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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Bending with Bento

This is a very short post today!  Some of you may have heard about "Project Bento."  This is an effort on the part of Linden Lab to add additional "bones" to the avatar skeleton, while (we all hope!) not breaking existing content.

What are bones, and why are they important?

Bones are the controls that are used to animate any 3D model.  The basic SL avatar has just under 30 bones.  Animation software moves the bones, and the avatar mesh deforms in response.  The process of adding bones to a model is called "rigging" by animators.  When you see the term "rigged mesh", it means that the mesh clothing has been linked to the bones of the avatar skeleton so that it will bend and move with you.

There are no bones in the Second Life avatar to animate the hands, or facial expressions.  Right now, these are implemented via a limited menu of facial expression and hand position "morphs."  This means that your hands can make a very limited set of gestures...the open, relaxed hand, a closed fist, a V sign, etc.  Your face can make a rather gassy-looking smile or a horrid gaping laugh, a frown, a kissy face, etc.  We all make exactly the same faces.

Project Bento aims to change that, by adding facial bones to allow realistically animated speech movements and expressions, and adding finger bones to the hands to allow them to be animated as well.  Not only that, but nonhuman avatars won't be left out.  Bones for wings and a tail are also being added.  Conceivably, in the future, a camera like a Kinect may scan us as we sit in front of our computers, and our avatars will mirror our Real Life facial expressions and hand movements!

The latest Drax Files video shows what the wizards of Project Bento have managed so far.  Here's the link: https://community.secondlife.com/t5/Featured-News/The-Drax-Files-World-Makers-Episode-35-Project-Bento/ba-p/3001464

Project Bento is now in beta test, so I'm hopeful we'll see these new features in a release viewer this year!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ay-yi-yi! WiFi!

Why is your Second Life running so slow?  One problem could be the way you're connecting up to the internet.  So today, let's get a little technical!

We use WiFi for just about everything these days.  We carry our laptops anywhere in the house, and don't think twice about using them to get on the internet.  We stream video over WiFi.  We play games.  If we have a computer in an upstairs bedroom, we connect it to our network and to the web with WiFi.  I mean, who wants to run those cables through the walls!?

Well, um...YOU do.  At least you do if you want the best performance over your home network.  This is especially important for services that transfer a lot of data, like Second Life.  It can make a big difference for streaming video too, especially if your video is the new 4K UltraHD variety.

Most home routers these days have two kinds of connections:  Ethernet cables (a "hard wired" connection) that's capable of handling up to 1 Gb/s (gigabit per second, or about one thousand million bits.)  And a wireless connection that supports wireless protocols with varying speeds.  The newest routers boast (in theory) wireless speeds up to 1 Gb/sec, too.  "Well, if the wireless connection is as fast as the wired one, Lindal, what are you going on about?" you may ask.

The thing is, while it is theoretically possible to get just as fast a connection on WiFi as on a wired connection, it is almost never the case in practice.

To get that 1 Gb/sec rate, even in theory, requires that your router support the newest 802.11 ac standard.  Most home routers today support 802.11 a/b/g/n, but not ac.  The 802.11 n standard gives a theoretical maximum rate of 450 Mb/sec, less than half that of the 802.11 ac standard.

Even if your router has 802.11 ac, you probably won't see gigabit transfer rates.  Wireless speeds are strongly affected by distance from the router and by obstacles between the router and your computer, like walls and floors.  Plus, the network adapter or chip in your computer has to be 802.11 ac capable, or it won't even see the router's ac signal.  Routers running the 802.11 ac standard use a radio frequency in the 5GHz band, and these signals tend to be even MORE impacted by distance and obstacles than the older 2.4 GHz band used for the b and n WiFi signals.

Your wired connection might not be running at 1Gb/sec, either.  If your router or the network chip in your computer use the older "fast Ethernet" protocol, you'll be limited to a tenth of that, 100 Mb/sec.  And if your Ethernet cables are the older CAT5 standard, they may limit you to the lower 100 Mb/sec speed too.  You'll want CAT5E or CAT6 cables to be sure your network is really able to run gigabit ethernet.

