Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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How to Recognize 3D Renders in the SL Marketplace (And Save Yourself From Second Life Scammers)

Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

Stories of Second Life shops using misleading images to sell stolen or shoddy virtual items pop up almost weekly. The latest is a skin store advertising their stolen skins with equally stolen 3D renders from DAZ and Poser, and even a few digital paintings thrown in for variety. Now obviously the idea of someone using completely unrelated digital artwork to sell something is old news in Second Life, but whenever a story like this breaks it just drives me crazy how many people fall for it. If customers could just tell the difference between Second Life pictures and high-end renders, they'd be instantly immune to these sloppy, lazy scammers. Then again, given the rising popularity of mesh parts and the increasing sophistication of Photoshop editing techniques, it's harder than ever to make the distinction.

So today I've gathered a half dozen images together. Some of them are rendered art, others are Second Life snapshots that have been polished with Photoshop. For some of you this will be a total cake walk, but for others... Well, I want to know: Can you tell the difference? 

Take a look at the pictures first, because in the text that follows them I'll be revealing the answers and explaining (in general terms) what I think gives them away. I'll also be linking to the original artists -- the renders I'm using for this were all stolen and used on the SL Marketplace without the original artists' permission, but finding the real artist was as easy as pasting the image URL from the Marketplace right into Google's "Search by Image" tool. Seriously. It's one of the easiest and most important things you can do when something on the Marketplace looks a little too good to be true.


Above is CUBiKO's "Less is More" (NSFW), and it is absolutely a render. In the bad old days I would have simply pointed to the shape of her facial features, far too perfectly sculpted for SL's lumpy avatar model. But we've all gotten better with Photoshop, and even if we hadn't mesh heads are ubiquitous. Instead, the biggest clue is the lighting, bold but gradual in a way that's difficult to execute in Second Life. The quality of the skin is another significant factor to consider -- it has much finer details than you would generally be able to achieve in SL unless you were willing to replace your head and entire decollette with mesh substitutes... Which would still be a pretty stupid way to sell a skin.


Second Life or render? Well, this is another NSFW rendered piece from CUBiKO, "The Library Part IV". The lighting is big clue here as well, but so is the gloss on the lips. Glossy lips are everywhere in SL, but I can't think of a single case where a designer has placed the shine effect on the side and not dead-center. The hair also looks unlike what you would usually see in Second Life, where layers usually have some thickness rather than being flat, piecy wefts. 


"Untitled" by Just Magnetized is a good example of how Second Life hair varies from its counterparts in Poser and DAZ. The key word is chunky. Pieces in the body of the style will usually have depth, and SL's shading will over give them a bit of roundness. In this pic, it's most noticeable around the temples and in the strands immediately framing the avatar's face. Designers fight against this constantly yet it persists, and learning to recognize it is crucial.


A classic Second Life edit if I ever saw one, ".Everlong. -Laryn" by Vlad Sharktooth. While top-notch Second Life post-processing often adds details that could throw you off, there are usually still giveaways, In this case, the avatar's exceptionally smooth skin. It's hard to communicate detail in Second Life skins without making things look a bit grubby, so as a result metaverse skinmakers often favour a softer, more polished look instead. 


This one's a bit of a trick. "In her bag" by d-liliane is a digital painting, and while a lot of digital artists use similar techniques to enhance screenshots (Second Life, The Sims 3) or renders, in this case you're looking for what isn't there. There isn't a single space in this picture that doesn't look painterly. If this were a highly edited picture from Second Life, you might expect to see it in the shaping of facial features or in the way the clothes or hair rest on the body. Compare it to the painterly pics of SL artist Asami Schnyder and you should see exactly what I mean.


These cuties are the work of Eilfie Sugarplum, queen of Second Life kawaii and designer for The Sugar Garden. In this case, a familiarity with Eilfie's creations makes the answer obvious. If you're lacking that, look at the shoulders instead.


