Thu >> Aug 31, 2006

The "Virtual" Impacting The "Real" - A Discussion with Brian McGuinness for TV Tokyo

Last week, TV Tokyo filmed a segment on the aloft project and they took some footage of Brian McGuinness, Vice President of aloft hotels, and I discussing the status of the project. Brian and I decided to use the time productively, tuned out the cameras, and flew around the island looking at everything and discussing possible changes and updates.

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The following numbers track to the image above:

4. (while editing this post, I decided to start with the last location we visited, because it is was a really interesting moment from my perspective) We are starting to see the virtual design influence the real-world design even before opening the hotel up for consumer feedback. Our designers Cory and Makaio placed a floorplan of the hotel lobby on the floor of our virtual lobby to use as a reference (just like we scatter reference photos around where we work), and it seems that the aloft team took quite a liking to that concept. While I am sure, should they implement it, that it will be much more subtle and beautiful than our white blueprint slapped on the floor, they are seriously thinking about bringing the floorplan into the flooring somehow at the entrance. A small thing, but really neat to see the virtual impacting the real already.

1. One concern was the amount of stone in the back area where the pool was going. We did not want that area to be too “heavy” on the eye. We discussed whether it made sense to bring the sunflower theme into the stonework to bring some color, or whether all the items for the swimming pool like deckchairs, tents, and plantings would solve it. For right now, we are trying to the latter approach and seeing if that will do enough.

2. In the interior of the aloft hotel, Brian mentioned that there would now be a gas fireplace in the lounge in place of the candles. We also discussed whether it made sense to have a decorative, non-functional pool table in the Second Life build. The pool table would be true to the Starwood design, and their ideas around games in the lobby, but if it wasn’t actually playable should we keep it? We decided to preserve it because an important part of the mission here is to show the design of what will exist in 2008 as currently planned.

3. similar to our discussion, Brian wanted us to soften up some of the stone in the quay up at the front. As you can see in the picture, we are trying some different techniques such as bringing in more grass elements, and we may add more trees/vegetation. We also discussed adding some vines to the walls, and for that we’re just going to have to try a few things to see what works. Vines are done with textures (pictures) within Second Life – you would not want to create a 3D model of every branch and leaf – but the danger is that they can look flat and unrealistic if you’re not careful.

Giff Constable aka “Forseti Svarog”

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Wed >> Aug 30, 2006

Going For A Morning Swim

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The pool area in the back of the hotel has been coming along nicely in the last few days. The ES team has added cabanas, lounge chairs, and small tables.

But my favorite thing so far this week is that yesterday the hotel pool was finally filled with water.

This morning I woke up just before sunrise and decided to go for a swim in the pool before anyone else arrived at the hotel. If you haven't yet gone swimming in Second Life (today was my first time) it's an absolutely amazing experience. I'm now convinced the the pool will be one of the most popular aspects of the hotel.

Where did I buy my trunks? WaterWorks Island has a terrific assortment of bathing suits, animations, and pools to swim in. At WaterWorks I also bought The Swimmer! 1.1, an absolutely amazing HUD device that makes your avatar buoyant and allows you to swim laps.

See you in the pool!

-- Marc Schiller, ElectricArtists

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Mon >> Aug 28, 2006

Preparing for Resident Activities

One aspect of preparing a project for Second Life that we (ESC) try very hard to stress to our clients is the importance of planning past the grand opening festivities. What will keep people coming back to your island? This isn't a problem unique to real-life business builds in SL - maintaining a steady flow of visitors to your land, club or business is something that all residents tackle in their own ways.

Shopping, games, and social activities are the biggest draws that keep people returning. The virtual aloft project team has a few fantastic ideas on the burner to that end, and one specific build on the island we hope to utilize repeatedly in the future is the outdoor stage.

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I think its important to note that an outdoor stage will not be a staple of the real aloft hotels. Striking a balance between real world accuracy and taking advantage of the admittedly fantastic possibilities that SL offers is a delicate trick, but collectively the entire team is in open discussion on how we can utilize the best of both worlds.

