Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview with Connie Sec - Second Life, Blue Mars and more

Today we bring you an interview with noted 3d fashionista, Connie Sec.

Connie's virtual photography and art are well known on Second Life and throughout the wider metaverse, so I'm happy she took the time out of her schedule.  In this interview she shares her thoughts on virtual art, Second Life, Blue Mars and hot industry topics...

 Connie Sec

Q - So tell us a little about yourself and your virtual world interests

I began in Second Life (SL) in April 07, expecting some sort of 3D web experience. Before that, I had no experience in 3d worlds, not played any MMO’s such as Warcraft and not used I.M. So I was a total “Noob”. Being in my 1st year at university gave me the time to learn and I realised that I could do things in SL that were fairly impossible for me to achieve in “Real Life” (RL). I found an increasing interest in virtual photography and art that had lain dormant since my school days. As my RL career is in Science, SL provides a welcome break from that side.

I have fun with fashion, but also enjoy the chance to express myself with humor, pathos and the occasional airing of my various neuroses ☺. As time went by, I really did have a second life, fairly separate from my RL. Aside from the social aspects, I love to build a little, and have a sim that I rent prims to some close friends to help pay tier. I have full control over the direction and style of the sim and have basically built my “Dream” home and lived a “Dream” life. Any opinions I have regarding SL or other virtual worlds are colored by my interests, and so, what may be important to me may not be an issue to many others.

Q - You're well known for your stunning fashion shots.  Take us through your process, how does the magic happen?

The process can be different depending upon what the fashion shot is for.

If it’s a shot for a designer, who wants to perhaps use it in their blog or store, this places emphasis upon being able to see their creation. I will either have scouted a location already, or I will build a “set” at my studio or perhaps simply use a RL pic as a texture on a prim in the background. I will then go through hair, shoes and accessories that I feel compliment what I am trying to achieve. I then go through my poses, looking for something that works in the shot. I think I have around 300 useful poses in my 2 pose stands and a few more in my inventory for activation in Sims that don’t allow me to rezz anything. Once I have the general shot worked out I then log into Shadowdraft viewer for actual pic taking. This provides further challenges and need for some tweaking. For example, that viewer handles transparencies a little differently to the “normal” viewer, so it usually requires that I mod transparencies on prims and sculpts to that they look as they would in the normal viewer. As the Shadow viewer is a private project by Kirsten that has its own glitches and frustrations, there are other things I may have to do, that I won’t go into, to achieve anything usable.

Connie's homage to Dior and Galliano collections

I then work on the environmental controls. As that viewer can throw real time shadows in response to sun position, I use it to match lighting direction that may be apparent in any RL background I may use, or even throw shadow onto the background. Approximately half the time to completion is taken actually getting the shot with colour, light direction looking realistic. I may even take 2 shots of the same scene with different lighting directions to later meld together in post to simulate 2 light sources.

Post work is firstly perhaps cropping the pic and melding of shots together. I use an old program called Photodraw 2000 to do the simple things that newer programs make overly complex. I then go onto fixing avatar glitches that may be apparent. I mainly use the brush and Iwarp tool in Gimp. I then turn to Mystical tone and colour using a brush tool to increase apparent resolution and sharpness within parts of the image. I find the max resolution of 1024 x 1024 applied to textures in SL a major drawback to getting detail into images, especially as my pics in a square aspect ratio are at 3000 x 3000. I may apply other post effects such as gradient tinting. This all depends upon if I judge a pic would benefit from other post work. I feel post should enhance what I already have rather than be a distraction or a way to cover up a bad shot. That is a very short description of some of what I may do to get a shot, more detail would require 2 A4 pages of text in Word ☺ On the whole I am very lucky to have designers that allow me free reign to try new ways of doing things. That is the way I feel I have improved.

Q - SL is your main home, what do think of the new capabilities in the Version 2 viewer?

New Second Life Beta Viewer 2

 I’m not a fan of the Beta U.I 2.0. While the aim of making SL easier to come to grips with is laudable, in my opinion, they have failed. Most people I speak to, feel it is even more confusing than the old UI and I agree with them. On a more philosophical note, SL is NOT a web page, and the idea of making the UI more browser like is flawed because of this. Some love to say Virtual worlds are the future of the Web and the UI for Viewer 2.0 is an illogical extension of that thinking. SL is more akin to a game than web pages (in functionality) and virtual worlds will be a subset of the web, not usurp it. SL is much like your computer, it does many jobs, from chatting in IM to pulling up a program to do something disparate. The SL UI should take its cue from operating system interface conventions rather than Firefox.

 While the new features such as an extra layer/ face tattoo and web on a prim is some enhancement and is welcome, I feel it is tinkering at the edges and does very little to drive SL in a direction that virtual worlds will inevitably have to go, and that is greater graphical fidelity. SL will have to break a lot of eggs (content) to move on, such as, improving the avatar mesh, make the AV UV map better and have a more powerful graphical engine to return greater fidelity to the user. The longer they put that off, perhaps, licensing the unreal engine or Cryengine 2, the more pain they will cause the user base and the more chance there will be for someone else to move ahead.

