August 15, 2006

The Parallels Are Fascinating... and a Bit Eery

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As we proceed with the construction of the virtual aloft hotel, all of us on this project are starting to discover just how deep - and wide - the virtual and the real worlds are beginning to intersect and overlap. The parallels between what is now taking place in the virtual environment, and what takes place in the real world are fascinating... and often a bit eery to experience.

Here's one quick example:

Last night after coming home from work, I decided to log into Second Life to check out the island of aloft and to see for myself what progress was done that day on the interior of the lobby by the Electric Sheep designers. Looking at my avatar, I felt like a construction foreman checking up on his team to make sure that they were staying on schedule and on budget.

After teleporting to the island, I walked into the hotel lobby (or to be specific, my avatar did).

I expected the hotel to be empty. But instead I found Cory, Makaio, and Giff all there. As I walked in, I stood there for a moment, watching them scurrying around the room.

They were pointing to walls, moving furniture, and hanging lights. They were so busy that I don't think they noticed me at first.

What amazed me was just how close what I was seeing inside of SL is to what happens in the real world. To see the avatars actually build things inside the virtual space, like construction workers do in RL, was fascinating and - to be completely honest - a bit weird. When Makaio turned around and finally saw me, I found myself IMing to him - "Please don't get distracted by me being here. Keep working. I'm just gonna walk around to check on how things are coming along"

Until last night I had no idea that the SL designers actually design inside the virtual space as they would in a real space. To see the designers work as a group inside the virtual environment, and to be there while they were doing it, was absolutely captivating.

- Marc Schiller, ElectricArtists

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Posted by at 7:47 AM in 3D Modeling | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0) |

August 10, 2006

On Importing 3D Models Into Second Life

Dick Eades posted the following question on an older post and I wanted to answer it for everyone. Dick wrote:

I am an architect who has been working for forty years in the hotel field and I am interested in exploring the possibility of presenting designs in a virtual world such as SL. I work with several CAD programs including SketchUp and would like to know if there is any provision for importing dxf or 3ds models into SL. I would hate to think that I would have to recreate the entire model using SL's building system.

I also can't see some of my clients going through the process of getting SL memberships, logging in, and learning the interface just to see their project. "Can't you send it on a CD?"

Right now there are some very early experiments with importing 3D models from external applications like Maya or Blender, but nothing is "production" level yet. Second Life is streamed over the Internet and is entirely dynamic (i.e. it can change at any time, and everyone needs to see those changes at the same time). Given this, Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) had to design a new 3D system with a much much lighter footprint per shape. Even with Linden Lab’s lighter footprint, savvy designers/builders in Second Life work to optimize their builds so that they run well on older computers. This, of course, will change as computing power and graphic cards increase in power.

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Second Life is not based on 3D meshes. Rather, everything is built from very simple building blocks called primitives: box, cylinder, sphere, torus, tube, and ring. You can manipulate these primitives by changing size, cut, taper, hollow, etc. The core shapes and their permutations become your alphabet. You combine them and texture them to make your words, sentences and novels. People used to powerful 3D applications might find this a little crude, but you can actually make extremely impressive structures with this method. Of course, working from primitive shapes is not a new concept – art teachers throughout time have taught painters to examine nature this way. Cezanne once wrote “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone,” and the American painter Thomas Eakins used to train his students by making them do studies of an egg, a lump of sugar, or a piece of chalk.

Bringing a model in from an external application like Maya or Blender requires a significant translation effort, especially if you want to translation to be optimized for computing performance. We believe that an import/translation tool is possible to create, but it probably makes sense to do some of that translation in the 3D tools (like Maya) rather than making a translation program do all of the heavy lifting. For example, if you can build in Maya in a more compatible fashion to Second Life’s primitives, importing should be easier.

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As for Dick’s second question, you cannot save a Second Life model on CD because SL is entirely an online environment. You can use GL tools like OGLE to get Second Life objects into Maya (or even “print” them in 3D foam!), or just make a video of a walkthrough that can be edited and distributed.