To get an idea of how all this can affect you in the real world, try this experiment.

  • Find a large file on your computer, around 10GB (gigaBYTES...a byte is 8 bits, so that would be 80Gb.  You gotta pay attention to whether the "b" is capitalized or not.  A lowercase b is "bits", an uppercase B is "bytes.")
  • Copy the file and transfer it to another location on your hard drive.  See how long it takes.  It won't take very long.  This is your baseline, because your computer can move data around internally a lot faster than the data can move on your network.
  • Take the same file and transfer it to another computer on your network.  Both computers should be connected to the network with good quality ethernet cables.  Not quite so fast, was it?
  • Now take the same file and transfer it to a laptop or other computer that is connected with a WiFi connection.  You may have time to run out for a snack!
"Lindal!  I just CAN'T run cables!"  Don't be too sure.  Running cables is not always as hard as you think, although it can mean having to cut some holes in the walls and patch and paint them afterwards.  My Resident Geek recently re-wired the entire basement and main floor all on his own over the course of a few weekends.  But you may be able to improve your WiFi performance and avoid this altogether.  I don't recommend any of the "WiFi extenders" or "networking over power lines" gadgets.  I have not had much luck with either one.  However, you may be able to re-locate your WiFi router or access point to a more central location in your house.  Try to find somewhere that's on the main floor, in the middle of the house.  We wound up using a coat closet!  If you can't get strong coverage everywhere in the house, try for a location that gives you a strong signal in the room where you usually use your computer for Second Life.

There is a free app for your Android smartphone that will let you SEE the signal strength of your WiFi.  Go to the Google Play store and download "WiFi Analyzer."  This is very useful when trying to tweak your WiFi performance by moving the router or reorienting its antennas.

Good luck, and happy Fast Networking!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

PITAs!

No, not a sort of ethnic bread.  Today I'm talking about Pains In The Ass...PITAs.  You know, those many things that annoy or vex you.

We had a blizzard this weekend in Real Life.  This can be sort of fun, as long as you are inside and warm, and you don't have a power failure (we did, but fortunately the power wasn't out for too long.)  But the aftermath is a huge PITA.  As we were slowly and painfully clearing our long driveway of about a foot and a half of snow, I started thinking about PITAs...both in Real Life and in Second Life.

Although LL did their best to make Second Life a pleasant and exciting and fun experience, they're only human.  So SL, like RL, has its downsides.  I made a table for comparison!
Life:  If You Aren't Ticked Off, You're Probably Dead
Click the table for a more readable size
In making this table, I was struck by several things.  First, there really do seem to be fewer PITAs in the virtual world.  Good job, Linden Lab!  This ability to engineer out some of the annoyances of everyday life is one of the things that draws people to virtual worlds.

Second, I noticed that many of the PITAs that do carry over into SL do so through the biggest common factor:  yourself.  Some things that affect you in RL are, unavoidably, going to affect your enjoyment of SL, even if they don't affect your avatar per se.

If the biggest common factor linking reality and virtuality is ourselves, then the other common factor is just that...ourselves, plural.  People are people, whether in RL or SL, and so we find idiots, thieves and predators in both places.  As well as friendly, helpful, and kind people too, of course.

There are only a few PITAs that are unique to the virtual world, and they pretty much all have to do with the technology.  Server crashes, software bugs, internet issues, and things of that nature.  I'd say that these would get better as the technology improves, but that hasn't been my experience.  As the technology gets better, people keep pushing it to new limits...so we will probably always have these sorts of annoyances.

What are YOUR Pains In The Ass?  And are they worse in RL, or in SL?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Today in Space History

Normally, I leave reporting on Real Life space events to my friend Inara Pey, but tonight I just had to write to tell you all about the incredible thing I just saw on live webcast.

