A Look at How Cutting-Edge Game Company Research Is Being Used to Make Sinespace’s Human Avatars Ever More Realistic-Looking

This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my new role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here).

I want you to take a good look at the person in this photograph:

Actually, this is not a photograph of a real person. This is a completely computer-generated game character, an example of the astounding progress that AAA videogame companies have recently been able to achieve in creating realistic-looking digital simulations of humanity.

This picture was taken from a presentation made at the 2013 Game Developers Conference by Jorge Jimenez and Javier von der Pahlen at Activision Blizzard, where they talked about the recent major strides in research in this area of computer science.

Historically, one of the biggest problems in making digital humans is the Uncanny Valley effect: when people’s reaction to a humanoid object that imperfectly resembles a human being ranges from dislike to outright revulsion.

Here’s a good example, again a picture taken from that presentation; you can tell that something is not quite right, and you might find this picture rather creepy as a result:

What’s wrong here? Well, for one thing, real human eyes have a slightly translucent quality; when you look at a person, you can actually see a little bit of the back of their actual eyeball, instead of the flat, opaque, billiard-ball type eyeballs you see here.

Now compare that picture with the improved version:

See the difference? It’s subtle things like this that make or break the realism of an avatar in virtual worlds.

Sinespace is hard at work improving avatar skin textures. AAA games use high-resolution (4K or 8K) skin textures with lots of additional detail maps for closeups, but they are huge files—about 120 MB of data after compression! Even worse, they consume 500 MB or more of GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) RAM. In other words, it would only take a small crowd of avatars wearing these high-resolution skin textures to make even the best computer graphics cards cry and bring most virtual worlds to an absolute stand-still.

Sinespace has decided to create a new set of “universal” skin maps for both male and female avatars. If you select the “High Quality Skin Shading” option in the Sinespace client, it will include these new pre-baked skin maps (they simply get added to the existing skin maps on the avatar).

Here’s a slide from Sinespace’s Chief Product Officer, Adam Frisby’s recent keynote address showing you what that looks like:

Notice the new sliders for skin bumpiness and even skin age!

Sinespace is taking and applying some of the lessons learned from the cutting-edge research conducted by AAA game companies like Activision Blizzard in their quest to make more realistic human avatars.

For example, yet another avatar skin improvement that Sinespace will be working on is something called SSSS, which stands for Separable Sub-Surface Scattering, which refers to the way that light bounces around and even through human skin. Like the human eyeball. human skin is slightly translucent and not 100% opaque. You can see this if you hold your hand over a bright light source; you’ll see a reddish glow where the light is going through slightly.

You might not know that the skin shaders in Sinespace already have subsurface scattering, using an older algorithm pioneered by Activision Blizzard, but this will be a “new and improved” version. Sinespace will also be working on multi-layer skin improvements to avatar skin; human skin actually consists of multiple layers, which subtly changes the reflective properties of your skin.

In addition to improvements to avatar skin, there will also be new avatar eyeballs coming soon, which will feature moisture and occlusion settings to more closely resemble the real-life human eye! As you can see from the previous pictures, even these small changes can make a big difference.

However, none of these changes are going to help if they slow down performance. So Sinespace is also hard at work on rendering optimization, with the result that the amount of RAM used in your computer to display each avatar in a scene will be lowered dramatically (which means less lag in big crowds!).

This is exciting work. Sinespace is going to have increasingly realistic-looking human avatars over the next few years!

Editorial: Second Life Users Are Less Than Happy About Linden Lab Doubling Commission Rates on the SL Marketplace from 5% to 10%

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 300 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! More details here.

Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay

On Nov. 21st, 2019, Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) announced:

On December 2nd, 2019, commission rates on Marketplace sales will become 10% of the item price. This will be the first commission increase since the Marketplace debuted a decade ago. This new rate remains significantly lower than most digital content commissions across the industry. Apple and Google charge a 30% commission on sales in their app stores, as do many other popular virtual worlds, VR and gaming platforms, such as Oculus and Sinespace.  

Many SL users have grumbled that the 10% figure (which will be double the previous 5%) does not accurately reflect the complete picture of how Linden Lab makes its money. Some have pointed out that comparing the 10% figure against the 30% commission charged by Apple and Google is misleading, given all the other transaction fees LL has implemented.

One commentator stated on the official Second Life user forums:

I did this calculation:

If I buy 2500L$, it cost me $9.73, and with transaction fee of US1.49 the final cost is US$11.22

If I sell an item on the MP for L$2500, I now get L$2250 for it. (10% LL commission as of Dec 2nd 2019)

When I sell the L$2250, I get US$8.13. (3.5% transaction fee to LL)

When I withdraw the balance to my bank, I get US$7.72 (5% Transaction fee to LL)

So if a SL member buys L$2500 and the merchant cashes it in, we are seeing a transformation of US$11.22 to US$7.72, and LL are effectively taking 31.2% for themselves.

LL say in their blog post: ”This new rate remains significantly lower than most digital content commissions across the industry. Apple and Google charge a 30% commission on sales in their app stores, as do many other popular virtual worlds, VR and gaming platforms, such as Oculus and Sinespace.”

They refer just to the 10% MP commission, but we see that LL is actually creaming off over 30% if you follow the money from start to finish.

10% MP commission is one thing, but then all the other charges just add up to something that is somewhat unfair.

I found this explanation very instructive, so I wanted to share it with you. If you want to read the entire thread on the forums, here it is. You might also find this conversational thread interesting.

I think that this is yet another step in a long-term strategy. Linden Lab is continuing a multi-year, concerted effort to shift its main income generation away from charging for land, and more towards charging for services. Once LL successfully launches SL sims “on the cloud”, as opposed to running its own expensive servers, I do expect that the cost of buying (or more accurately, renting) virtual land in Second Life will decrease as a result. But obviously, we aren’t quite there yet.

So, what do you think? Is this a price gouge on the part of Linden Lab, or a necessary cost of doing business? Please feel free to leave a comment below, or even better, join us on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server and tell us what you think there! We’d love to have you.

NeosVR Thanks Its Patreon Patrons in a New Video Showing Many of the Social VR Platform’s Amazing Features

Did you know that you can help support my work on this blog (as well as the Metaverse Newscast show), and get some great rewards in return? Here’s how.

Tomáš Mariančík (a.k.a. Frooxius), the extremely talented software developer who is building NeosVR, and Karel Hulec (the co-founder and CEO of Solirax, the Czech company building NeosVR) wanted to thank their many Patreon supporters. As of today, NeosVR has 225 patrons providing almost US$3,500 a month in financial support. It is a model of crowdfunding support for social VR.

Frooxius says in the thank-you video:

…We decided to start a Patreon. We didn’t expect much, but looking back, it’s one of the best decisions we have ever made.

You absolutely need to watch this five-minute video, which demonstrates so many of the mind-blowing, amazing features of NeosVR!

Mark my words: NeosVR is a social VR platform to watch.

Thank you to Flame Soulis for the heads-up!