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Moriash Moreau: My Second Life
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Virtual Injury
Well, I think this might be a first on the grid: I just injured myself in Second Life. At least, I hope it's a first. Considering where most of the RL-to-SL interface research is directed, I really don't want to think about the nature of the bodily damage resulting from such accidents.

But I digress. I've mentioned it before, in passing, and I'm sure I'll mention it again: Basically, I'm coming up with a frame for the exercise bike I mentioned previously that will allow me to control the pitch and roll of an SL aircraft by shifting my center of gravity, and leaning/banking in the direction I wish to go. Sort of like an upright, pedal-powered hang-glider, more or less.

Well, last night, I did some early tests of the partially completed frame. I've been designing this contraption as I go, because I've had to determine the various balance points by trial and error. (I suppose someone might be able to determine the center of balance for a moving bicyclist on top of an exercise bike balanced on a length of two-by-ten, but that's a bit more math than I'm prepared to do in my off hours.) This means strapping together bits of it temporarily, then carefully climbing aboard and throwing my weight around to see if it'll lean the way I want it to lean.

During one such test, my temporary measures gave way, releasing the exercise bike from its moorings and catapulting me backwards. After a moment of frantically scrambling for purchase, I managed to land my right foot on a nearby step stool... Which promptly shattered under my weight. The net result? A few cuts and bruises in inconvenient places from falling on top of the shards of plastic from the sundered stool, a ripped pair of work pants, and a mildly sprained ankle. Oh, and my test vehicle spinning out of control and slamming my avatar into the ground with similar force. A little unexpected bit of immersion, that. Perhaps I should damage-enable my testing grounds, just for an extra bit of realism. All told, neither my virtual nor real selves fared too well during last night's test flights.

Fortunately, the exercise bike and frame came through relatively unscathed, even after receiving a few retributory kicks from my uninjured foot. And, more importantly, I see what I did wrong. I mean, aside from flailing about while perched on top of a complex assembly held together with zip ties and duct tape. It should be salvageable, with a few modifications. So, after allowing a bit of time to heal (hauling around lengths of lumber whilst hopping around on one leg isn't a lot of fun), I should be able to continue. I'll post more here as things develop.

Assuming I don't manage to kill myself first.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Virtual Bicycle
I have taken the obligatory first step in integrating my exercise bike into SL. I now have a fully functioning pedal-powered ground vehicle!

Okay, at this point it's simply a shiny black cylinder, but as a proof of concept it works. I suppose I'll get around to building a bicycle-type vehicle that actually looks like a bicycle but, honestly, I'm not in any great hurry. Between the physics glitches, the obstructions, the security orbs (why are people still using these at ground level?!), and the pervasive no-entry bars, ground-level driving is just not a lot of fun. Worse, many of these issues require me to dismount and go to my keyboard in order to deal with them. Vexing. I'll probably do a few more tests, perhaps in designated vehicle sims, but I think I'm going to just move on to the original human-powered aircraft concept. Most of the problems disappear when you're several hundred meters above ground.

In any case, here is phase one of the project: the ground interface. As with the VR interfaced treadmill (which I've been using almost daily for over a month now), I went with a reed switch for the main movement signal. (I even used another wooden domino as a spacer for the switch. I feel vindicated for keeping useless crap like a partial set of dominoes around now.) You can see the white wire leading to it at bottom center.

I used four small magnets to trigger the reed switch. They're taped directly onto the wheel using double-sided foam and fiber packing tape (the shiny white bundle on the wheel next to the reed switch). I ended up having to add multiple magnets in order to persuade the reed switch to fire reliably at high speeds. Otherwise, the magnet passed too quickly to close the switch. The huge mass of packing tape is probably overkill, but I kept imagining the magnets flying loose under centrifugal force and destroying something I want, well, undestroyed. You know, television, monitor, window, wall, shin, patella, things like that.

As you can see, I created my own custom set of handlebars using galvanized water pipe. This wasn't strictly necessary for the project, but I didn't like the racing style handlebars that came with the exercise bike. They required the rider to lean over in approved racing style, and even a couple minutes using them was hard on my lower back. I kind of like the way the new handlebars look, anyway.

