Monday, June 23, 2008

My, You look Sharp Today!

I have been asked quite a few times how do I get my pictures to look so sharp and people have speculated that it's either from having a very good video card or from a PhotoShop trick.

Yes, I do have a pretty good video card and I have all the Windlight settings set to the maximum. It's a luxury that not everyone has and I sympathize as I have had this card only for a very few months. But as long as you can use those maximum settings I don't think that the quality of the images differs from a card to another anymore, you will only get a higher FPS rate. And, BTW, I was using the same settings with my previous video card that was at the lower end of the requirements (of course, the lag was horrible). I agree in any case that if you can't use the maximum Windlight settings you are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to taking pictures in SL.

And no, I don't even have Photoshop, I use a much simpler photo editing tool that is part of the ACDSee Photo Manager.

So let me explain how I get the "sharpness" in my pictures and I will use this blog entry whenever I am asked that question again. :-) I will use one picture as an example with 3 major steps (I will spare you the details).

The first image is the raw picture as I took it in the SL viewer. It has involved all kinds of Windlight tweaks, but it is kind of flat. It is actually possible to get much better contrast with Windlight alone, but sometimes I intentionally take a low contrast picture like that and enhance the contrast only in post-editing. [Shadows get more detail that way.]

The second image is after applying an auto contrast adjustment within the ACDSee editor. I believe that most photo editing tools have a similar feature, which adjusts the minimum and the maximum ends of the luminance range and narrows that range.

The third image is after adjusting the middle of the contrast range to strengthen the shadows. It increases the contrast and it saturates the colors even more.

And that's the gist of it. That's where the "sharpness" mostly comes from. But getting the right lighting in-world probably makes the biggest difference in the quality of a picture and it is where I spend more than half of my time in taking pictures. It is sometimes a back-and-forth process of taking a picture, editing it in ACDSee, making new adjustments in lighting, taking another picture, and so on. As a side note, ACDSee has a useful feature when it comes to adjustments like these: histograms. Histograms are a feature also in Photoshop CS, but not in the cheaper Photoshop Elements (and I believe it is not in many other cheaper editors). Of course, some day I will probably have to take the plunge to Photoshop, but, for now, there are still only very few features that I would use from it.

End Note: My first exhibition opened today as part of the Orange Island Photo Week. One of the events is a Show and Tell with tips on SL photography. I cannot make it to the event but it inspired me to write this entry.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taking Shots at SL Photography

I love the possibilities that Windlight offers to taking pictures in SL. At the same time, I have strong reservations about the way many people use Windlight. In a nutshell, I have mixed feelings about it.

Photography is certainly personal and there are many views on what makes a picture interesting. It strikes me as cheating though when an SL picture looks good only thanks to a dramatic sunset sky with pretty clouds and pretty colors created with a simple selection of the right Windlight settings. Besides, how long will it be until everyone is going to get tired of those sunsets like I am? After all, sunsets and sunrises look beautiful to us because in the real world they happen only for a fraction of the time. In a world where sunsets are the norm we would learn to admire midday light instead.

More importantly, what is the right relationship between a piece of SL art created by one person and a picture of that piece taken by another person? Let's keep in mind that, in an artificial world like SL, everything involves aesthetic decisions made by a creator and therefore is "virtually" a piece of art (good or bad). There is certainly value in a picture that makes the subject look good and is all about the subject. But what is the role of a picture that looks good only because of a pretty sky and that shows its subject only as a dark silhouette? Is it really a picture of the subject or is it just another picture of a Windlight sunset? Does one have the moral right to use a recognizable creation of someone else in that way?

And things get even more complicated thanks to Windlight. Windlight introduces so many extra variables in the rapport between the vision of the subject's creator and the vision of the photographer. Even when a picture is really about showing off a creation in SL and not just making the picture look good at any price, lighting and atmosphere can transform a joyful image into a tragic one and vice versa. There may be future solutions for that, however. I think I have seen mentioning that there will be future features allowing owners of a sim to set the Windlight defaults. I wouldn't be surprised if there will be even more than that and a right click selection on an object will set your viewer to Windlight settings that are customized for that particular object. We would be able to venture through an exhibition and have our settings changed with every exhibit. For now though, I don't see a clear answer to this dilemma.

