The topic of Second Lifeâ€™s — and OpenSim — default camera offset is an old one. The first Second Life blogger who brought it to peopleâ€™s attention was Penny Patton, with her seminal post â€œA Matter of Perspectiveâ€ from as far back as 2011. Ever since then, various other bloggers have written about it, basing their work on her own, hoping to get people to understand how and why the way we see the virtual world through the placement and behavior of our camera affects the way we experience and use it. As a matter of fact, it even has a major impact on the very usefulness of the platform itself. I had written about the issue four years ago, and I have been pestering Oz Linden himself about it in various Open Development User Group meetings, but to no avail; he acknowledges the issue, but he cites the risk of potential complaints about â€œcontent breakageâ€ as the main deterrent.
The points made in my older post, as well as Pennyâ€™s original post, are still current. Second Life does not have a first-person view (thinkÂ Doom,Â Quake, etc) as its default. Instead, the default perspective is third-person, which allows you to see your avatar and what it does in-world, provides a much wider field of view, and allows a more realistic portrayal of close-up 3D objects. Within the third-person perspective camp, there are several approaches, all of them depending on the application. For instance, for a third-person shooter or driving game whose action takes place in a wide-open space, you need to see as much of your surroundings as possible to have the best awareness of the situation around you. So, it makes sense to place the camera somewhat high above your sprite (be it a fighter airplane, a combat spaceship, an automobile etc), behind it and not too close. However, for games taking place indoors, in dungeons and maze systems where the action happens in close quarters, other views were chosen â€“ isometric, first-person, etc.
Second Life uses a third-person view with the camera placed quite far behind and above the avatar. Itâ€™s what I call a â€œradio-controlled car view,â€ as itâ€™s the same view you have while operating a radio-controlled car, and itâ€™s a development on earlier third-person perspectives, from TempestÂ toÂ Tomb Raider. With the default camera offset, the camera floats at least two meters above your avatar, virtually making it a toy rather than part of â€œyouâ€ â€“ but weâ€™ll get to that later. Since 2005, whenÂ Resident Evil 4Â was released, the third-person view, for which Penny is a vocal advocate with the camera looking â€œover the shoulderâ€ of the playerâ€™s character prevailed as the industry standard. Penny had explained the reasons for this, and Iâ€™ll reiterate them. Also, please note that, in this post, Iâ€™m going to reiterate and update several points Iâ€™d made in my older post from four years ago, as theyâ€™re still valid.
- Environment creation.Â Second Life is a virtual world platform where the user might wander in an open plain, in a forest, in a bar, club, house, or what have you. The over-the-shoulder view allows a builder to createÂ accurately-scaledÂ andÂ usableÂ builds like an outhouse or a small shed in the woods or a cramped washroom stall in a sleazy bar, or claustrophobic corridors in a maze-like environment (catacombs, sewers, labyrinths). Also, with this view, larger builds are more impressive, without needing to be upscaledÂ at all. On the contrary, the default camera settings in Second Life place the camera so high above and so far behind the avatar that, should you enter a realistically-sized build, the camera ends up either in the ceiling, or just above the upper floorâ€™s â€“ ahem â€“ floor, or inside the walls behind you. This makes it impossible to get around in a build that has the same dimensions it would have inÂ Real Life. Thus, the default camera offsets force us to upscale everything by at least 20 percent, with the vertical axis â€œenjoyingâ€ an extra â€œbonus.â€ This has dire consequences to our builds, avatars, commercially-available user-created content, and, eventually, the usefulnessÂ of Second Life itself for several of its intended uses.
- Usability. The over-the-shoulder view provides the user with an additional advantage: a sense of place, which allows you to have a more intuitive â€œfeelâ€ of where your avatar is in relation to its surroundings. Itâ€™s obvious that this allows us to navigate a region far more easily.
- Immersion.Â Placing the camera near the level of the avatarâ€™s eyes puts you, the avatarâ€™s operator, into the world where the avatar moves and exists rather than making you an outside observer who merely uses a radio control system to make the avatar do whatever it must do.
Scale and Usability
Ever since Second Life debuted in 2003, in spite of technical advances, and in spite of a growing tendency among content creators to build realistically-proportioned and sized objects, which is in an infinite loop with the demand for more realistic default camera offsets, the viewerâ€™s default camera offsets have remained the same. Letâ€™s have a look at how they impact our view of the virtual world. As a setting, Iâ€™m using my in-world workshop / sandbox, where I have placed a build using a (non-resized) copy of Apple Fallâ€™s already realistically-sized and proportionedÂ Portobello Corner Store, which Iâ€™d written aboutÂ last yearÂ and you can purchase at hisÂ mainstore, and a downsized copy of Trompe Loeilâ€™sÂ Brooklyn Carriage House. All images are uncropped and unedited.