The handlebars are loose in the bicycle frame, allowing them to be turned left and right. The vertical portion has a small cam/protrusion clamped onto it, positioned such that it pushes one of two simple switches (the metal straps screwed onto the wood scrap) closed when turned. Extremely crude and, frankly, ugly. But it seems to work. I'll probably come back and redo this part if it turns out that I use these controls frequently. Right now, my tentative control scheme for the flying bike involves leaning into turns, and thus probably won't require turning the handlebars at all. We'll see how it turns out, I guess.

More to come as things develop.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Babel Two
Well, as promised, I'm posting a few pics of my Burning Life 2006 build. To be honest, I'm a little disappointed with how the pictures turned out. I think Babel Two is one of those "you had to be there" kind of things. I know it sounds a bit pretentious, or perhaps it just sounds like an excuse, but the static images don't seem to do it justice. Oh well.

Here's the view from ground level. The general concept was simple: avatars built a virtual tower to virtual Heaven. God was displeased. Much babble and mayhem ensue. Babel Two is a 3-D snapshot of the destruction of the tower, frozen in time.

Even now, I don't know what the moral of this little scene might be. Perhaps it's an indictment against intellectual growth without spiritual development. Perhaps it's a cautionary tale, reminding us of the follies of hubris in the face if ever accelerating technological growth. Or perhaps I figured out a way to make a 4000 meter tall tower, and was looking for an excuse to try it out. You be the judge.

God is represented by a 20 meter long reproduction of the Hand of God, as depicted in the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The hand reaches out of a storm cloud, and lightning periodically flashes from the finger to the base of the tower.

Due to my proximity to the Burning Man site (right next door) the Hand received considerable indirect coverage. Which is kind of cool. I'm glad I was able to contribute, however tangentially and unintentionally, to the fireworks.

The tower itself is 4000 meters tall, constructed of 400 prims (not including the room at top and various details at ground level). As I've mentioned more than once in this blog, objects created above 768m tend to disappear after a sim reset. In order to get around this, I ended up scripting a housekeeping robot. This machine periodically flies up the length of the tower, and scans for the presence of each piece of the tower (be they tower segments along the way or furnishings at the top). If it's not there (ie it was deleted for some reason), the robot rezzes another copy from its inventory. Kind of cumbersome, but it works. And it seemed to buy me a little awe from my SL peers who didn't happen to know the idiosyncrasies of high altitude builds, too. This isn't a bad thing at all.

Surrounding the tower are thirty two-dimensional cutouts of various avatars, frozen in poses of panic as they flee the scene. Each cutout has three different poses, some running, some looking on in horror, and (as can be seen above) some caught in mid-explosion. These scenes slowly loop on a random interval, creating an everchanging tableau of panic. When touched, the cutout plays a brief sound bite of random gibberish (twenty some-odd randomly selected WAV recordings from various movies and TV shows, reversed and filtered), as the Curse of Babel takes hold.

This, in short, was a heck of a lot of work! Each cutout required six snapshots (three poses, front and back), processed into animation textures, times over thirty different avatars. In addition to dragooning my friends into posing for me, I ran through every member of the Plywood cast, as well as all the library avatars. Fortunately, I was able to come up with a fixed-camera bluescreen stage and a simple canned animation poser, so it just became a matter of mass production.

The fleeing avatars turned out to be the least commented-upon feature of the project. This is kind of unfortunate, considering that they were by far the most time consuming aspect of the build. But I think they still created a solid backdrop for the destruction, even if they didn't really stick out in anyone's mind.

One a visitor enters the tower, he is encouraged to "Touch the Flame to Summon Wrath." Touching the flame (or actually the transparent cylinder around it) triggers a sit command and a ride on an elevator. As the elevator is triggered, a bolt of lightning is called, such that the force of the strike appears to blast the hapless visitor up...

And up... And up... And up... The 4000 meter climb takes around 60 seconds to complete. (Yes, just 60 seconds. Not five minutes, or longer, as some claimed.) Personally, I don't think this is too long a trip, but I confess I'm a bit biased: I routinely make the same trip to the SkyLounge. After multiple complaints, I did look into speeding up the elevator by various means. But, after some experimentation, I found that the tower tended to disappear if one flew past it at speeds faster than around 70 meters per second. The segments simply didn't have time to render before they were again out of range. Vexing.