I don't mean to dis anyone's photographic style in SL, as I said it is something personal. The opinions I expressed here are meant only to explain my choice to create pictures that are more like postcards, with very little, if any, post-editing and with a more natural use of Windlight settings. To anyone who doesn't realize it, there is a lot of skill and talent needed even for pictures like that. And there is also a lot of satisfaction from creating pictures like that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Turn the Snapshot on Its Ear

I like taking pictures in SL with as little editing as possible. That's because I want my pictures to serve the role of postcards: "this is what you would see if you were here". No Photoshop manipulations for me, at most some gamma, brightness, and contrast level changes when they are badly needed. I usually avoid even cropping of the pictures, after all most postcards have a standard format.

One compromise I have been eager to make is with the orientation of the pictures. Most of the pictures that we see from SL are in horizontal (or landscape) formats, like the vast majority of monitor displays. But some shots just beg for a vertical (or portrait) format. Postcards have them too, and RL cameras can be used in any position.

Of course, it is possible to crop a vertical picture from a horizontal one. But that reduces the resolution of the picture. It's also just easier to view the subject in a format as close as possible to the intended one when taking the shot.

I had an idea for a while about how to get vertical format shots but I had been to lazy to do it. However, when visiting the La Reve sim (created by Lash Xevious) and after taking already a lot of pictures, I finally decided to give it a shot (pun intended). Some pictures just had to be done in vertical format.

I am really happy with the results. Some subjects lend themselves best to a vertical picture, like these ones.

La Reve

La Reve

Then, some other pictures gain much more depth when taken in this format, like these ones.

La Reve

La Reve

Click on the pictures and go see them in larger sizes to sense the full effect. And go to my flickr page to see more pics.

How did I do it? It's nothing sophisticated. Using the Catalyst Control Center for my ATI video card (soon to be replaced), I rotated the display on my monitor by 90 degrees. I even flipped my monitor, fortunately an LCD one. The SL viewer as a maximized window then comes up in the vertical format.

It's actually kind of interesting to view SL that way for a while, but I have the feeling that I would not like it that way permanently. Somehow we are used to navigate more horizontally and also, for instance, groups of people usually spread more horizontally.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It's the content, stupid!

Adam Reuters had two very good interviews recently with Philip Rosedale and Mitch Kapor. For once, Philip and Mitch showed that they understand what the problems are with LL's handling of SL, that they understand how users feel about it, and that they take responsibility for it. But enough praise for LL.

Philip made some comments in his interview about the reasons that SL has such a low retention among people who try SL. In his comments he takes responsibility for all the technical reasons but he also puts part of the responsibility on the shoulders of the residents themselves, for the content that they create in SL. And that's fair enough.

We are in a vicious circle of content that was developed by early adopters for early adopters. SL has attracted many people from the edges of society: skilled creators, role players, extropians, disabled people, griefers. Even the more casual, mainstream, users of SL still need a certain sense of adventure and exploration in order to enjoy and appreciate SL. In any case, you need to spend a lot of time in-world until you you gain skills, form social connections, and discover your interests.

That doesn't fit the majority of people, who are interested in more passive forms of entertainment, are not explorers in spirit, and want to spend time in-world only rarely and for very specific occasions. Very few people are interested in being creative with a 3D digital medium or scripts, and very few people come in-world specifically to hang out and meet people at random. As SL will grow and expand, most people will come in-world for classes, conferences, work meetings, entertainment events, special interest events. They will be occasional users, following the same patterns that users have on the Internet now. And more people will be augmentists rather than immersionists.

This type of use can be created almost only by RL organizations like professional institutions, social associations, entertainment companies, educational institutions, and so on. I am looking forward to IEEE and ACM using this medium for their members, with conferences and especially with smaller scale events. The day will come when AA will hold meetings in-world. Then there are the obvious musical concerts, but with large audiences.

Now, back to Philip's division of responsibilities, many such organizations are reluctant to enter virtual worlds because of the technical limitations, such as the limited sim capacities. That is LL's responsibility. As for content, it is true that organizations are put off even more than individuals by what they see now as the main uses of SL. It is the vicious circle I mentioned in the beginning, where the existing content is an obstacle for the growth of content from RL organizations coming into SL.