Note that, being a neoclassical build, the Portobello Corner Store has a high ceiling. But what if you want to enter a contemporary home? Well,Â depending on when your home was built, RL ceilings are 8â€³ (2.438 m) or, if it was built after 1994, 9â€³ (2.743 m). You will also encounter 10â€³ high ceilings (3.048 m). The apartments and houses Iâ€™ve encountered in RL usually had 10â€³ high ceilings, with the exception of the ground floor of some really old neoclassical homes, some of which followed the old European standard (13â€³ â€“ 3.962 m). The one where we live now has a 9â€³ ceiling. As you can understand, with the default camera offsets, youâ€™d have aÂ very hard time walking and looking around in a realistically-proportioned and sized build.
Losing the architects and civil engineers
â€œSecond Life is the best tool for architectural visualisation!â€
â€“ No architect or civil engineer, EVER.
In fact, all architects and civil engineers I know have dabbled a bit with Second Life and OpenSim, and duly abandoned them, because they make no sense whatsoever to them. The reasons they cite are the default camera offsets, the lack of interoperability with files generated by CAD applications, and theÂ cost. Please, donâ€™t start with the â€œOpenSim is free and you can set it up on a USB stick on your computerâ€ thing. OpenSim requires significant set-up effort and is actually hobbled by the same issues that Second Life has â€“ such as model import. No architect I know can justify the cost of renting a homestead or a full region, and the effort and man-hours needed to prepare a 3D model for use in Second Life â€“ or OpenSim. Furthermore, a lot of third-party content sold in-world and on the Second Life marketplace is built to look â€œgoodâ€ with Second Lifeâ€™s default camera offsets, and is both oversized and non-realistically proportioned. When was the last time you saw a passage door with a thickness of 20 cm (approximately 8â€³) in RL? When was the last time you saw stairways with stairsteps with a rise of 50 cm? As you can understand, not only do Second Life and OpenSim require significant fiddling with the 3D model to ensure its physics are serviceable, but much of the content sold on their marketplaces is useless to an architect, civil engineer, or decorator. And donâ€™t even get me started on prefab buildings. By insisting on not fixing the camera offsets because its decision-makers fear some users might whine about â€œcontent breakage,â€ Linden Lab has missed the train of real-time, distributed architectural visualization, and Iâ€™m not sure if any time has been left for them to catch it. Whatâ€™s ironic is that the fix to this would have been extremely easy.
Thatâ€™s Linden Labâ€™s explanation. I can understand why they fear people might get up in arms about â€œcontent breakageâ€; the default camera offsets have been around for so long, that users have been conditioned to thinking theyâ€™re the norm, and thus have built their entire world with, for, and around them. So, the Lab fears that, if they roll out a new release of the official viewer, where improved, updated camera offsets are the default ones, people will go up in arms. In reality, no realÂ content breakage will occur from a move to better, more realistic, camera offsets. Your furniture will still work just fine. The same applies to your vehicles, homes,Â everything. WhatÂ will happen is that youâ€™ll realize how oversized everything is. Youâ€™ll realize that your avatar is way too tall, dwarfing even the tallest NBA players, with unnaturally long legs, ridiculously short arms and torso, and a tiny head. Youâ€™ll realize what an idiot you were for calling those people with realistically-sized and proportioned avatars â€œage-players,â€ starting drama and filing abuse reports against them.
And then youâ€™ll try to make your avatar look good, so youâ€™ll get with the program and start using a more realistic shape. But then youâ€™ll see that your existing animations and poses suck, because, being made for the default camera offsets and for the T-Rex avatar, the arms stick inside your body, your thighs, and other body parts every hint of a chance they get. Youâ€™ll try to make your house smaller and more proportionate â€“ but then itâ€™ll be at odds with your idiotically oversized car, which is (of course) non-modifiable. And your furniture will probably require new animations and a fresh installation of the scripts. Chances are, youâ€™ll end up doing an awful lot of work. Perhaps, like me, youâ€™ll say â€œwell, it was worth itâ€ and not look back.
But, for all its failings and inexplicably bone-headed decisions, the Lab has understood a few things about its users. The Lab, through fourteen years of interaction with Second Lifeâ€™s userbase, fears that you are far more likely to go up in arms in the forums, yelling, screaming and perhaps blaming those â€œcunning age-playersâ€ who â€œgoaded the Lab into making camera offsets to accommodate kid and lolita avatarsâ€ and caused you to break everything in your inventory. A quick look in the official forums, on various Plurk accounts, and other such outlets for opinion on all things Second Life justifies this fear. Do you think Iâ€™m exaggerating?
What does this mean? Well, for the Lab, the situation is perceived as a Catch 22. So, rather than change the default camera offsets and ruffle peopleâ€™s feathers, they opt to simply not do a thing and continue kicking the can down the road. Perhaps theyâ€™re waiting until more people have adopted better, more realistic camera offsets and then making a gradual transition when the oversized content has become obsolete enough for people to not care about it anymore. In fact, in an Open Development User Group Meeting, Oz Linden had hinted to the idea of a UI thatâ€™ll enable users to easily change their camera offsets.
This column reprinted with permission from Living Virtually.