Fitted Mesh made its long-awaited debut in the main viewer this week. Though designers have been able to experiment with it for a little while now, incorporation into the official viewer means that you can expect to see fitted mesh products on the shelves in many of your favorite shops soon... Though you'll need to update your viewer to see the shape-conforming benefits for yourself.
The promise? An end to cookie-cutter body shapes. No more "standard sizes", no more looking exactly like everyone else in those jeans or that shirt. While fitted mesh is an undeniable improvement (and a big step forward for Second Life fashion) it's not without its shortcomings. Here's why it's still not going to be the cure-all some designers and consumers had hoped for.
A little background, first. Fitted Mesh was a technique originally pioneered in SL by RedPoly, which relied on rigging to existing collision bones in the Second Life Avatar's skeleton to allow the mesh item to fit against a shape, rather than forcing the wearer to fit their shape to the mesh. This technique was adopted by a few other brands, including Redgrave, who dubbed it Liquid Mesh. Fast forward a year or so, when Linden Lab decides that RedPoly's mesh fitting solution is preferable to Qarl's crowdfunded Mesh Deformer code. Until then, it seemed like a given that Qarl's code would be the eventual solution to the issue of conforming mesh to the Second Life avatar. However, expanding on RedPoly's mesh technique (which relied on elements that were already present in Second Life) likely seemed like a more practical and reliable solution.
So here we are. New collision bones have been added to allow for an even more precise fit than could be achieved with RedPoly's original rigging technique, incorporated into an updated avatar skeleton. Only items rigged to that new skeleton will be "fitted mesh", so your existing mesh wardrobe (as well as anything newly rigged to the old skeleton) will be unaffected. This part shouldn't be news to anyone either, but here's where it starts to get tricky.
As I said earlier, fitted mesh is not a cure all. This shouldn't really be news, but it bears repeating. While there are now more collision bones to rig to than there were before, they don't necessarily account for all the ways an avatar can be shaped. As you can see in the image at the very top of this post, taken from designer Shai Delacroix's experiments with the new skeleton, fitted mesh can and will break. When I spoke with her, Shai (who has been a designer in Second Life for over half a decade) told me, "I think its a step towards better customization but, you're quite limited because the new rig doesn't affect sliders as much as we thought. Its still not the big answer to fitting everyone." On the consumer end, you may still have to adjust your shape to suit it accordingly; designers, on the other hand, still may not be able to rule out offering their mesh goods in multiple sizes.
Another significant problem is the current lack of instructional documentation to help designers wrap their heads around the changes. "I'm still looking for a workaround as the new skeleton rig is quite challenging to rig with those new bones," Shai added. "Hoping LL could at least release a technical tutorial rather than a brief marketing video. So far, Avastar [commercial software tailored towards Second Life mesh clothing creation] has better documentation on Fitted Mesh than LL does. And I wish it wasn't software specific."
If you've never dealt with making mesh yourself, it can be easy to forget that learning to rig (especially as a hobbyist and not a professional) is already very hard. While many designers, particularly those with some professional background, will push into fitted mesh and learn how to best rig to the updated skeleton, many others will have a harder time and lag behind. It's made worse by the fact that this process is relatively specific to Second Life, so tutorials meant for other platforms will be of limited use. The bottom line is that just like you can't always trust every item in SL to be 100% mesh rather than partial mesh or sculpted prims, you will not be able to assume that everything that's mesh will be fitted mesh.
All that said, fitted mesh still fits. Even if it's not perfect, it's a step-forward, which is why Shai told me that she's hopeful about it in spite of the setbacks and the steep learning curve. No matter what way you look at it, that new dress now has a pretty good chance of fitting your shape, instead of you fitting yourself to it.
If you would like to learn more, I strongly recommend this string of Plurks by Tyr Rozenblum, helpfully condensed into a single paste file since her timeline is private. In it she covers a lot of the ups and downs of working with fitted mesh, and while she offers a lot of valuable advice for designers it's also a very enlightening read for anyone looking to buy fitted mesh goods for themselves. Long story short: Be prepared to adjust both your expectations and your sliders.Tweet
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.