15 January 2014

Things To Come In 2014 - Trends and Analysis

The recent - and quite exciting - news about upcoming developments like the Oculus Rift VR glasses make 2014 likely be a interesting one for virtual worlds. In fact some of the technologies leaping into the mass-market may even lead to a renaissance and in their final breakthrough into mainstream media, as expected already for 2006/2007. Lets have a look!

3D Glasses

From its beginnings as a Kickstarter-project in 2012, where it caught quite some attention from the gaming industry, Oculus Rift's VR glasses made a spectacular progress: It seems that technical sophisticated (and effordable!) 3D glasses are now just a few months away!

I think it was a clever move by LL to keep and eye on this technology and provide a compatible viewer for Oculus Rift.

The current prototype "Crystal Cove" seems to be already a pretty mature design (even if still looking quite bulky if you ask me) and it certainly has a huge immersive effect on its users:

If VR glasses become mass products, they will change the way we perceive digital media entirely. No matter if you use them for browsing your OS, play games, do 3D modelling or meet people in such strange places like SL - your experience will certainly be a much more immersive (as seen in the clip). VR will have a huge impact on the way we use computers - perhaps more as the use of a graphical user interface instead of text-based.

Oculus Rift Homepage


Maybe not as spectacular as VR glasses, materials though add a big amount of organic feel and graphical quality to SL.
But before praising them, let me explain you what they actually are:
So far textures in SL have been wrapped flat around their surfaces. No matter if you had a polished steel surface or a brickwall, both was equally smooth and did reflect light the same way. Thats totally no problem if your texture is repesenting a flat surface, but once you have some structure in it (as a brickwall without any doubt has), things looked not really convincing.
The use of materials change this. They give the builder the possibility to add additonal texture layers underneath the original "visible" layer which provide information about the bumpiness of the material or the way they reflect lightsources.
For builders used to the "Shininess" and "Bumpiness" settings in the edit window, this will look familiar, just on a much more sophisticated level.

For the user its relatively unimportant how materials work, as long your PC is fast enough to render them, you won't have to do anything, except checking a box in your graphics preferences ;-)

Grid Infrastructure

Improvements in SL's infrastructure like SSB (server-side baking) are by far the most subtle tweaks, but they are also essential for a smooth and frustration-free experience. Fast loading sims, lag-free environments and as little glitches as possible are most important if you want that new users don't give up in the first hours just because they get frustrated.

Of course addressing these issues is not a trivial task and needs lots of work to improve bandwidth, server and client performance and communications between these components.
As I said already in my year's review for 2013, I am very happy to see that things eventually go ahead there. It was just ridiculous to have an almost granted crash when crossing a handful of crowded sims or when stumbling into one of the notorious sim-crosses (the bermuda-triangle-like area between 4 adjacent regions, not triangle-shaped though).

It seems experiences like that are the past now. At least at moderately busy sims. I still won't try to fly into a concert area with an audience of 50 people, if you know what I mean ;-)
Also SL seems to be much more stable in general now. Viewer crashes and getting stuck while teleporting are becoming more and more a rarity now. Fingers crossed - the grid runs pretty well lately, doesn't it?

Real Facial Expressions

Now thats something I wasn't expecting at all. But when reading about it (and watching this video) I found its actually a very plausible and logical developement - and a very interesting one too!

It looks really cute, doesn't it? And I never thought that red pandas have sophisticated enough facial expressions to control a human av! ;-)

Of course the Face-Rig technology is potentially colliding with the Oculus Rift-system. At least in its current stage I see quite the "hardware conflict": You won't have any facial expression of the upper half of your face if its covered by huge VR glasses!

Apart from this, its a pretty exciting gadget and certainly something interesting for SL performers at least. I'm a bit sceptic about the realization though: What if you have chat-lag-like issues? No-one wants to get stuck in a stupid smile if the actual conversations has shifted to a more serious topic ;-)

But seriously, I really like the idea. And it will be certainly a huge addition to voice-chat or even machinima-acting!

Facerig Homepage

Issues Needed To Be Addressed

All in all thats pretty promising developements. We can't say yet how big their impact will be in the near future, but on the long run virtual reality will be natural part of our lives as smartphones and Facebook are today. Well, in fact both are aleady a aspect of if, if even very embryonic and primitive.

So where will SL be in this coming VR wonderland? The prospects for the worlds biggest virtual world (and with the biggest user-generated content anyway) have certainly improved.
If interest in virtual worlds will grow SL will be the system with the most developed infrastructure, the most experience and the largest number of users and content creators.

On the other hand are there are still issues with the way SL works now, which can prevent making it appealing for the masses:


A big obstacle is the small size of the sims. 256x256 meters horizontally, (ironically there are several kilomters of space vertically), which simply limit the possibility to realize large structures like cities. Even a ship like the Titanic has to be parked diagonally to fit into a region.


When mentioning a number of 50 avatars per region  earlier I was more or less naming the upper limit a server can host per sim. There are some notable exceptions though if I remember correctly (the London sims [?]), but they are still exceptions.
So 50 users watching a musican or attending a presentation isn't terribly much. Of course permanent exhibitions like the LEA series can accumulate a much larger number over time, but compared to Youtube-clips with potentially hundreds of millions of viewers or live streamed concerts this number is actually ridiculously low. And everyone who did ever visit a region with 50 visitors can tell what crashy experience this can be.

If interest and account numbers are mushrooming (what we certainly hope!), SL will need two things in abundance: processing power and bandwidth.

Yay! Finally lag-free flying!

Land Prices

Since SL's size reached its peak of more than 30,000 regions (mainland included) a few years ago, the grid was continuously shrinking. The economical crisis surely had its share on this, making lesser people willing to spend money for virtual services. On the other hand - crisis or not - the land prices are simply utopian: LL takes 300 USD per month for hosting a full region, plus a one-time fee of 1000 USD to set it up, which isn't exactly cheap.
This high-price politic seems especially odd when considering that having a places called "home", even if its somewhere strange like in a electronic universe, gives the user a big reason to come back. It gives you a place to identify with, a place you can decorate after your taste and make it not just a place, but your place. Sure, there are Linden-Homes for new (Premium) accounts, but privacy or even individualism isn't exactly what you will find there.


I hate to say it, but the SL is still much more complex to learn than most other consumer media. Certainly: Improvements have been made to make your start easier and decrease the amount of (unwillingly) nude newbies - to name a fun example. Still: most games - and thats what SL has to compare itself with - are much simplier to learn, despite a rather complex environment they feature.

I think complexity is the key here. SL gives you so many tools you can pick up and use. You can be whatever you want here. A builder, a fashion designer, a DJ, musican, standup comedien, explorer, clubber, photographer, filmmaker or - a blue humanoid fox flying a F-16 jetfigher.
Complexity comes with a price though. It takes its time to learn things.
Mesh-Avs, standard-sized clothes and sidebars showing you the current hotspots and events are definitely a step into the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.

What will SL's future bring? Hopefully clear skies.


To sum it up: SL had definitely seen worse outlooks than for 2014. The infrastructure is benefiting from significant improvements and new technologies are opening exciting possibilities. Of course you have to take these things with a grain of salt and we will see how technical innovations will be eventually implemented and which impact they will have. There are also still some problems LL will have to work out, but all in all I am quite optimistic. SL is a lovely crazy universe and certainly one of the better things you can do with your computer :-)

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