What should we do? We are who we are, and we, the early adopters, are not responsible for creating the content that will bring in the mass adoption. We can and should create the content that appeals to us. At best though, we should be understanding, tolerant, and even encouraging of the RL organizations that come into SL without catering to our own taste. Too many such organizations have tried just that and failed, when quite possibly they should have tried to find their own way, bringing their own users into SL, even if those users do not fit in with us and even if their influx risks to change the character of SL.

I think it is the only way that virtual worlds will become as ubiquitous as the Internet now. That is the vision that LL has for SL and we do agree with that, even if the ubiquitous metaverse will have a very different flavor compared to the early-adopters' metaverse.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Almost everything that exists in SL has been created by its residents. LL's greatest contribution has been to have the initial vision of starting this world and then putting it in the hands of the residents. "Your world, your imagination". But that is pretty much it in terms of what LL has done good for SL. It has not done anything special either in building the technical platform or in governing the new world that it has given birth to. As a matter of fact, lately it is even straying away from its own initial vision and it is hurting SL.

And yet, LL holds a tight control over SL and it acts as if it owns it fully. It is taking governance measures like the recent ban on unregulated banks and the previous bans on ageplay and gambling. What's worse, these measures are made with little transparency and accountability. To add insult to the injury now, LL released new data this week on the SL economy and Zee Linden acts as if it's an act of greatness on the part of LL:

"I really enjoy the fact that we are such a transparent company. Throughout the good times and difficult times in 2007, we posted our numbers in a consistent fashion. [...] I wish other companies believed in transparency the way we do. I’d love to see our registrations, active users, user hours, economic activity and anything else comparable on lots of virtual world and MMORPGs."

First of all, "our numbers" as in numbers owned by the LL company? It is true that LL can be the only reliable source for these numbers, but they have a moral obligation to release these numbers to those who are making the economy. That is the major difference between SL and other virtual worlds and MMORPGs and it is what has made it successful. Yes, LL deserves credit for putting the economy in the hands of the residents but they can't have it both ways. "Your world, your imagination" must mean also "your data".

In another example of having it both ways, LL recently appealed to residents to participate in what looks like a new wave of media hype in the making. There is an implicit statement in making that appeal that we, SL residents, and LL are in this together and we are to work together for the good of SL. However, if we are in it together, then why are the comments closed for that blog entry? No, the reality is that we are not in it together. There is a great divide between LL and the SL residents and working together is becoming increasingly difficult.

There is so much criticism being thrown at LL and a common reaction to it is to deflect it as criticism of SL. Or, "If we enjoy SL and we stay with it, then LL must be doing a good job." SL is not LL though and our criticism of LL is just that. Criticism of LL.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What Choice Do We Have?

The recent ban on unregulated banking is indicative of a general problem in Second Life: the lack of choices in services providers. LL has full control over Second Life and they do not have to give us choices but choices is what we want.

Second Life has a single currency and a single method of payment in-world, the Linden dollar. And Linden Lab acts in fact as a bank. A bank with limited services and, more importantly, now the only bank. Yes, a bank. We all have an account where we deposit money that we can withdraw later and Linden dollars are issued only as more RL money comes in than goes out. Therefore, all the Linden money that sits in our accounts represents real US dollars in the (RL) coffers of the LL company and LL can invest that money in any way they want. And that is what banks do.

The services of a regular, RL, bank are more extensive. They offer loans, credit, and also pay interest on deposits. LL doesn't offer such services. LL has also been doing very poorly (no pun intended) in handling financial transactions with customers from across the world. Local banks do a much better job at that. In other words, LL is not a very good bank and we shouldn't expect them to be. We should just get those services from other providers.

I am not arguing with the present ban on unregulated in-world banks, I am all for having only regulated banks. But right now we are left with no other choices but the "LL Bank". The way I see it, there should be different providers for the service of an in-world Linden dollar account. I should have the choice of using an institution from my own country. I should have the choice of paying on credit or otherwise to receive interest on the balance in my account. And LL should just be the Cirrus of Second Life.

Similarly, the lack of choices in server locations is at the root of many of the networking problems. The lack of choices has been also at the root of much of the discontent with the implementation of ID verification. There may not be many global choices for that type of service but, whatever they are, LL should have opened the door for different providers instead of choosing one themselves and closing the door behind them.

