Materials Post Mortem

No content creator in Second Life can deny that the addition of customisable normal and specular maps has pathed the way to some outstanding visuals never seen before on the grid. The addition of this new feature has been rather swift and without to much troubles technically.

SL started sort of like minecraft where you used simple blocks to create complex constructions and before to long creators where using hundreds of blocks to create finely detailed items. In a way Linden Lab created a building system that was un sustainable not realising the consequences of giving users the freedom to do what they want and ever since have been trying to pull the reins. A large part of Second Life experience degradation is user generated like everything else in SL. The main reason behind the use of Normal and Specula mapping is to add pretend detail to simple objects there by reducing the display cost.



One of the first experiments i did with materials was build a cave. The materials feature is amazing for creating wonderfully detailed environments that react to the projector lighting that comes with switching on Advanced Lighting Model. You can make a room thats only 10 land impact and with materials make it look more detailed than is ever possible with prims. The ability to control how much something shines and in which parts allows some fantastic effects. For example i made a cobbled path where each stone in the path looks raised, and slightly damp and in various parts the specular map shines brighter than the rest of the path simulating water puddles. The power to create that extra bit of realism is exciting.

But you need to switch on Advanced lighting model to see all this and this is where the frustration starts. The aim is that using materials will mean less need to mesh the detail into the model making objects cost less land impact and less display costs for the viewer. But for the most part many people even though their computers support Advanced Lighting Model (ALM) they choose not to switch it on due to the noticeable decline in viewer performance.

Top: Brick wall with ALM off – Bottom: Brick wall reacting to a rotating light source in ALM

My New iMac apparently does not support ALM meaning it’s turned off by default, but it does work really well with ALM in an environment i have built as efficiently as i can. This says to me materials and mesh can work to create beautiful environments that can be experienced with smooth performance, we’ve just got to build them.

Another issue for environment creators is lighting. I find that the difference in the effect of having ALM switched on and off is extreme and I’ve spent hours trying to find middle ground between having a room lit well enough in ALM and not being too bright with ALM switched off. You could end up visiting a place and thinking ‘ouch this place is so horribly bright it ruins the place’ but in fact with ALM switched on you find its the most beautifully lit place you have seen in SL.

Top: ALM Off looks very bright in that room thanx to the projector lights. – Bottom: Same room but with ALM switched on. much darker and moodier.



Using materials to map wrinkles and creases to clothing has meant extra detail at lower land impact and display costs. There is a rumour that won’t die that Mesh Clothes cause lag. There maybe some truth in that, but it is not because they are mesh. Objects in any 3d environment cause ‘costs’ to your viewer. The bigger the cost the more of a drag it will be. It should be the goal of every content creator in SL to make stuff that costs as little as possible for the viewer to display. When it comes to clothing some creators just assume that the land impact does not matter because you will be wearing the object so it won’t count against the land. Fact is that object still has a display cost. I’ve seen some mesh jeans that are over 40 land impact and i know its possible to make the same size and using materials have even more detailed pair of jeans at just 2 land impact.

As a content creator I’m once again giddy with excitement at what materials allows me to do with clothing in SL. But again… you need to switch on ALM to see the benefits and in some cases the difference in how clothes look is extreme. This leads to some very hard decisions.

When it comes buying items on marketplace is the product displayed being shown with ALM switched on? Is it misleading to show the product how it looks in ALM? should i start showing all my clothing on marketplace with side by side comparisons of how they look with and without ALM switched on?

To get the best effect from the materials feature its best not to have shadows and highlights baked to the texture. But while this makes the clothes look better in ALM  it leaves the texture looking kinda bland with ALM switched off compared to others on the market. Should i perhaps then supply the user with two versions of every size i supply in the pack, one for ALM and one for those who can’t use ALM?

Left: ALM off shows just the plain jeans texture. I try to have a hint of the baked shadows. – Right: ALM on reveals the creases and folds from the normal and specular maps transforming the product completely.


Hidden Content.