However, Second Life is not designed to be a single-person, offline tool. Second Life's strengths are more along these lines:

- You can do a virtual tour with other people at the same time, communicating about what you see. The participants can be logged in from anywhere in the world.
- You can make changes on the fly. Other avatars around you instantly see those changes. You can even allow others to make changes and collaborate in real-time.
- You can bring objects to life using the scripting language, so that you can press a button or say a word and the building around will change on the fly or objects will have motion and interactivity (for example, the smart drawbridge which knows when to open and close). Again, as all this is happening, everyone in the virtual location would be seeing the same thing at the same time, no matter where they were located in the real world.

- You can integrate streamed audio and video into your 3D environment.
- I would also note that Second Life is an extremely fast building and prototyping platform, with a much lower learning curve than high-end tools like Maya

Hopefully all this helps answer your question!

-- Giff Constable

Posted by at 1:19 PM in 3D Modeling | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0) |

July 30, 2006

Creating the Outside Hotel Structure

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Today Makaio jumped into the project with both feet and quickly built up the exterior build for the aloft hotel itself. Our one guide so far as been an artist's concept drawing of the exterior of the hotel, so we had to make a number of assumptions in order to lay the SL build out. Makaio approximated the height in meters of each floor, allowed space in between for floor/ceiling pieces, made an educated guess as to the width of each "panel" (a window with left and right wall sections), and from there worked up some numbers to build by. The hotel stands at 28.5 meters tall for 5 stories total, and about 111 meters wide.

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This is a good place to mention space as it relates to your avatar - your inworld representation - in Second Life. The default view of yourself and your surroundings is not from eye level, but rather from up and behind your avatar, so as you move inworld, you're constantly looking down at the back of yourself. This "camera view" is one that people are comfortable with from video games, but it creates interesting scale problems when designing architecture for Second Life. Real life builds will usually have ceilings that are 7-9 feet tall, or about 2.1 to 2.9 meters. This height is far too small for your avatar to be able to walk through, considering your POV is actually much higher and further back than your avatar.

The other height factor is the fact that your avatar, in general, is MUCH taller than a normal human would be. This is due to a lot of factors, but probably the biggest one is the "slider system" that you use to create your avatar shape and size. There isn't any reference for exactly how tall you're creating yourself, so most people go with what looks proportionally correct - which generally ends up being about 7 to 9 feet tall. Couple that with the fact that you're interacting with objects and other avatars that also match that oversized scale, and you end up existing in an oversized world (compared to real life measurements), but you never really notice it.

Anyway, back to the build. Once the measurements were worked out - each floor has 6 meter high walls, which is roomy enough for avatars to walk through - the actual construction of the outside went very fast. The repeating elements were created and then duplicated and moved into place. During his construction, I was sitting at the camera position taking photos of the hotel going up. Normally I've been taking photos every 30 minutes as I work on the island itself, but since this went so fast I found myself staying put and grabbing photos every 1-5 minutes, so we can create a smooth looking progression animation.

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The photography went smooth, but I'm a little nervous about subsequent photo shoots - Second Life will be undergoing a program update tomorrow, and there are going to be some major changes to the photograph interface. I'm glad I got these done before that happens.

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Afterwards, some detail elements were added - a 3D Aloft logo, the sloping rooftop section - and initial color coding for texture work was put in. As it stands, the build is ready for texturing, besides some detail work which we'll crank out as the texture work is finalized.

As for myself, I laid down some more (non-textured) groundwork for the harbor, stairs and garden walkway. I'm looking forward to starting in on the Splash pool along the back patio tomorrow.

Posted by Cory Edo at 2:35 PM in 3D Modeling | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) |

July 28, 2006

Starting the Project

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The aloft island sim was purchased and delivered yesterday, so last night and this morning I popped over to take a look and start terraforming the land (raising/lowering land levels, applying ground textures, etc).