The stage itself was built by Makaio, and I spent about a day and a half creating the textures. The stage is one of the detail pieces that can really showcase the extra effort spent on careful prim work and texturing. These custom textures utilize both baked lighting (done in
Photoshop) and hardware lighting (rendered via the SL platform). Additional fun sphere lights in the garden areas use both effects plus particle effect "glow" to really help them stand out.

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Thu >> Aug 24, 2006

A Virtual Photo Shoot

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I recently wrote about how the parallels between the virtual world and real world are often colliding on this project, to an extent that it becomes a bit strange and bizarre to experience.

Last night was another one of those experiences.

Earlier in the week, we received a call from a terrific magazine who are currently putting together a story about the aloft project. While discussing what photographs would be available to run with the story, the decision was made that we would do a photo shoot for the magazine that would bring together all of the people involved in the project. Except rather than take the photograph at the real Starwood offices in White Plains, we decided to do it inside of Second Life at the virtual hotel.

So at around 10pm last night all of the avatars representing the various teams from Starwood, ElectricArtists, and Electric Sheep congregated in front of the hotel for the photo shoot. Like in the real world, the sun was setting as we talked about the shot and thus we had to move quickly to get everyone in place before we lost our light. Also like in the real world, we even had people there to help with clothes and hair. For the photo, the photographer had us all look in the same direction at a red box in the sky. The whole experience was extremely bizarre and after a few minutes you forgot that you were on the computer and instead began to feel as if you were actually there watching a beautiful sun set as the photographer gave directions on where to stand and where to look.

-- Marc Schiller, ElectricArtists

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Thu >> Aug 24, 2006

BusinessWeek On Virtual aloft

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While there's been a ton of amazing press (both online and off) about the virtual aloft project, if you're interested in learning more about the business goals and objectives, we highly recommend reading Rena Jana's terrific piece about the project for BusinessWeek.

It was just posted online and can be read here.

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Tue >> Aug 22, 2006

Project Details - Particle Effects

The team is working hard to finish off the exterior of the island before concentrating on the interior for the final two weeks of the project. One of the exterior aspects we just tackled is the garden area to the south of the hotel, which contains a custom fountain and seating area as a centerpiece. A fountain contains motion (in the flowing water) and a special kind of effect for the mist as the water hits the surface - these are called particle effects.

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I've already touched briefly on how the Second Life scripting language, LSL, can make objects come to life. However, the middle ground between scripting and graphical effects - particle effects - while being a subset of the LSL scripting language, is really versatile enough to qualify as its own category. Particles don't count as prims, you can apply textures to them (even video!), change their color, speed, fade, and direction, and even have them follow you around. They work great for anything from flickering flames to a torrential rainfall that starts and stops on your command. They look the same from any direction, making them great for lighting effects, and they move very realistically - they can even bounce on the ground!

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I really like creating with particle effects, because even though I'm not a scripter, the commands for particles are easy to experiment with. There are plenty of free teaching particle scripts in SL that are fully annotated for the beginner, and even an inworld teaching center where you can learn exactly what each particle command does.

Posted by Cory Edo at 5:01 PM in Effects | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) |

Fri >> Aug 18, 2006

Using Photography to Get the Details Right

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A few days ago, I wrote about how fascinating it is to watch the designers and 3D modelers scurry around the virtual aloft lobby as they build the hotel inside of Second Life.

One of the most intriguing things for me is how the designers are using photographs as visual references inside of SL.

A few weeks back when we visited the real world aloft warehouse, Sara took a ton of photos with her digital camera. It's interesting to see that many of those photos have now been placed inside the virtual lobby and are being used collectively by the team of designers as visual references. Often you will see the designer's avatar walk over to the photograph, take a close look at it to understand the details, walk back over to the raw space, and then begin designing the virtual equivalent of what's in the photograph.

Like in real life, group meetings take place over the actual architectural drawings and blueprints.

