now, there are too many avatars that are about 2.30 meters tall):
Standard headroom depth: 9’8″ – 3 m
Minimum tread depth: 9.843″ – 25 cm
Standard rise: 5.9055″ – 15 cm
Maximum rise: 7.874″ – 20 cm
Maximum slope of riser: 38.65° (typical slope of riser: 30°-35°)
In RL, the norm is, depending on when your home was built, 8″ (2.438 m) or, if it was built after 1994, 9″ (2.743 m). You will also encounter 10″ high ceilings (3.048 m). The apartments and houses I’ve encountered in RL usually had 10″ high ceilings, with the exception of the ground floor of some really old neoclassical homes, some of which followed the old European standard (13″ – 3.962 m).
In SL, I build as follows:
Minimum ceiling height: 11′ 9’8″ – 3 m
Typical ceiling height: 13′ 1.48″ – 4 m; if appropriate or necessary, I might go up to 16′ 6.85″ – 5 m.
In RL, a typical US residential door is 36″ x 80″ (91 x 203 cm) – Source: Wikipedia.
For exterior and passage (room to room) doors, dimensions in the US are 2’6″ to 3′ wide, increasing in 2″ increments. Most residential interior doors are 2’6″ (0.76 m) wide except when designed to allow wheelchair access; in these cases the width is 3′ (0.91). The height of the typical door is between 6′ (1.828 m) to 8′ (2.438 m).
Of course, terrace, balcony and garage doors can be larger, and they usually are.
In my own builds, I size the doors as follows:
Minimum width: 3′ 3.7″ – 0.8 m
Maximum width: 4′ 7.118″ – 1.4 m
Minimum height: 7′ 2.614″ – 2.2 m
Standard height: 7′ 6.551″ – 2.3 m
Tall Building height: 9′ 2.236″ – 2.8m
Maximum height: 9′ 8″ – 3 m
Minimum width: 3’3.7″ – 1 m
Maximum width: 6’6.74″ – 2 m
Minimum height: 7′ 2.614″ – 2.2 m
Standard height: 7′ 6.551″ – 2.3 m
Tall Building height: 9′ 2.236″ – 2.8m
Maximum height: 11’7.795″ – 3.5 m – If appropriate or necessary, I might go up to 13’1.48″ – 4 m.
Standard door thickness (w/o doorknobs): 1.9685″ – 5 cm
Standard exterior gate thickness: 2.953″ – 7.5 cm
Maximum door thickness (for gates): 3.937″ – 10 cm
I could go on and on; for instance, your house’s interior walls don’t need to be 1 meter thick; you can make do with 20 cm just fine, and 25 cm is perfectly OK for exterior walls. Unless, of course, you’re making a house with very thick stone-built exterior walls, in which case you can go up to 1 meter – I’ve seen such houses in RL, after all.
Of course, you don’t have to follow my own practices – after all, I try to adapt RL standards to SL in order to accommodate taller avatars as well. I’m giving you my ideas and practices as an example of what you can do. However, it does make sense to build to scale as much as possible; it adds realism, it facilitates the suspension of the user’s disbelief (thus helping immersion no end), and it sets a good example for everyone.
As said, there has been literally no action on behalf of Linden Lab on this matter. When I had mentioned the topic to Oz Linden back then in the Open Development UG meeting (offering the alternative of providing a number of easy-to-edit and easy-to-recall presets, as well as ye olde default settings, for those that still want them), he declined and cited the potential for user complaints and content breakage. In my previous post, I have stated my position on both of his arguments and explained my reasoning, so I think I don’t need to reiterate them here.
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.