An island (or a "sim", for simulator) is a big square block of virtual land, about 64 acres worth. If you purchase your own island, you have the choice of setting it out alone in the middle of the virtual ocean, or attaching it to other islands, so people can travel from one to the other, creating a contiguous landmass. aloft island is attached to the northern tip of the Electric Sheep Company's island mass, a total of 9 sims. Its approachable from the south, across a void sim (an area of blank water). Right now its closed for the workers only, but people can sit right outside it in the void sim of Argali and watch us work - I already had a random visitor at about 4 this morning drop by and ask what was being built.

Terraforming is one of those jobs where you love it or hate it. I personally like it - it's time consuming, but really cool to watch the earth rise and fall to your whim. Its also the basis for any island construction job. You can go back and put in details later, but you have to get the general elevation, rivers, slopes, plateaus, etc. in before you can start any building.

Terraforming is important for a project like aloft as well, because one of our goals is to integrate the aloft hotel structure with the surrounding area of the sim so it all feels unified. We *could* drop the hotel right in the middle of the sim and have done with it, but where's the fun in that?

During our initial conference call with aloft, we learned that the aloft chain will eventually be able to be found in all environments - urban and suburban, all across the globe. The first hotel is planned for early 2008. Essentially, its a brand that will be found in many different settings and locations. That gave us a pretty wide selection in terms of how to frame the build. We decided to go with a resort theme, for three reasons:

- from a technical standpoint, an island makes the hotel easier to place as the focal point, and makes it easier to find for visitors - we're positioning the hotel in the center of the island on top of a large plateau, rather than hide it among auxillery buildings. Also, the streaming nature of SL means that the less objects a visitor has to download, the faster what actually IS there will appear - we call it "lag", and it can make or break an experience. Very few people stick around to load a laggy sim, no matter how wonderful it may be. The correlation is a webpage - if you don't optimize it to load as fast as possible, people won't stick around to see the fantastic content you have.

- the materials, colors, lines, feel, etc of the aloft hotel lends itself very well to a modern feel.

- SL, for a lot of people, is about escapism. The most popular and expensive virtual property is island land, or waterfront land - places that most people would like to live in real life, but can't. Making a top-notch island destination in SL almost invariably ensures interest from SL residents and lots of traffic, making aloft island a popular attraction.

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So with that concept in mind, I started the basic terraforming of the island. This included:

- a southern harbor and beach area. Flyover traffic would be coming across the void sim in the south, so a welcoming harbor for boats would add to the immersiveness effect. The main beach area makes for a great hangout spot to greet new visitors.

- the aloft hotel plateau. Since the hotel build will be the focal point of the island, we wanted it to be immediately visible and have perfect 360 degree views of the entire island. Its the tallest point of the island, the height of which adds to the variety of the land layout.

- infinity pools and patio area to the north of the plateau. Hey, its an island, and people love beautifully landscaped pools and outdoor settings in SL as much as they do in real life.

- the main walkway and gardens, which lead up from the harbor to the aloft plateau.

- boardwalks and a nature walk (along the northern edge) to fill out the rest of the space.

To get in the tropical mood - and to help set a sense of scale - I went and purchased three beautifully made boats (designed by the talented Jacqueline Trudeau) and set them in the harbor. These actually work with the SL wind and physics system, so you can take them for a cruise, but I won't have a lot of time to go sailing in the next few weeks - there's a lot of work to do.

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Posted by Cory Edo at 10:15 AM in 3D Modeling | TrackBack (0) |

July 25, 2006

Going from 2D to 3D
 

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Being that the first aloft hotel won't open in North America until 2008, we've begun building the virtual aloft in Second Life using a single exterior rendering as our guide. I've posted the image above. As the Electric Sheep team begins their 3-D modeling, we're all excited to see how they take the 2D image and turn it into a three dimensional experience. It's an interesting process that requires both skill to get the textures and sizing as close as possible to the rendering, but at the same time, making some educated guesses about what elements that aren't in the drawing (most notably the back of the building and the pool).

.... Marc, ElectricArtists

Posted by at 10:12 AM in 3D Modeling , Featured | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0) |