At the top of the tower is a brass and stone room, overlooking a huge particle Aurora Borealis effect. (Thanks to Sophia Weary for the initial seed particle script, and for the concept.) Kind of hypnotic.

This room is not completely untouched by the havoc below. Even here, the Curse of Babel appears. Anything said by chat is instantly translated into a random language. Not a complicated effect, but it makes the point. And it generally gives bilingual visitors a case of the giggles.

Inside the vaulted dome of the tower is a 10 meter wide orrery. Each of the nine planets is represented in brushed steel and brass. While I wasn't able to faithfully capture their orbits (just not enough room!), I was able to keep their orbital periods intact. They move at a rate of about one Earth year per second.

Amusingly, current events conspired to complicate this part of the project. After some vacillation, in late August, 2006, astronomers announced that Pluto wasn't truly a planet, in spite of what we all learned in school. I decided to go ahead and keep Pluto in the planetary model, because it just looked odd to me otherwise. But, as a tribute to the whole mess, I rigged the planet-like-but-not-really-a-planet to appear and disappear at random intervals.

It made me laugh, anyway.

In keeping with the astronomy theme, I also created a model of the solar system of the metaverse. Conceptually, it is a square representation of the flat SL grid, floating in mercury. This is suspended in a large, hollow glass sphere. Embedded in the walls of the sphere are models of the SL sun and moon. This sphere is turned to follow the real (virtual) sun and moon by a three-wheeled motorized base.

Actually, the glass globe just turns itself to point at the sun, but I needed a mechanical rationale for it all.

Also in the tower is a simple telescope, for observing the two celestial bodies in the SL solar system. The telescope continually turns itself to follow the sun (or moon, at night). When used, it overrides the camera to track the heavenly body in its view, and instructs the user to zoom in on the object using CTRL-8, CTRL-9 and CTRL-0. Using CTRL-0, the sun or moon can be expanded to fill the screen, allowing for close observation of the pixellated craters on the moon and the static sunspots on the sun.

There are two ways to get down from the tower: the long way and the short way. The long way is simply a short-distance teleporter that dumps the user just outside the tower, and lets him fall the entire four kilometers to the ground. This was created as a favor to the base jumpers who discovered the tower early on.

The short way is both faster and more dramatic. Mechanically, it's very simple. The device just makes one non-physical movement (via llSetPos) and then drops. Any non-physical movement above 768m results in the object instantly snapping to 768m. So, the net result is the down elevator teleports the user from 4000m to 768m, shaving 80% off the trip time.

I suppose I could have made a regular elevator from that point, but my laziness inspired me to a more artistic solution. After the initial hop, the elevator turns physical and falls. It also triggers a "re-entry" flame effect, and explodes in a small dust cloud on impact with the ground. I suppose it's more theatric than is strictly necessary, but it is kind of fun, nonetheless.

This idea actually came to me in a dream. In college, and a few times since then, I had a recurring dream about falling out of orbit. Like the picture above, I dreamed that I was screaming out of the stratosphere, trailing smoke and flame from re-entry heating on my back (or sometimes chest- the down elevator also picks one or the other at random). I usually woke up just before impact, but every once in a while I'd be treated to a special-effects laden third-person view of myself carving a deep furrow into some isolated farmland first. I'm perversely proud of that. I should rent my unconscious mind out to ILM.

And then, once the smoke cleared and the dust settled, a dark-haired toddler would climb out of my torso, wrapped in red blanket with a big yellow "S" on it. Okay, not really. But you have to admit that'd be really trippy.

Given the standard interpretations of falling and flying dreams, I don't really want to think about the ramifications of adding orbital decay and re-entry burns to the mix. But the dream inspired kind of a nifty bit of SL hacking, in any case.

So, there you have it. My Burning Life build, more or less.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Beck Is Ready for SL
Heard something interesting on the radio this morning. Apparently, alternative musician Beck has been touring with marionette puppets of himself and his band. Beck is, at least conceptually, all set to perform in Second Life.