So while i wait for my firestorm using friends to get materials feature, i will continue to experiment with materials and make clothes that use materials. But rather than simply upgrading Second Lifes visuals the way windlight did, Materials has possibly added a whole category of content that is not available to everyone in Second Life and threatens the notion of a shared experience much like when mesh arrived. But while mesh just needed TPV’s to add the feature Materials needs everyone to upgrade their tech. Below is an example of how some content can be visible to some and not others…

A strange plain white prim reveals its secrets when switching on ALM.

8 thoughts on “Materials Post Mortem

  1. In the next-to-the-last photo, the trousers on the non-ALM side look perfectly acceptable and I think most folks would be more than satisfied with that level. The trousers on the other side look better, of course, but make me wonder when we’ll have “fabrics” that react to force, friction, and other “real world’ factors so they deform on the fly as one moves. Could Materials texturing be used to simulate that? In effect, making the pant legs look as if the folds and wrinkles move as the legs move in relation to light sources?

  2. It is very interesting that many people who are able to use ALM chose to switch it off, but put their draw distance to 256 or even 512 meters. At most places in Second Life a draw distance of 96 meters are perfectly sufficient. A higher setting doesn’t add much to the experience, but slows down performance A LOT – much more than switching on ALM.

    I think you should hand-out people arriving at your material builds a notecard – proposing them to experience the place with ALM switched on and draw distance lowered to 96 meters. People will love it and it’s also for the users a process of learning which settings give them best experience in SL.

    It’s also high time that sims with a lot of traffic start putting orbs that measure the scripts AND the display costs of avatars. People who have too many scripts and too attachments with high LI will first get a warning and a notecard with explanations how to measure their resource impact. After some time they get teleported home. This could be a way to make sure that people develop an understanding that they are the source of the the sim lag that they keep complaining about.

  3. Every time i hear a merchant use the phrase “Materials Ready” I wonder ready in what sense? I mean if materials have been used in creating that item, why assume that the item is somehow the thing that is out of time or sync, that it is ready when you, whoever you happen to be is also ready? Why not take the stance that creators did when mesh was new, this item uses mesh, you must use a mesh enabled viewer to see this item? I think it’s because as you illustrate in the jeans comparison picture, many things (clothing at least.. i mean NO other kinds of content in SL actually matters right? < joke)will still look pretty good without their materials showing, so many people won't even realize they are missing something.
    So I think we just need to make more stuff that really RELIES on materials aesthetically. More things like the daVinci embossed stone above. I plan too anyway.

    Also, I'm not sure about the performance hit from ALM. I have used it every day in SL since it became available a couple of years ago, and while it is true that i immediately noticed a drop in FPS, this curiously was not accompanied by anything I would have called reduced performance in terms of experience. By experience I mean caming around, flying, walking and falling off spiral staircase type things that I do. I seemed to do them all with exactly the same wild abandon and lack of aplomb as I always had before. My viewer showed that my FPS had dropped by half (it was a pretty old computer), yet I still felt that I was seeing things the same as before. Indeed, I remember that the lag experience was greatly reduced in severity and frequency with the advent of V3.

    I recently upgraded to a newer faster computer, and for the first couple weeks with it marvelled and bragged at the FPS I could achieve. But here's the thing, while there is no question that I noticed the difference between the older and newer machines in terms of the number of things I can do at once and at top land speed without crashing, I again cannot SEE or discern any difference at all in life at higher and lower FPS in terms of my experience in SL.

    What I mean is I cannot tell the difference between what's happening to me or around me when my FPS is over 90 or when it is under 30. They both register as the same, for lack of a better term, "performance" to me. With draw distance up full, with shadows on, with my avatar festooned in attachments, flying top speed through a forest of sculpties – No matter what I do make my FPS as low as possible, I never seem to experience it as a drop in performance per se, or anything besides a drop in FPS. Likewise, if I stay on my platform, keep my draw distance low and my camera trained away from anything complex, self included, I can probably get my FPS up over 100, but nothing looks or feels any different to me. I can't build, think or type any faster, though in the not so long ago 'old' machine days this would have helped me keep Photoshop open and sharing screen space. But since the noticeable change in using both programs was for me the switch from CS5 to CS6, it hardly seems fair to pin the blame on SL let alone a single feature in SL.