It's all in the shoulders. Even with all the dynamic lighting and shadows you could ever want, there's something about Second Life avatars that makes them look like paper dolls compared to the depth and dimension of a body in a render like the one above. SaphireNishi's "Ssst" is a solid example of how renders often manage to look so much more tangible than Second Life does, even at its best.

This picture is another good case for noticing skin that's far too detailed to be anything but a render, and an even better case for that familiarity I mentioned above. Not a general familiarity with a designer's work, but familiarity with what's available and what's popular. Mesh hands are everywhere, but there are a few brands that dominate the market... And none of them look anything like that. Familiarize yourself with products and trends and take a closer look when you notice something unfamiliar -- it might be the next big thing, but there's no harm in investigating just to be safe. For that matter, familiarize yourself with renders and artwork from other games and virtual worlds, including The Sims 3 (another popular target for thieves). The more you see, the more you will recognize.

Oh, and one more thing...

Bear in mind that it's not uncommon to see 3D renders from 3rd party software used to promote Second Life products, generally shoes or furniture. On the other hand, Second Life skins are incompatible with modern Poser/DAZ models. Their UV maps are completely different, meaning that a skin would need to be cut up and essentially remade to apply it to anything but a Second Life model. That's what made this particular scammer stand out. However, lots of legitimate Second Life skin shops use highly edited pictures on their vendors... And that's a problem.

Whether you're using highly edited Second Life pics or even renders of your products, here's my advice to designers: Save your ultra-modified images for blog promos, for Flickr, for Plurk, for Tumblr, but don't put them on your vendors. Don't make them the main image associated with your product. It's not an honest representation of what the customer is buying, and it means that when someone comes along using images like the renders and digital paintings here to sell something in SL (which, as a reminder, is how I found them in the first place) shoppers won't think twice about buying.

So how did you score? Share your results (and your own recognition tips) in the comments below.

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris 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.


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Ajax Manatiso

There's a simple solution for that. Go to the in-world store and check out the model/bot to see if the skin really looks good in-world. No in-world store? Pass it up - not worth the risk.


I can usually pick out the renders. Simply because they aim for realism and fail. The render models have a distinct muscle slackness, unfocused eyes and a sickly pallor that remind me of zombies not human beings. I've never experienced that with Second Life pics straight or modified. SL avatars still have a cartoon aspect to them that avoids the uncanny valley.

Iris Ophelia

@Ajax I can name more skin stores that don't have models than stores that do, just for the record. But it's sort of a moot point, since customers should always try demos first. No demo no sale! :)

Pussycat Catnap

The shoulders thing might be from subsurface rendering - which I recall coming to Poser right as I left that scene. It lets the render go just a 'skin layer deep' much as light hitting real skin does - and that in turns removes a certain 'plastic' look that cannot be fully removed otherwise - especially when dealing with wet skin or skin in very intense renders (not sure how to word that - but where they are a lot of light effects, even if the image is very dark and shadowy).

But yeah - anyone who ever gets duped, spend a few days looking at renders on renderosity - both the good and bad ones - and comparing them to images from second life on tumblr or ideally: the feeds.

Eventually the 'oh I get it' moment will occur - its not something with a big sign that says "right there, this is it" - its just something that's there like learning the difference between two architects.


Demo. Demo. Demo. I cannot say it enough. Purchasing any skin without trying the demo first is risky. In fact, I recently went on a big skin hunt this last week and over 85% of the skins I tried on did /not/ match the advertising boards or marketplace images because they were highly photoshopped (I possess a variety of shapes, so it wasn't just that it looked wrong or wonky on a single shape).

Retailers add lights, softness, blurring and the likes to make these ads look pretty for their stores, and it is incredibly misleading. What appears vibrant and well crafted in the photo is sallow and washed out with minimal detail more often than not. Also, I noticed a big trend is to photoshop part of the face into a RL modelling picture and use that for their ad, this is also misleading (and often looks silly).

As for people scamming, I, myself, have not encountered this with purchases as of yet. I feel bad for those who have been.

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