Yes, the vision of open source servers and especially an open source architecture and open, standardized, protocols holds the promise of enabling all those choices. However, that vision is distant and is not well presented and we cannot see what Second Life will be like in that rosy future. In the meantime, we get more and more restrictions instead of more choices. We can just keep our fingers crossed for the future.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Human Fixtures

Meet BeatWyss Boa, BorisGroys Oh, PeterSloterdijk Voom and PeterWeibel Oh. They trade jabs with each other and with whoever else happens to join them on the ZKM sim, both on a boxing ring and off it. This is a typical chat for them:

Boxring: Next round.
BorisGroys Oh: Lem, Every exhibition tells a story is iconoclastic.
BeatWyss Boa: BorisGroys, The story is the work is the beginning.
PeterSloterdijk Voom: BorisGroys, The truth is, that this is a chair.
BorisGroys Oh: Lem, Finally the artist alone.
PeterSloterdijk Voom: BorisGroys, Instead of the artist and the economic order.
BeatWyss Boa: BorisGroys, The sense of the artist.
PeterWeibel Oh: PeterSloterdijk, The world is made without the artist.
BorisGroys Oh: Lem, These works of art.
PeterSloterdijk Voom: PeterWeibel, Without a theory of religion in the world.
Boxring: Next round.

From left to right, in the boxing ring in ZKM: PeterWeibel Oh, BorisGroys Oh, BeatWyss Boa. Missing from the picture: PeterSloterdijk Voom

Beat, Boris and the two Peters are avatars you can find in the ZKM sim most of the time (who doesn't crash in SL?). But they are not like your avatar or mine. They are chat bots that are controlled by programs on an off-grid server. And they may not look it individually, but together they are a conceptual art piece, one of several pieces that are part of the ZKM sim (in RL, ZKM is the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, an art institute and a museum in Germany).

They are also probably the most sophisticated example of a concept that I am surprised how rarely it is used in SL. Let's call them "human fixtures" until someone thinks of a better term. These human fixtures are an integral part of builds and in the case of the chat bots in ZKM they themselves are the build. And this being SL, human fixtures don't have to be really human, so they can be little green aliens or robots. Their essence though is that we are conditioned to react to their presence similarly to the way we react to the presence of other avatars (or to humans in RL). For instance, the sight of a servant's human shape in the large hall of a palace makes a big difference in our perception of the place as opposed to the same large hall being completely deserted. I have personally experienced that feeling on the Ascotia sim (or Ducado de Alba), unfortunately the sim is going through changes at this time and recently I have seen only one example of human fixtures in two guards standing at the entrance of the palace.

As I said, this concept is used too rarely in SL and we have become used to builds where no human form is within sight although we are psychologically conditioned to expect them there. I have seen several ferris wheels in SL and yet they all look abandoned. Just a handful of human fixtures strategically placed in the seats would change that and could also tell interesting stories. A young couple kissing. A mother and a child having fun. Two teenage girls screaming. One robot sitting alone and crocheting. In any case, a ride in a ferris wheel is much more appealing when you are not the only person riding as opposed to when all the other seats are empty.

Oh, the concept has been used and quite successfully too. Probably the best known example is Greenies Home Rezzable with the little green aliens spread throughout the house adding a powerful comic element. The concept of the oversized house that we can explore as if we're the size of a mouse was greatly original and beautifully done. But how empty would that house have looked and how much success would it have had without the greenies themselves?

Greenies Home Rezzable
Those Greenies know how to have fun

A more recent sim, Privateer Space, uses both robots and humans with great results. You will find a spaceship there that is damaged and that is abandoned by its crew, but then you will find what is likely that very same crew "assimilated" on a borg ship. There are also many humanoid robots, many of them creating comical situations, like a pandering robot or a robot washing clothes in a primitive fashion. Talking to the creator of the sim, Aley Arai, I have also found out that she is working on adding scripts to some of the robots to interact with the visitors of the sim.

Privateer Space
A human assimilated by the borg on the Privateer Space sim

Whether they are active like the chat bots on ZKM or the scripted robots on Privateer Space, or whether they are completely passive, these human fixtures can be an important element in the builds that they are a part of. By no means should this become a generic solution to fill in for the lack of visiting avatars, although I personally would rather see that than campers sweeping floors in malls. But I certainly hope that they will become more widespread as long as their use is made creatively and in good taste.

PS: Any other good examples of human fixtures used in SL? I am sure I must have missed some. Any good examples where human fixtures could be used and aren't? Even examples where human fixtures are a mistake.