The advent of materials processing (normal and specular maps) in Second Life brought about a number of changes to the way things are rendered, compared to how they used to be – at least for those of us whose graphics cards allow us to enable the Advanced Lighting Model (formerly known as “deferred rendering”. Now, when this new capability was added, many people started jumping up and down about how “irrelevant” or “useless” it was, about how only… twenty users in total would be able to see materials, how it would really kill the performance of everyone’s viewer, etc.
I’m going to speak from my own experience. Up until this month, my main machine for using Second Life was a laptop. A 2009 midrange model, with a dual-core Intel T4300 CPU, 4GB of main RAM, and an ATI (now known as AMD) Mobility Radeon HD4500 graphics card. Those in the know understand that this was hardly “high end” even then, and it became antiquated relatively fast. I can’t vouch for how other people with older, and probably lower-spec, dedicated graphics cards, or with integrated Intel chipsets, would fare, but, ever since the 2012 updates to the rendering pipeline were made, I was able to run in deferred (ALM) practically all the time – without shadows and ambient occlusion. Yes, I know my computer’s performance wasn’t much. It was usable, though, and the in-world pictures I once envied so much were now within my reach. So, I believe that ALM, which is a prerequisite for viewing materials, is within the reach of more people than was believed back then.
Nowadays, I’m the happy owner of a laptop with a fourth-generation dual-core i7, 8GB RAM and an NVidia GeForce GT840M, as well as a desktop with an i7-4770K CPU, 16GB RAM and an ASUS ROG Poseidon GTX780 graphics card. As one would expect, my machines’ performance in SL is a few orders of magnitude above what I once was used to. Still, I have the feeling that, as beautiful as SL looks right now, it could be even more spectacular, had some rendering capabilities (i) not been removed with the advent of materials processing, (ii) been added.