See, all action in Second Life, including musical performances, is at its heart puppetry. And with particularly clumsy puppets, at that. (And I know I've said this before, in other venues.) You can't do it yourself and expect it to work. Clearly, it's too much to expect that a performer run his audio feed, sing, play his instrument of choice, chat up the audience, and trigger his animations besides. You can only do so much with two hands. And if you're doing a one-man show at your regular gig in the SL club du jour, that's fine. I heartily applaud the efforts of local (to SL) musicians in game, and am quite willing to overlook a half-hour guitar-strum loop in those cases.

But for a paid (in real currency), professional gig, there's no reason to settle for that! You're allowed to have someone else pilot your avatar. Maybe it's time for a new profession in Second Life: "virtual puppeteer." Team up an accomplished animation creator and a skilled scripter, and come up with a custom interface for the job. Then hire someone to run the avatars for the singer during his or her set. We already do this kind of thing with special effects. Take a look at the board for the lighting effects and dance floor next time you're at the local blackbox dance club. Just add the avatar to the special effects.

Then, and this seems to be where every single high-profile performance I've ever seen in SL falls down, practice. Plan ahead. Make sure your attachments all fit the avatars that will use them (there's no excuse for adjusting an attachment on stage- at the very least a copy of the avatar's shape file, if not the skin, could be provided to the attachment maker). Setup marks on stage. ("Move from mark one to mark two" can be easily scripted in advance, and repeated with machine precision.) Run through it a couple times. I know, big name artists are seldom going to deign to do a dry run for a piddly little Second Life two-song-wonder concert. But at least try to anticipate. A professional musician shouldn't be expected (or allowed, without considerable practice) to pilot his avatar any more than he'd be expected to run the sound board at his concerts, or do the edits and CG effects for his music videos. There's no reason why an SL performance needs to look like a born-yesterday newbie bumbling through Help Island.

Well, I'm getting irritated here, so I'm going to let it go with that. We're reaching the point where "Gee, we're performing in a virtual world!" isn't cutting it anymore. Second Life is on the verge of becoming a mature technology, and as such the mere novelty of being here isn't enough. Production values matter. It's time to stop using SL as a fancy webpage for an audio stream, and start paying attention to the virtual half of the performance.
I finally, finally found a cheap used stationary bicycle. Now it's only a matter of time and ingenuity between me and my spiffy new flying bicycle! There are still a few technical issues to iron out. (Anyone know how to properly adjust the seat height if your bike has one of those ancient "tractor seats?") But I think it could be kind of fun. I have visions of rigging up some kind of simple dual-axis rocking assembly (think of a rocking horse set on top of a rocking bassinet, only less precarious, and with more wires, weights, and pulleys) so I can actually lean/bank into the turns, but we'll see how my budget, time, and technical ability hold out.

I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about this in the future. Oh, and I have pictures of my Burning Life project, too. Frankly, I'm not all that enthused about them. The pictures don't seem to capture it very well, for some reason. Or maybe it just wasn't all that wonderful to begin with. I suppose it doesn't matter now, anyway. Burning Life will shortly sink back into the playa for another year, taking all of the builds (bad, good, or indifferent) with it. I'll post pics and blurbs here shortly, in any case, just to get it off my mind.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Just Go See It Yourself
I've about decided that I'm not going to do any additional coverage of Burning Life here. (Aside from pics of my own build, sometime soon. Vanity forbids otherwise.) One, well, it'd be wasted effort. There's more than ample coverage elsewhere, and I think my photographic documentation efforts from last year were viewed by about five people. And that's fine, really. A static representation, even one captured in stereoscopic 3-D, isn't a patch on the real thing viewed live and in person. And that brings us to the second reason.

You should go see it yourself! Seriously. If you have a Second Life account, you're doing yourself a major disservice by missing this event. If you don't have one, go get one. The web site is up there in the corner. Go sign up. Now. I'll wait. Burning Life is a solid cross section of the best Second Life has to offer. And it'll all be gone in a week. If you miss it, all the pictures and gushing reviews won't mean anything to you.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Burning Life
GavinLeigh Wake did a very nice writeup of my Burning Life build, "Babel Two." There's also a picture of the Finger of God in action here. I managed to net a very prominent spot right next to the Burning Man itself, as you can see in the link.