- Marc Schiller, ElectricArtists

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Wed >> Aug 16, 2006

Podcasting on aloft and Second Life

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BusinessWeek Online posted a 12-minute podcast I did with their correspondant Reena Jana. We discussed the challenges of bringing real world structures into a virtual world, both conceptually and technically; the benefits of Second Life for creating an iterative conversation with customers on issues like design; the appropriateness of certain products versus brands within virtual worlds; the hype versus promise of the Second Life platform; and the power of relationship building within virtual worlds.

I hope you find it interesting.

- Giff Constable

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Interior Details

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Over the past few days, Makaio has been hard at work fleshing out the interior of the hotel - creating the welcome desk, entry fountain, lounge and xyz bar areas, and the re:fuel kitchen area. I flew out to California this week for the Second Life Community Convention, and he and I have been getting a lot of detail work done while we're both physically working in the same place. We're pretty effective at working virtually from distant locations, but sometimes there is no beating a work session with us both in the same place.

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One cool detail piece we worked on yesterday was the bar area. The actual bar will have panels that close during the day to keep the space more family friendly and open at night to reveal the stocked liquor and wine bottles. With a click, these panels flip open and closed in the SL version as well.

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Posted by Cory Edo at 7:38 AM in Interior | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) |

Tue >> Aug 15, 2006

The Parallels Are Fascinating... and a Bit Eery

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As we proceed with the construction of the virtual aloft hotel, all of us on this project are starting to discover just how deep - and wide - the virtual and the real worlds are beginning to intersect and overlap. The parallels between what is now taking place in the virtual environment, and what takes place in the real world are fascinating... and often a bit eery to experience.

Here's one quick example:

Last night after coming home from work, I decided to log into Second Life to check out the island of aloft and to see for myself what progress was done that day on the interior of the lobby by the Electric Sheep designers. Looking at my avatar, I felt like a construction foreman checking up on his team to make sure that they were staying on schedule and on budget.

After teleporting to the island, I walked into the hotel lobby (or to be specific, my avatar did).

I expected the hotel to be empty. But instead I found Cory, Makaio, and Giff all there. As I walked in, I stood there for a moment, watching them scurrying around the room.

They were pointing to walls, moving furniture, and hanging lights. They were so busy that I don't think they noticed me at first.

What amazed me was just how close what I was seeing inside of SL is to what happens in the real world. To see the avatars actually build things inside the virtual space, like construction workers do in RL, was fascinating and - to be completely honest - a bit weird. When Makaio turned around and finally saw me, I found myself IMing to him - "Please don't get distracted by me being here. Keep working. I'm just gonna walk around to check on how things are coming along"

Until last night I had no idea that the SL designers actually design inside the virtual space as they would in a real space. To see the designers work as a group inside the virtual environment, and to be there while they were doing it, was absolutely captivating.

- Marc Schiller, ElectricArtists

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Mon >> Aug 14, 2006

Face-to-Face

aloha!

On August 3rd, myself and Giff Constable (SL name: Forseti Svarog) made the trip to White Plains to meet up with our counterparts on the Electric Artists and Starwood Hotel teams. Marc Schiller from EA along with Jessica and Tracy from Starwood met us at a warehouse space where the Starwood design team is busily working through the design and layout concepts for the real aloft hotels.

First off, I have to mention that working and collaborating in virtual space is great, but there's nothing like in-person meetings when it comes to information transfer. A platform like Second Life allows for a much greater sense of real-time involvement with others on a project when you're working remotely than a conference call or email. We've pulled off entire projects where we never once had a chance to visit what we're recreating onsite, or to shake the hand of our clients in person. So while it can be done, and done well, there's really no substitute for both the information gleaned and the rapport established by a face to face meeting, or a real walk through the space you're going to recreate in Second Life. Which is why I came away with a much better idea of how to tackle the aloft interior after Thursday's walkthrough - and, I think, Starwood got a better idea of how ESC is handling their virtual creation.

