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.
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.
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?
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…