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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

THE SHAPE OF PRIMS TO COME

Earlier yesterday, I was wondering (as I often have before) if Linden Lab would ever get around to making it possible for residents to create and script human-like AIs and other non-player characters-- you know, the kind of technology pretty much every standard MMORPG depends upon, to populate their worlds with believable characters to talk with and convincing monsters to fight against, among many other interactions. It would be the kind of feature resident game developers could do amazing things with, while shifting resident expectations of the culture growing around them. (What happens when one of the few all-human online worlds is invaded by compelling AIs?) Of course, being the journalist, I've but little influence over Linden Lab's technological direction, beyond maybe an occasional hit-and-run, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." suggestion made over the office microwave. In other words, not much. Leaving me just to report features as they're introduced by Linden Lab-- but only inasumuch as they impact the community.

However, this turns out to be one more case where the community does the impacting on itself. Before Monday was over, a resident had called me over to a sandbox, so he could show me that he'd gone ahead and created that technology on his own.

"It takes roughly a minute or two to parse all of the data and start moving," Jeff Gomez warns me, grinning, "but when it does..."

After awhile, I squint, non-plussed: "So whattam I looking at?" Because all I see right now are about ten nondescript prims floating in mid-air.

But gradually, the prims begin to move. Not randomly, but in concert, flowing together in a single continuous motion. And suddenly the prims don't seem like disparate wooden boxes, but joints on a body-- elbows, knees, feet. This isn't just movement-- it's walking, so vivid you can almost picture the whole body implied by their coordination.

"You're looking at animated prims," Gomez affirms. "Via a Poser(tm) animation. A feature residents have been begging for for some time. The left hand [joint] just messed up, unfortunately. Minor bug."

"So this is the wire mesh for a future giant, basically?"

"Exactly."

"So you could have a realistically animated robot or monster or whatever?"

"Yes, sir. It's actually very easy. The animation files are nice and human-readable. So the trick was telling the [Linden] script what all it meant. And making it create itself." Residents have had the ability to import customized animations into their avatars for many months already. What Gomez is giving them, however, is the power to import those animations into a set of primitives. Connecting a skeleton to them, adding flesh and muscle to the skeleton-- that's the easy part.

"You could also use this to animate non-player characters too," I realize.

"Yes, sir," Gomez says, then, "You're welcome to copies of all of the above, by the way. None of this is for profit." (Though the final version, he adds, is still being debugged.)

Nearby, Gomez's friend Marker Dinova watches the moving prims, which now undulate like the wings of a bird in flight.

"Ya know," he muses, rubbing his virtual beard, "That will help a lot of projects... like 'Dark Life', for example... Imagine a prim dragon actually flapping its wings in a natural manner."

"I promise you that can be done," says Gomez. "That is why I stick around... because we (the residents) have a LOT of control over this... [and] because I enjoy adding 'features' that are meaningful."

While he demos this technology, I notice his chat dialog, which appears by default as text on the bottom of my screen, is also appearing on a cartoon bubble above his head.

"One of my earlier projects," he says of it. And again, this also happens to be a technology Linden Lab has yet to bring into the world.

"Sir," I say, "you have made thought bubbles and NPC animation possible before Linden Lab, and I salute you!" And because Gomez has given me the scripted attachment which makes it possible, those words appear over my head, too.

But Gomez isn't through with me yet. "Have you tried my pinball machine?"

I haven't, but I'm too busy watching three more prims of his streak the sky in several directions, leaving trails of colored smoke in their wake-- which end up forming the outline of a palm tree. Scarce after that has evaporated, Jeffrey Gomez is throwing up several highly detailed, spinning planets above our heads.

"It's a whole constellation," Marker observes, impressed.

But by this point, I'm starting to get exhausted by his unending stream of innovation.

"JEFFREY," I finally shout, overwhelmed, "STOP PULLING COOL CRAP OUT OF YOUR PANTS!"

But Jeffrey Gomez just innocently hums.

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Comments

Way cool. I dig this shiznit -- now if only we could get cartoon fonts to go in those dialog bubbles. :)

Posted by: Torley at Mar 1, 2005 6:44:23 AM

That is freakin' awesome! It's still in it's infancy too. I absolutely cannot wait to see what people will do with this within a year. :)
I am not a coder but I LOVE seeing these scripting gurus getting their due. Please don't hesitate to do more stories on coding innovations when/if they cross your path. Thanks!

Posted by: persig phaeton at Mar 1, 2005 11:46:24 AM

This is awesome stuff.

And somehow, on top of all the cool stuff he does himself, Jeffrey finds time to be one of the most helpful respondents on the scripting forum, as well. The mind boggles.

Posted by: Strangeweather Bomazi at Mar 1, 2005 1:25:04 PM

Wow! Forget the animated NPC giant -- I want the bubble text thingy and the pinball machine! Where do I sign up??? :D

Posted by: Paolo Portocarrero at Mar 1, 2005 2:25:58 PM

OMG YOU ARE TEH COOL

Posted by: anonymous coward at Mar 1, 2005 3:24:44 PM

Yoiks...Jeffrey's at it again, eh? The fellow's a scripting machine!

I need to contact him next time I see him in world...I'd LOVE to get sculptures of mine running on this wireframe...

Posted by: Skunken Gascoigne at Mar 1, 2005 11:41:42 PM

Has he seen GenPrims? The two ideas are quite similar.

Posted by: Stephen Grayson at Mar 19, 2005 10:54:13 AM

I should have glanced these comments earlier. Thanks, folks. And no Stephen, I'm not familiar with "GenPrims;" however, I am aware that this has been a wanted feature for some time.

As for having the time to do all this? Campus-wide wireless, laptop, hours to waste in my classes... =)

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