The visit was the first time I'd ever had a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how a hotel brand like aloft gets its unique personality. A tremendous amount of care is put into every aspect of the design, from placement to fabrics to usability to accenting touches. And, like almost any other type of project, there will always be some aspects that are subject to change up until the very last moment. Some of those aspects for this project are looking to be things like fabric and material choices for the furniture - luckily, this is something that the virtual aloft project can handle much more quickly than a RL furniture manufacturer. I'm hoping that our ability to modify design and color on the fly will be of assistance to aloft's design team as well. (As soon as we got back, I had Makaio start on the furniture design, since the physical aspect of it is a lot less likely to change than the textures - see below.)

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Besides the insight into the layout and textures, we also got a better sense of the overall look and feel of the aloft brand. They really did a wonderful job covering the details in making this a step above and beyond what you'd normally see in a hotel line, and creating a great experience for travelers. I picked up details from the walkthrough - like the use of sunflowers as accent items - that will help us flesh out the surrounding island build to mesh better with the aloft style. This will take some rework on our part, but luckily we now have the information we need to knock it out of the park.

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Our next steps are laying out the virtual interior plan to coincide as closely as possible with the real life layout, and getting started on the construction of the same. I will also be working closely in the next few weeks with aloft's designer in residence, Aliya, to make changes and insure that any design choices we make from this point on are firmly in touch with the aloft look.

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Thu >> Aug 10, 2006

On Importing 3D Models Into Second Life

Dick Eades posted the following question on an older post and I wanted to answer it for everyone. Dick wrote:

I am an architect who has been working for forty years in the hotel field and I am interested in exploring the possibility of presenting designs in a virtual world such as SL. I work with several CAD programs including SketchUp and would like to know if there is any provision for importing dxf or 3ds models into SL. I would hate to think that I would have to recreate the entire model using SL's building system.

I also can't see some of my clients going through the process of getting SL memberships, logging in, and learning the interface just to see their project. "Can't you send it on a CD?"

Right now there are some very early experiments with importing 3D models from external applications like Maya or Blender, but nothing is "production" level yet. Second Life is streamed over the Internet and is entirely dynamic (i.e. it can change at any time, and everyone needs to see those changes at the same time). Given this, Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) had to design a new 3D system with a much much lighter footprint per shape. Even with Linden Lab’s lighter footprint, savvy designers/builders in Second Life work to optimize their builds so that they run well on older computers. This, of course, will change as computing power and graphic cards increase in power.

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Second Life is not based on 3D meshes. Rather, everything is built from very simple building blocks called primitives: box, cylinder, sphere, torus, tube, and ring. You can manipulate these primitives by changing size, cut, taper, hollow, etc. The core shapes and their permutations become your alphabet. You combine them and texture them to make your words, sentences and novels. People used to powerful 3D applications might find this a little crude, but you can actually make extremely impressive structures with this method. Of course, working from primitive shapes is not a new concept – art teachers throughout time have taught painters to examine nature this way. Cezanne once wrote “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone,” and the American painter Thomas Eakins used to train his students by making them do studies of an egg, a lump of sugar, or a piece of chalk.

Bringing a model in from an external application like Maya or Blender requires a significant translation effort, especially if you want to translation to be optimized for computing performance. We believe that an import/translation tool is possible to create, but it probably makes sense to do some of that translation in the 3D tools (like Maya) rather than making a translation program do all of the heavy lifting. For example, if you can build in Maya in a more compatible fashion to Second Life’s primitives, importing should be easier.

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As for Dick’s second question, you cannot save a Second Life model on CD because SL is entirely an online environment. You can use GL tools like OGLE to get Second Life objects into Maya (or even “print” them in 3D foam!), or just make a video of a walkthrough that can be edited and distributed.

