Second Life Materials Feature is AWESOME!

Just how important is the new materials feature to Second Life content creators? You need to have deferred rendering enabled (thats lighting and shadows to regular users or as LL have renamed it ‘Advanced Lighting’) which for most people means killing your SL experience.

I’m on top spec iMac. I sold my grandma and parents and sister to get a computer that runs SL pretty Well and i sometimes forget that not everyone can switch on Advanced Lighting and shadows and keep up with me as we run across the grid.

So if i praise the awesomeness of the new materials feature, am i preaching to only a small number of users who can run with shadows?

As usual with second life you have to look at things alternatively. Why is it only top spec computers can run Lighting and shadows, i’d wager it has something to do with the amount of geometry the shadows have to bounce off and reflect light and all that technical gobbledygook the computer overheats in doing.

 

What Materials Does

Materials for SL basically allows you to make custom fake bumps and shiny surface effects for objects. Its a pretty standard effect used in many 3D programs where instead of having to render a really detailed model that uses up lots of computing power, you make a basic low detail shape and cover it in a special texture that tells the computer how light should react to it and in doing so gives an illusion of shape.

For Second Life these special textures are called Normal Maps for bumpiness and Specular maps for shinyness.

maps

The way i see it is that if content creators start reducing their objects detail in favour of using Material Mapping to create the illusion of high detail, this should mean that lower spec computers could find it easier to run Lighting and Shadows (advanced Lighting).

 

How to do it?

There is an experimental viewer which does have some bugs which is why its called an Alpha… DUH!, But for the most part it works spiffingly.

So for my first proper test i created a VERY simple pillar in Blender. I wanted to see just how much extra geometry (detail) i could add to a smooth cylinder shape.

MaterialsMesh

Next i created a texture of stone and carvings in photoshop. This would serve as the basis for my normal and specular maps.

originalimage
Unwrapped UV texture with stone and carvings added with photoshop to be imported to Crazybump

I discovered a small app called ‘CrazyBump’ that seems to be in beta testing for the Mac version but works really well and is currently free to download. The PC version is $99.  It has a simple user interface that allows you to import a base image to create and change how shiny and how bumpy your maps will be via simple sliders while giving you a nice preview of how lighting will react to the maps.

crazybump
Crazy Bump is a gem of an app with a simple to use UI for creating just what i need for SL

 

Crazy bump then allows with 2 clicks to save the Normal or Specular Maps to you desktop as .BMPs ready to upload into SL.

Next i recorded a video where i add the normal then specular maps to the Mesh Pillar.

 

One thing that I’m beginning to realise is the importance of lighting. Its the atmospheric lighting and how it reacts to the mapping that gives it the 3D appearance and changing that lighting can change how the object appears rathe significantly. that means and object could look amazing when Sl is set to midnight and awful when Sl is set to midday. It’s not a simple matter of adding the Norm and Spec maps, you have to consider the objects environment and  the wind light settings of that region.

materialsLighting
1. No Advanced Lighting 2. Advanced Lighting Midday 3. Advanced Lighting Midnight

Materials adds an extra dimension to atmosphere, wether it will widen the gap between those who can run deferred rendering or close it, we will have to wait and see.

3 thoughts on “Second Life Materials Feature is AWESOME!

  1. Nice post, Loki. As you, I am quite excited by materials.

    One thing about a detail you wrote about: CrazyBump is not in beta, it’s been around for a long time. And it’s not free, a license for personal use costs US$99, for pro use US$299 ( http://crazybump.com/buy.html ).

    Unfortunately you are on a Mac, otherwise you could give ShaderMap a try. It’s quite a nice program and the license is only US$39.95 ( http://shadermap.com ).

    • unfortunately shadermap is not on Mac, looks kool though. The mac version of crazy bump is in beta, i should correct that in my article.

  2. Hello Loki. Thank you for your insight on materials processing. I would, however, like to point out a few things regarding the kind of hardware “required” to properly run SL.

    First of all, let me go on record for saying that SL has never been intended to be a virtual world where creators and users would be obliged to conform to the lowest common denominator, hardware- and user-wise.

    This means, quite simply, that creative people in SL are not (and should not) under any obligation whatsoever to limit their creativity to stuff that people whose machines lack even something as basic as a dedicated GPU can see (or, even worse, to stuff people with extremely old machines can see).

    Second, a “top-spec” machine is not required for someone to successfully use deferred lighting. I run SL on a laptop. Yes, on a laptop. One that’s almost four years old now, believe it or not. It was a good, value-for-money machine when I bought it, but now its (dedicated) GPU is antiquated. It’s got 4GB (DDR2) of RAM, it’s got a dual-core Pentium CPU and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD4500 GPU with 1GB of RAM. I use deferred lighting almost all the time: on lightly-laden sims, I get 10-15fps. On heavily-loaded ones, it can drop to an elephant’s trudge, that’s true.

    However, on most cases, my laptop, which was just OK for performance back then and is now almost antiquated and is in dire need of being replaced, gives me tolerable frame rates even with deferred on.

    As for the whiners who keep bitching and moaning against mesh and against advances in SL’s graphical capabilities and against the fact that SL practically requires a decent computer with a decent CPU, let me remind them that (a) no one forced them to get into SL, (b) they knew from the start that SL is demanding when it comes to hardware.

    And furthermore, I’ll give you a bit of gaming history from my (RL) fiancé’s experience: when the Wing Commander franchise came out, it required VGA (which was the best GPU type available for PCs back then), it could “work” on PC/XTs (i.e. 8086/8088 processors), but was unacceptably slow on them and the only way in which one could enjoy it was with a serious “gaming rig”: VGA, an 80386DX CPU, at least 2MB of RAM and a SoundBlaster sound card. No one bitched, whined or moaned about it. No one went on to rant about why Origin should not provide 256 colours but instead should limit the game to CGA’s 4 colours.

    Maybe some people should get off their soapboxes and bathe themselves in something called reality instead?

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