Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Life as a Second Life Geek.

So okay; I'd heard about Second Life on NPR a few years ago, but I'd never checked it out. For one thing, the computer I owned at the time wasn't powerful enough to render the second life world. Then a writer friend of mine said he was participating in a reading in Second Life and invited the critique group we're both in to attend.

I decided I'd give Second Life a shot. The first thing I had to do was create an avatar, or virtual version of myself. My first frustration with Second Life was that I couldn't just type in my name, "John Burridge." I mean, if I'm going to use Second Life as a vehicle for self-promotion, I want my name hovering over my avatar's head wherever I walk (even if I don't look like a old English soccer goalie). Alas, the name selection process featured a blank for me to type a first name and a drop-down box of pretentious names straight from a Dungeons & Dragons game or a New Neo-Pagan Encounter Group. When I typed in "John", I got an error message informing me all the slots for "John" were taken. In a snarky fit of meta-self-reference, I settled on naming my avatar "Mask Stickfigure." ("No cigar, no lady on his arm; just a guy made of dots and lines.")

I wanted my avatar to look like me. This is a problem, because I have a Prince Philip of France beard, and, apparently, the standard avatars don't have facial hair. I guess it's a good thing that I am a white Caucasian male, because I had a variety of starter avatars to choose from. I thought about walking around as a black man in a power business suit, but went instead as the hip rocker dude -- who looks a little bit like Gra Linnaea. When I tried to give my new body a beard, his cheeks and chin exploded outwards like he had a case of mumps on steroids. It looks like if I want a beard, I have to build one out of primitives (or prims, more on those later), or buy one at the mall....

When one of my old high school friends heard I was going to foray into Second Life, she sent me a message with the coordinates to her Second Life hangout and a collection of coordinates for stores with free objects.

The Shopping Malls. What can I say, it's a mall. Make sure you don't bump into anyone -- which can be a trick if you decide to touch a map and it takes control of your avatar's body and walks you to a store. I explored around the freebie mall, and I've since decided that most of the people I've encountered on Second Life are either super-nice, or are like all the people I left behind in middle school, or else are looking for a virtual swinger's party.

Help Island. I haven't figured out the schedule for the volunteer helpers, or mentors, because two out of the three times I've visited, it's mostly been avatars standing around in outfits from the Matrix texting snarky comments to each other. A few of them use their computer's microphones to audio broadcast. There was that one time when someone was walking someone else walking around in a three-meter-high alien spider body.

I met my high school friend in Second Life, and she introduced me to some of her friends. These were super-nice people -- before I knew it, I had some building permissions to create objects on their plot of Second Life land and some scripts, a new avatar body, and lots of advice. Speaking with them was kind of odd, because after a while, I forgot that what I was looking at wasn't virtual avatars on a virtual landscape. My friend's avatar looks like her, and that helped the illusion. Also, avatars look straight ahead, so if your avatar is directly facing another avatar, it looks like they are staring straight into your eyes. It's a little like being in a bar and getting cruised.

I went to the poetry reading, but only stayed for a few moments before I had to leave. It was really cool, because the reading was held over an audio channel everyone could hear -- which made the event a kind of cross between an open mic night and a call-in radio show.

Somewhere along the way, I learned how to make objects, or primitives. A primitive is a unit object, like a sphere, cube, torus, cone, or cylinder (there is also a special prim type called "sculpted"). Prims may be "painted" with textures so that the look like granite or wood. After a few fumbling sessions where I tried align glass square planes into something resembling an Art Deco lamp (the key word here being "something"), I started looking up Second Life's scripting language in order to build complicated compound objects without having to spend five hours lining up everything.

What I really want to make are the five Platonic Solids and then build lamps in the shapes of the Archimedean solids. I thought it might be fun to put a bunch of upside down pyramids together into a floating upside down pyramid (ala Swift's Floating Island of Laputa). In the mean time, I'd made a bird-bath.

I wanted to make a sundial. There are two difficulties making a sundial in Second Life. First, the sun (and the moon) do not cast shadows, and as near as I can tell, the rendering engine in the Second Life client is not using ray-tracing to create what's on the screen. The second difficulty, is that the sun in Second Life doesn't necessarily move in the same fashion as the real sun. In the case of my friend's place, the sun rises and sets in about ninety minutes. So, there's no way to use the Second Life sun to determine the local meridian, and the solar day is really short. So I built a sundial with a gnomon, and then I had to build a shadow and then use a script to make the shadow rotate around the gnomon.

Meanwhile, on the web, I found a script that would string together other prims into a bent ellipse. It provided hours of fun manipulating sine and cosine functions in order to create necklaces, belts and bracelets. I got really confused trying to rotate cones and cubes in three directions. Oh yes... and I finally learned how to walk up the ramp to my friend's treehouse without plunging over the side and falling into a pool. Of course, all this experimenting around with prims and trigonometry functions was taking away from my writing time.