Space Exploration Technologies, commonly referred to as SpaceX, is a newcomer to the field of rocket science.  But in just a few short years, they have gone from launching their first, small Falcon 1 rocket into orbit to becoming one of the major players in the field of space launch.  Their Falcon 9 medium launch vehicle competes with the much more expensive Atlas V, and SpaceX is one of two companies to have contracts with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 and their Dragon cargo capsule.  Soon, a man-rated version of the Dragon will carry crew members to and from the space station.

Following a launch failure this summer, SpaceX returned to flight in a big way tonight.  A Falcon 9 launched the Orbcomm 2 communications satellite.  The launch was successful.  "Ho hum," I hear you say, "what's the big deal?"

The big deal is that, once the second stage had separated and was on its way into orbit, the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster re-started its engines.  It turned itself around and FLEW BACK to Cape Canaveral.  We saw a brilliant sun falling quickly to earth as the rocket slowed, under control of its computers.  Four landing legs deployed and the huge cylinder settled to earth in a cloud of smoke and flame.  Then the flames died...and there was the booster, sitting on its landing pad...and the engineers in Mission Control erupted in a frenzy of cheering.

This is much more than just a stunt.  One of the things holding back our exploration of space is the enormous cost of getting there.  And one of the big reasons it's so expensive is that we THROW AWAY the rocket.  It's as if you built a Boeing 747, flew it once from New York to London, and then scrapped it.  Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has just changed that equation.  The cost of getting to space has just dropped by about 90%.

Congratulations to Elon and the SpaceX team.  You've just made history.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

FLASH! Advent

Advent is, according to the church calendar, the four weeks prior to Christmas.  One of the ways many devout Christian families observe the Advent season is with an Advent Calendar, a day-by-day list of prayers, bible passages, and activities.

In Second Life, many popular stores and locations also have "Advent Calendars".  These vary in appearance and operation, but the basic idea is that they make a new gift available every day during the Advent season.  Many of these require you to visit the location every day, because the gift is only available on its designated day.  Others provide a new gift each day, but the previous gifts also remain available for latecomers.

Two of my favorite Advent Calendars are:

Abranimations

Caledon Oxbridge University (go to the koi pond, turn left, then right.  Look for the gazebo between the buildings.)

FLASH! New Avatar Skeleton Features - Project Bento

Many of us have complained over the years about the dearth of facial expressions for human avatars in Second Life.  The avatar skeleton has no facial bones, and facial expressions have been limited to the dozen or so stock "facial morphs," most of which look pretty creepy.

And those of us with non-human avatars have had to crush our bodies up small and hide them inside body attachments, which were often animated with a very complex and often clunky special HUD.

But Linden Lab has just announced the trial release of "Project Bento" which aims to solve both problems by adding a number of "bones" to the avatar skeleton.  The new features are now available for experimentation and comment.

Note that (unfortunately) LL has not changed any of the existing skeleton structure.  Much as I would like to see more realistic movement of, say, the shoulders, I am forced to agree that this was a good decision on their part.  Changing existing bones would break all kinds of content...pretty much any existing animations, and clothing and attachments that depend on those bones for their movement or deformation.

Read all about Project Bento here: https://community.secondlife.com/t5/Featured-News/Introducing-Project-Bento-New-Bones-Added-to-Second-Life-Avatar/ba-p/2987206

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

FLASH! Major Savings, and a Minor Update

Just a quick note today...well, two.

First, LL has dropped the setup price for new private regions by 40% across the board.  The $1,000 USD startup fee has been a huge barrier for people wanting their own region.  Now that cost has dropped to just $600 USD.  There have been other changes, too...for example, if you bought another resident's grandfathered region, the region reverted to the current $295 per month land fee, instead of the grandfathered rate of $195 USD.  Now you can purchase the region and get the grandfathered rate, provided you pay the $600 fee up front. 

Second, the popular Firestorm viewer has a new release, 4.7.5.  It's mostly bug fixes and a few new features, but it should increase stability for most people and may even provide a small performance boost.

There may be terrorists running wild, but at least here you found some Good News today!