However, Second Life is not designed to be a single-person, offline tool. Second Life's strengths are more along these lines:

- You can do a virtual tour with other people at the same time, communicating about what you see. The participants can be logged in from anywhere in the world.
- You can make changes on the fly. Other avatars around you instantly see those changes. You can even allow others to make changes and collaborate in real-time.
- You can bring objects to life using the scripting language, so that you can press a button or say a word and the building around will change on the fly or objects will have motion and interactivity (for example, the smart drawbridge which knows when to open and close). Again, as all this is happening, everyone in the virtual location would be seeing the same thing at the same time, no matter where they were located in the real world.

- You can integrate streamed audio and video into your 3D environment.
- I would also note that Second Life is an extremely fast building and prototyping platform, with a much lower learning curve than high-end tools like Maya

Hopefully all this helps answer your question!

-- Giff Constable

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How To Teleport to the Island of aloft

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As we continue to build the aloft hotel inside of Second Life, we've started showing people what the actual island of aloft looks like.

If you're currently a resident of Second Life, you can teleport to a neighboring sim called Argali. There you can peer in from the Argali border. You will need to raise your draw distances to see it. Draw distance (in the preferences, graphics tab) determines how far out objects "rez" i.e. show themselves. If you set your draw distance to 256 meters you should be able to get a good look at the hotel.

You can drop onto Argali by clicking on this link.

Posted by at 7:51 AM in Featured, Teleporting | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0) |

Wed >> Aug 9, 2006

Letting People See The Island

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As we proceed with building the virtual aloft hotel, one of the most enjoyable experiences has been giving people who have never been in Second Life before a sneak preview tour of the island of aloft.

Last night Giff and I met up with our client Chris Holdren from Starwood Hotels inside of Second Life.

That's Chris on the right. Giff's on the left.

... Marc, ElectricArtists

Posted by at 10:28 AM in Photos | TrackBack (0) |

Mon >> Aug 7, 2006

Texturing the Build

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As we prepare our on-site visit to the aloft design warehouse before we begin work on the hotel interior, the time has come to begin creating textures for the rest of the island in earnest.

Creating textures for use in Second Life is generally done in a program like Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, or GIMP. I've worked in Photoshop for about 7 years now, so I have a good working knowledge to draw from - but like designing for any medium, creating textures for SL requires some specialized knowledge of what to do and what not to do to get the best results. It’s kind of like designing graphics for a website - physical size and file size play a big part in how fast your graphics will load for a visitor, which can make the difference between an enjoyable build or a frustrating experience.

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Also being able to "map out" how the textures will be applied to prims of various sizes allows you to create some pretty neat effects, like the extra-large sunflower logo shown above, which stretches across 6 prims of differing sizes.

Another level of texture creation for SL involves knowing the limitations of the SL client itself, and how to fake a richer visual effect. Adding shadows and lighting effects directly to your textures before you upload them into SL (known as "shadow baking" or just "baking") gets around the fact that SL, as a streaming client, doesn't render realistic shadows. (The program can shadow individual prims, but a light pole won't cast a shadow onto the ground, for example.) Taking the time to add something as simple as a gentle gradient along the side of your walkway can have an immediate visual impact, making a flat texture seem more engaging and real. You can also go a step further and recreate your entire build in a 3D program such as Maya, render realistic shadows and lighting, then import the textures that Maya creates into SL. The results from that process are truly beautiful, but can also be extremely time consuming. Like anything, we try to strike a good balance between what we have time to accomplish and how best to use that time.

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Sometimes you can use certain areas of a build to concentrate extra shadowing work on to make a better overall impact. In the picture above, I baked a shadow of the tree and bushes onto the texture used as the wall behind the foliage. It is subtle, but it is something the eye is likely to subconsciously absorb, and can really enhance the realism of the overall build.

Finally, you don't want to go too overboard in creating a special texture for each prim, no matter how good the results may look. Like a website, each graphic is streamed to the visitor in real time and then cached. The more individual files, the longer it takes to load. Judicious reuse of textures in a large scale build is a must to keep load times down. Sometimes it makes more sense to add shadows via the use of extra prims that have a special gradient texture applied to them, and then placed directly over the prim you want to shadow.

Posted by Cory Edo at 5:51 PM in Texturing | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0) |