By this time, I rummaged through the inventory of things I'd been given or gathered from the freebie stores. I changed my avatar's body from the guitar dude to a muscle-bound gym queen. I added a few outfits. The dragonfly wings were fun, but they look very weird when I'm in close quarters and they pass through objects. Then there was the Harley Motorcycle outfit (vroom!), which my friend said was "intense." I think I prefer the Star Trek federation officer uniform over the rainbow shirt because people are more likely to IM "Live long and prosper" at me than to make snarky gay comments. I still don’t have a beard, but my hair is long and grey.

Probably the weirdest thing about my experiments in fashion were dressing -- or rather, undressing -- the avatar. For privacy, I snuck into my friend's treehouse to change. But I kept expecting her to teleport into her house or for someone to walk in, so the whole experience felt like a "naked in public" anxiety dream.

Then I wanted to make an Archimedean Screw. I manipulated a cylinder prim into a spiral, then strung a few together into one long screw, and made them rotate. Then I made a sphere and three rods to restrict the sphere's motion to just up-and-down. The screw would knock the sphere around, so I tried dropping the sphere between the rods. Guess what? The sphere hovered over the rods, not touching them as if the rods and sphere had the same repulsing electrical charge. It was like discovering dark matter. I slowly moved the rod that was within the rotating spiral and gradually the sphere fell between the three rods... and stopped about half-way down the rotating spiral. The spiral would pass through the sphere on each rotation instead of pushing it up between the rods.

Undaunted by earlier failures to make a rotating spiral push a sphere up a track, I made a new spiral, put it in a cylinder, and then dropped a sphere into it. The sphere traveled all the way through the sculpture. So then I started spinning the spiral and cylinder combination, tipped it over at a 45 degree angle (still rotating) and dropped the sphere in the top. The sphere traveled about a third of the way down, then stopped and the spiral passed through the sphere. So. Non-rotating upright spiral-column: a dropped sphere transverses the sculpture; rotating tipped spiral-column, the sphere stops part-way. Clearly, the laws the physics are different in the Second Life universe. I suspect that the rendering engine in the Second Life client is calculating the sphere's physics as if it were a cube and that the spirals (which are solid, but don't have their physical object box turned on) are interacting with the physical sphere.

I went to Help Island to try to find someone to ask about spheres and Archimedean screws (pause to imagine kinky/snarky comeback from the Matrix wardrobe department). But those were the days that I couldn't find any mentors. My writer friend gave me some coordinates for some Second Life building enthusiasts, so I may be able to speak with someone wise in the way of Second Life physics. In the mean time, I do have a simple cascade structure for medium-sized spheres built -- but no way to have the spheres returned to the top of cascade.

About this time, I had my first "griefer" encounter. I was (literally) flying around my friend's place when I got an IM from a stranger asking me if I was the owner of the locality (I wasn't), and if I could do something about a Giant Rotating Book and Red Sphere Floating Thingy hovering in the sky. I'd actually seen it, and was investigating it, expecting to watch a new construction project. By the time I tried to do something about it, the GRBARSFT had vanished. I found out later that it hadn't done much damage, but was the equivalent of having one's house spray painted by vandals.

Meanwhile, I've learned that to make interesting objects (say a solid cube with three cylinders removed from it), one has to download a "sculpted texture." Downloading textures costs money. The other thing I've learned is that most builders are playing a version of "Name That Tune" with prims ("I can build the Eiffel Tower in three prims!..") I spent more time not writing researching various free programs that promised to help me generate a sculptured texture. They came bundled with malware.

After cleaning off my computer, I put aside plans to build a perpetual motion kinetic sculpture marble machine, and built a balance scale. I made it big enough to be a Monty Python prop and my avatar nearly got crushed when I made the fulcrum and pans physical objects and the whole collection of objects crashed over sideways. I was glad that I didn't clobber my friend's friend's buildings and holiday ornaments. Note to self: next time try building on a half-meter scale instead of a ten-meter one.

I went back to my original goal of building a dodecahedron. I re-read some of the rotation help pages on the Second Life wiki and found a demonstration script on rotation that used a rotation vector. I think my difficulty is that I'm imagining rotation of objects in the X Y and Z axises as if I were moving them orthogonally, and the Euler motions are non-intuitive. The vector method of rotation (instead of thinking in terms of a theta angle in the X-Y plane and a phi angle in the Y-Z plane) produced results closer to what I wanted. No dodecahedron yet, but I did get a cool decahedral sculpture. The other difficulty in five-fold symmetry is that it's much easier to think (and manipulate objects) in four-fold symmetry.

What I've learned is that it is kind of fun to meet people as an avatar. I also like the idea of creating something in a virtual space and having other people interact with it. I write to get images from my head into others' heads, and Second Life lets me do this also. I like being an amateur designer, engineer and architect. Finally, there's something relaxing about manipulating geometric shapes -- on stressful days, ten minutes with a ruler and a compass is soothing.

I thought maybe I might be able to make some money creating objects in Second Life, but that's probably a pipe dream unless I start developing virtual sex toys.

And, while it's been fun, I need to manage how long I spend channeling a virtual Archimedes instead of writing. I think Second Life has been a nice little break, and building virtual objects is a lot like crafting a story -- noodling around might make something pretty, but going in with a clear idea helps to streamline the process and product.
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