    Maybe that's just me. Both computers were PCs and both used pretty decent but not awesome nVidia cards.
    But maybe there are others. Maybe at least some people are like me, and are letting a drop in FPS or whatever number they are watching convince them that they are suffering a decline in performance, and thinking, but really it still seems ok. Maybe they won't think I am crazy if I suggest that FPS is not a measurement intended for any fine grained or even useful analysis of 'performance'.

    As for how we will sell stuff with materials on it, I dunno, since still photos really do not do the experience justice, maybe videos on MP and free demos (it's all about the clothes) or more inworld shopping? Yeah sure. I suspect they will make their way into wider acceptance as LI and resource reducers, and won't find much consumer interest as enhancements. But of course, that could just be how I see it.

    • I use the term ‘materials ready’ to describe an item as having Normal and specular maps added to the object. For instance the sandals i sell in my store, i went back to the original files and created Norm & Spec maps to give the logos a shine and add more relief to the textures, so i have made them ‘ready’ for use with the ‘materials’ feature, hence ‘materials ready’.

      As for performance drops, i guess you are just one of the lucky ones. A decline in performance does not mean just lower frame rate. My own experience lower performance is the view becoming corrupted with a pixelated mess, blank screens, or inconsistent jerkiness and freezing before crashing.

      I think its a combination of Viewer code, badly made user content and Users perception of switching on higher settings that cause people to not use the ALM. For instance i went to a region yesterday with my settings at full with ALM on. It had just a few shops in it and for some reason my viewer hated the place, movement was jerky, i crashed 3 times in the space of 15 minutes and of course FPS was slow. Now today i went to a place called Smokey Hills which is 3 regions of beautifully detailed buildings and objects. Had my settings to max, ALM on and my viewer loved it, ran smoothly. It’s instances like that which make me think ‘hang on’ whats going on here?

      • oooh that is weird. but on one viewer, i could NOT be at the south side of my sim ever without crashing. at first i tried various seetings in preferences, then i tried deprimming the whole area, having vertex buffer thingies off helped, but the really strange thing was it was only the south west sort of part. anywhere else on the sim, with same settings and same amount of content was fine. mostly i just switched viewer.

        and yeah i know what people mean when they say materials ready. I don’t think i have had cause yet to mention it on anything i sell, so i am having a debate with myself over whether i will adopt the “materials ready” or just say contains materials or nothing at all.
        when it’s something like in order to see that this statue has facial features, you will need to enable ALM, i will definitely have to say something. also i think i will put in the low LI via normal maps and the higher LI no materials versions maybe and let them decide (?).
        debate continues

      • “Materials ready” could be a bit confusing term for the consumer.

        A good analogue would be HD TV vs. HD Ready TV.
        HD TV has a resolution of 1920 x 1080
        HD Ready TV often has a resolution of 1280 x 720 (anyway less than HD TV has).
        HD Ready TV will accept HD signal but it will down sample it to 1208 x 720.
        So HD Ready TV looses some information from the HD TV signal.

        Now people who remember this might wonder, hmmm… “materials ready” is it perhaps not using the full materials capability as it is only materials ready? It might even lead the consumer to think that they themselves should add the materials to the product as it materials ready i.e ready to accept materials.

        So instead of saying “materials ready” why not just state that this product has materials, or this product uses materials?

        And naturally now in the beginning stages of materials it is also good to educate people about what kind of viewer and viewer setting they need to be able to see the materials effects.

  4. I doubt less then 1 pct of users will be really able to enjoy alm E+shadows at all the times like i do, for my experience of at least 5 hours day in world, most still are using low end desktops or laptops that can’t never support this feature and the only ones that seems to use Alm are the ones that only come in world to build or take pics, do not contribute in any to make Sl feels alive!
    And although is true that enabling Alm + shadows, even giving a significant drop of fps,is by no means to say it is impossible to do trips on mainland using vehicles or to be on a full crowded sim enjoying all the details of what surrounds us, all i meet and know, are still running Sl with Alm turned off, by the simple reason they really find a significant drop of their performance and i can understand their dilemma as they really cant make on upgrade on their hardware!

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