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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

DREAM OF FIELDS

"You guys look like an alt rock group whose tour bus broke down in Omaha!" I tell the people I'm with, because, as it happens, they do. Foxy Xevious for one is a girl in leather with long dredlocks, while Jimmy Thompson sports a mohawk made of flame. And they're standing in a field of flowers and shrub, and a weathered farmhouse looms over them.

"I'm the groupie," their companion Dreams Lightcloud announces gamely, and as if to drive that point home, the girl with pink hair and platform heels begins to rock dance amid the long-stem roses.

Actually, what we're standing in is known as The Field of Dreams, which is also not a reference to the Kevin Costner film. It's an elaborate tech demo, and far as I know, I'm the first person associated with Linden Lab to see how a man who's spent a lot more of his time thinking about Canadian shipping routes has managed to beat Linden Lab at their own game. So to speak.

"I’m doing research [on] how to improve visual quality inside Second Life," Jimmy explains, "and the field is one of many prototype we made." He created it, he says, from "the desire to override the actual way Lindens implemented vegetation inside SL. [We needed a] more convincing and realistic solution." The result-- if I can briefly report from backstage-- got most of the developers and programmers at Linden Lab to gather around a single monitor, looking at Jimmy's field, gap-mouthed in awe.

I'm neither an artist or a programmer, so when I ask Jimmy to explain how he's able to make a field look this lush and dense, with foliage that you could actually hide in, if you were sitting in it, I beg him to keep it in language that doesn't make my head explode.

"It's very simple," Thompson replies. Then proceeds to swell my cranium anyway...

"It's a particle system that distribute particles (transparent images) in a 2D plane," he says. "Using the maximum [display] longevity for particles (30 seconds.)" He frowns. "The only drawback, its flickering effect; waiting for a Linden Lab improvement to help the system."

"How does this differ from the [default Linden Lab] way of creating plant life?" I ask.

"This system has the advantage," Jimmy replies brusquely. "This thread, Hamlet, VERY important. From the thread: 'The concept is to use a particle system to distribute particles that will create the field. Each particle generated by this particle system is a '2d plane' what will always face the camera. We place the texture of a plant on this plane. Almost lag free, [we] do not use prims and use very simple script (low [server] processing). Custom texture, we can create every type of field we can imagine. Low prims counts, only three [building block] prims for each section (twenty meter radius). NOT USING PRIMS. Customizable color and transparency."

To demonstrate that point, the Field of Dreams features a control panel, where you can select any number of flowers or plant, then watch it slowly propogate across the landscape.

"Soon, Second Life will be over-run with flowers," Foxy Xevious vows to me like she was a James Bond mastermind, speaking to me from her sprawling laboratory (which, as it happens, she sort of is.) "We stopped Unreal to work on this first." ("Project Unreal" is the place name for the upcoming project from Foxy's Bedazzled group; briefly mentioned in this month's newsletter, it's an ambitious attempt to create a multiplayer first-person shooter in the spirit of Unreal Tournament and other classics.)

"This project is only part of a more general project to improve visual quality," Jimmy continues. "I’m posting a tutorial on our website to help people."

"http://bedazzle.grfx.at", Foxy interjects helpfully.

"The trees are made from prims using traditional technology," Jimmy Thompson adds. Even though the gracefully twisting trees in the Field of Dreams resemble nothing I've yet seen in the world, created by Linden Lab or any of the other residents-- Bedazzled based theirs on Japanese bonsais.

In real life, Jimmy is a French Canadian who owns a business of eight employees, developing software to regulate maritime traffic. Like Foxy Xevious, then, he's an established businessperson (and presumably a pretty successful one) who now devotes most of his free time on a creative project with no immediate profit motive. (As it stands now, Project Unreal will be free to all Second Life residents.) So when he's not running his own company, he works in-world for Ms. Xevious, transmuting his skills at helping keep Canada's shipping routes open, to something considerably more esoteric.

"Yes," says Jimmy, "I invest a lot of time inside Second Life, a lot, because I believe in the potential of our world. A future mass media, like TV or the Internet." Eventually, he sees a time where he'll be able to sell his skills in-world, to make his living. "I will have to wait two-three years before being able to work full time in SL," he speculates. "The economy system isn't mature."

For now, then, much of his efforts are devoted to improving the fundamental tool box of this world, with the foremost goal involving gunplay and explosions and bursts of flame. On an adjoining simulator also owned by Foxy Xevious, the Bedazzled team is already hard at work on an alien temple amid a permanent snowstorm, and other settings where Project Unreal will play out. But I tell them they should figure out a way to incorporate the Field of Dreams into their shooter.

That way, I say, residents can "frag folks while running through the freaking daffodils and other flowers, while giant plumes of blood and shell casings drop among the rose pedals."

Jimmy Thomson nods agreeably. "The blood of the victim spreading through a field of white rose."

Foxy eyes her programmer. "This is a romantic side of Jimmy we have never seen."

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Comments

Kickass.

Posted by: Torley Wong at Nov 30, 2004 2:39:10 PM

First off, I LOVE THIS SYSTEM. WTG!

Second, I have noticed it doesnt fair to well on uneven landscape such as mountain sides. The 2D planes tend to hang out in space.

Being a real hack at scripting I can't offer any advice but had some thoughts. What if more particles were used, but smaller 2D pics were dispersed, say one plant as opposed to 10 lined up? Not sure how they'd fair on the uneven landscape though. Isnt there a flag in the particle system that lets particles 'bounce' across the Z axis? If so....could that be used to bring the plant to land level? Probably not as there's no real movement on these particles, but just checking.

Anyway, I still have a billion ideas to use with this system so I am most grateful for Jimmy's genius work here :)

Posted by: Synergy Belvedere at Dec 2, 2004 3:42:19 PM

I made those Bedazzle T-shirts :)

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