And, in other news, I finished my build tonight! Drop by and take a look. It's at (Rocco) 114, 224, 41. I'd planned on doing more, but there was some confusion about the opening date. Not having been to Burning Man, I assumed that the burning of the efficy from which it takes its name was the kickoff of the event, not an event somewhere in the middle. (This is not an unreasonable assumption, I still maintain.) So, I assumed Burning Life opened on September 15, the day of the in-world simulated burn. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when I saw the notice on September 5 that Burning Life was open to the public. I may add little details to it in the next couple days, but for now I'd consider it complete.

As promised earlier, I'll post pictures and a writeup here soon. But, now that my work is done, I'm going to kick back and enjoy wandering around Burning Life as a tourist for a few days first.

Addendum, 9/8/06
This morning, I went into my office to take my morning walk on the grid, and was greeted by several instant messages saying variations of "How tall is this tower?! I've been flying forever!" These were the latest of several such IMs, each with varying levels of literacy and cordiality. (My favorite was delivered a week ago: "y u waste my time, assohle [sic]," presumably sent after falling back down the length of the tower. Ignorant and illogical on more levels than I can enumerate.) So, instead of walking and sweating for half an hour (oh, darn), I logged in to add a message to the elevator inside the base of the tower. Now, it says:
Summon Wrath
(Elevator to 4000m)

So at least that's settled. I'm mildly irked about having to do this. I mean, I had something clearly labeled "Touch me!" It seems like that would be enough for folks to get the hint and realize the exhibit has more to offer, with a little bit of interaction. But, somehow, it doesn't occur to some people to, you know, touch it. I really don't get this, especially at Burning Life. Half the exhibits have touch-reactive scripts built into them, and most don't have a label of any sort.

I really wrestled with myself about putting in the elevation. It originally said "...Wrath (Elevator)." It's not that I mind talking to people, of course. But when the answer is easily available (Q: "This elevator ride takes forever! How long is it?" A: "Ride it and find out!"), and the time investment (a bit over 60 seconds- faster, and the tower won't render properly as you fly by) is so minimal... Sigh. Where's the curiousity? Where's the patience? Where's the love?!

I once took a trip to see the San Jacinto Monument. There is an elevator that runs up to an observation deck at the top of the tower. You have to buy tickets to enter, and the elevators are run by live attendants (as opposed to, you know, just pressing the button yourself). Mounted on the wall of the elevator cabs are cheap plastic signs stating the height (in feet and stories), the expected duration of the ride, and a few other facts. I suppose the elevator attendants got sick of answering the same questions, day after day. At the time, I remember thinking how obnoxious that was. How much energy does it take to answer a couple of questions? Now, I begin to understand why the signage was there.

Sorry, I guess I'm being a bit churlish here. I think it's the end result of two straight weeks of being alternately griefed and harassed as I built this thing. I'd almost forgotten why I stopped going to sandboxes.

Pictures of the Tower, and probably many more exhibits, to come.

Addendum, 9/11/06
And, incidentally, they just announced that the Burning Man event will now be on September 16th at 3pm SLT. (As opposed 9/15/06, as originally scheduled.) I'm more than a bit irked about this. I'd taken the afternoon of the 15th off to attend (since I'm actually a participant in the whole BL thing, and kind of wanted to be a part of the titular event), and I have to attend a wedding starting at 2:30pm SLT on the 16th. Here I manage to draw a plot right next door to the Burning Man, work my ass off to get it ready, and now I can't even attend the main event. Yeah, I know, saturday is more convenient for most people. And if they'd decided this from the beginning, it wouldn't be so bad. But changing it at the last minute kind of sucks. This is the first SL event in a very long time that I've been even mildly excited about, and now I'm screwed out of even that. Forget "irked." I'm pissed off.

Oh well. I'm sure it'll be too laggy to enjoy, anyway.
Friday, September 01, 2006
Dwell On It: The Comics
Just a quick one: if you're not following Tateru Nino's Dwell On It comics, you're missing out! She's only posted a few, so far, but here's hoping for many, many more.