Hamlet recently pointed out to me that during my breathless coverage of what we can look forward to with SL Materials I haven't really gone into much detail about what materials are or why they're a significant step forward for Second Life design. Since most of my coverage has revolved around Damien Fate's work with incorporating SL Materials into his own fashion items for FATEwear, it seemed only appropriate to have the self-taught 3D artist break it all down...
So what is the Materials Project?
The materials project is an effort to bring a specific set of shaders to Second Life that can make objects of any kind look more realistic and react to the 3D environment around them in a more natural way. In short, we're getting tools that other video games have had for over a decade that can improve SL's visuals immensely when used correctly.
For example, what's something most residents probably have now that could be improved with Materials?
My biased answer would be fashion, but I think the biggest benefits will come from furniture and houses. One of the important tools we're getting are Normal Mapping (bump maps) that can give the impression of much more modelled detail on an object than is really there. For example a wood plank floor can be given the impression of having physical grooves between the planks rather than being flat. The other important shader is the Specular Map (shininess) that can make the material look properly reflective of light in the scene.
A more complex example could be a marble statue of Venus de Milo, you could build a conservatively meshed model that combined with normal and specular maps could look far more detailed and realistic, with the obvious benefit of a much lower land impact than if the statue mesh was actually modelled to that high level of detail. People always want lower land impact and more realism in their home environments. Materials can deliver that experience.
How does it differ from the shininess/bump options available when you edit an object in SL?
The default bump option is actually very similar to the new normal mapping, it works the same way except now we can choose our own textures for the source of bumps.
As for shininess it is very different, in fact the three levels of shininess we were used to before were basically an environment map based on the sky, not really shiny at all and it drowned out the base texture on the object. That shininess option has been renamed to 'environment' and given a very handy 0-255 floater so we can more finely tune the intensity of the environment map.
In addition to the old shininess options we have 'gloss' which adds highlights to objects based on the lights in the scene (local or sun) and can be fine tuned for a more rough or more polished look. Think of a rubber ball and a marble, as you choose a lower gloss value a sphere will react to light like a rubber ball, a higher gloss value will make it look like a marble. The specular map that we upload controls the colour of the reflected light across the surface of the object, so you could have a red base texture and an orange specular map for a cool metallic look.
How are Materials going to impact what you personally create, and how you create it?
My main focus in Second Life right now is fashion, with my FATEwear store and coldLogic (which I run with Janie Marlowe and Zyrra Falcone), you've already seen a few of my tests and the recent swimwear release.
I already have a pretty good pipeline for creating my work which involves using a very high polygon mesh as a source file for baking the lighting of my clothes, I am using that same high poly mesh as a base for the normal mapping - it's a bit technical but it's working very well.
Thanks to the normal and specular mapping my future release will look much more realistic on your avatar than anything ever has in the past. We can finally have materials that react to light the way you would expect them to, in fact I have another preview video I'd like to share that is a good example of an outfit with a mixture of different materials (cloth and leather) that now reacts to light and the environment in a very pleasing way:
What are you most looking forward to seeing other creators do with SL materials?
I'm really just looking forward to seeing more realistic items. Other creators are already doing absolutely amazing things in Second Life and I really hope they embrace materials to make their items really pop. I'm also looking forward to the first set of glassware that is actually shiny - yes you can have transparant shiny objects now!
What do you think that could do for hair, as an example?
I'm not gonna lie, I did do a test of my own for hair, and while it worked really really well for adding depth and shine to hair it seemed the way the shine rendered on parts of the object that needed alpha, ie the strands at the end of a piece of hair, there was an obvious seam. I haven't tried again since early days of the materials viewer so that may have changed, but I can definitely see some hair makers out there using materials to add depth and shine to hair.
And finally, what would you like to see added to the Materials Project?
I am not alone in saying this, the base SL avatar would really benefit from the addition of normal and specular maps, currently we can only apply these shaders to objects but there is no reason we couldn't get an extra layer for skins to add that perceived additional detail to the avatar mesh and definitely specular maps. Imagine having a skin that didn't look so painted on and had a shine to it, even as far as being realistically sweaty or oily as some people like to be!
A personal addition I'd like to see is a custom environment map, it would be great to make an object seem to have reflections of a room or other special environment for creators to play with.
A third desire would be allowing us to animate the texture applied to any of the shaders to create animated effects like rippling water. We can already animate the diffuse/normal/spec maps, but what I want specifically is to animate them individually. So if I had a brick wall that I wanted to look like water was rippling down, I'd want the specular and normal map to be animated only. Though LL may already be working on that.
Huge thanks to Damien Fate for his patient and super thorough answers! Whether you're a Materials fan or not, be sure to check out his work at both FATEwear [SLURL] [SL Marketplace] and coldlogic [SLURL] [SL Marketplace].
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.