Q - You're a user of open source viewers for SL, which is your favorite and why?
Emerald Viewer

For everyday use, I use the Emerald viewer - it offers greater options than the LL viewer. Some of these include, double the attachment points, a worn tab in Inventory, quicker access to commonly used controls, built in radar, avatar identification and sorting of that information. This is not a complete list of functions that Emerald offers beyond that of the “Official” viewer. It also seems more stable than the official viewer. However I may be wrong as I have not downloaded the official viewer for a year or so now.

For photographic work, I use various versions of the Kirstens “Shadowdraft “ viewer

Non fashion virtual photography by Connie Sec

I've used a shadow viewer in some form for almost every pic since Jan 09. To me they give better results than the traditional viewer. All lights cast a shadow and to me, use of local lighting with no shadows cast by them, even if subtly, is unrealistic and cartoon like. Some try to simulate this in post with a shadow on the wall or floor, however they forget that hair too will cast onto the face, or the nose, depending on light direction, will cast onto your cheek.

Q - Probably the most ambitious high fidelity world to come along recently is Blue Mars.  Tell us about your activities and thoughts there?

Blue Mars photography by Connie Sec

I signed up for a developer account in July 09 with the aim of making shapes and skins. Avatar Reality has just released the body/ skin importer. Unfortunately the shape editor is severely crippled, in my view, with the inability to do anything meaningful as far as improving the stock BM AV. Right now in BM you cannot make changes to the AV mesh without severely deforming the animations. They promise improvements are coming. The skin UV templates have been kindly provided by an outside developer. Of course they match no other template in any other program, be it Poser, Daz or even SL. There are opensource programs such as Makehuman, and UV mapping schemes that would make it simpler to create an Avatar. Why must people constantly reinvent the wheel?

My problem now is time. I have a full time job after graduating and have a SL to lead as well, so my time is so constrained that my work on those templates is sporadic. While I congratulate Avatar Reality for attempting to bring a higher fidelity Virtual World into existence, the learning curve in BM for developers / Content creators is so steep that it makes learning to create for SL look like child’s play. This may be its downfall. I will go out on a limb and say it will take BM till the end of the year to get their DEV tools up to a point where Avatar customisation is as wide ranging as SL. A corollary of this is that they cannot go out of beta until the tools are better understood and the bugs and limitations are addressed.

Already there are those that pop in from SL into BM and write it off because of lack of functionality and laugh at the use of chat bubbles (oh so late 80’s), without understanding that it is still in Beta.

Q - Some industry folks are making the argument that virtual worlds are being supplanted or subsumed by casual gaming such as in Facebook with applications like Yoville?  What do you think?

Comparing Virtual Worlds to Facebook type-sites is like comparing Twitter to Blogs. While they have similarities, blogs supply a “richer” experience than Twitter. So too virtual worlds provide a “richer” experience than social networking. SL for example has a “social networking” element, however it provides more than any social networking site. To be metaphysical about it, virtual worlds like SL allow you to build your dreams and share them with likeminded souls. Facebook and twitter allow you to share that you like leftover pizza in the morning ☺

Youville?..cute..I would probably play if I was 8 years old. ☺

Q - What's your personal opinion on browser based 3d virtual worlds?

Browser based virtual worlds can be a good starting point for those new to Virtual Worlds.

 An example of a in-browser 3d world

It will also constrict, at the moment, what you can achieve as far as graphical power and fidelity is concerned. However, if cloud computing takes off, the game will change where anything can be served up into a “browser”. If someone, in my demographic, is using a browser in, perhaps, a mobile device and wants to play a virtual world and has the choice between a cartoon and photorealism, I feel they will choose photorealism. I point to games as an example. With this in mind, I feel the idea of SL using a browser like interface is a retrograde step in this regard. Why have a browser within a browser?

To expand, there will always be a niche for simple virtual worlds. All media is now fragmented into niches, and virtual worlds are not immune. People now gravitate to where their ideas and prejudices are shared, be it the news service they watch, the blog they read or the communities they join within a virtual world. Virtual worlds have to either target a certain niche, or be expansive, and open minded enough, to be able to host disparate communities. In the end it will be “bums on seats” that will determine if a virtual world survives.

Q - Finally, with all that you do online, how do you juggle the hours in your day?

I sleep grudgingly ☺.

To be serious, I had a lot more time for SL and even BM when I was a student, however, now with a full time job, I have to organise my 2 lives much more. Sometimes all I do is log in, shop, perhaps take a commission from a designer and take pics and log off to do post work. My social life in SL has definitely gone on the backburner, which is a sadness for me. My social life in SL has always been a strong influence upon my photography. So too other peoples work, whether it be photos in flickr, C.G. from Poser and others, fashion sites, photography and art. Finding the time to be inspired, learn and to create is certainly difficult.

Thanks for taking the time Connie!

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