About once or twice a year I become infected with the building bug and start fiddling around with prims in my skybox in Varano. Yes, you heard me: prims. Mesh might well be established now as the minimum standard in quality 3D creation in the metaverse and mesh builders might well regard the creaking inworld building system (it is, of course, powered by steam, it’s so old) as something not much more sophisticated (technically, cognitively or – indeed – socially) than putting together a multicolour house with some Lego bricks; but the good old-fashioned inworld prim arrangement system has one very special virtue that appeals to me: I understand it.
It’s now about eight years since my first ever SL friend, Dizi, taught me the basics of building in SL – a lesson which resulted in a rough approximation of my mother’s dining room table – and most of the items I build today would actually work perfectly withn the 2007 metaverse. Admittedly, I do have a fairly key advantage in my building projects insofar as I’m interested in recreating postwar architecture and Danish Modern furniture – or, to put it another way, I like building stuff that’s naturally composed of lots of right-angles. The limitations of prim building in terms of the objects it’s possible to make with them, therefore, are not often walls I knock up against.
It is, of course, quite possible to create some fairly complex objects if you combine prims cleverly and are prepared to put the time in on all the zoomed, micro-millimetre adjustments required of smoothly fitting together linksets. Unfortunately, this brings us to the other great limitation of building with prims and a wall I’ve found myself knocking up against all too often: the number of prims required of such work – or, to couch it in today’s terms, the land impact. I currently sell a faithful reproduction of my mother’s Ladderax system (yes, I admit there is a theme of sorts to my collection; it has nothing to do with unresolved childhood issues and everything to do with the availability of something I can actually measure) and it consists of 58 prims. On a standard 512 metre squared plot, that would be half your allowance gone in a single piece of furniture – and not even one you can sit or have sex on.
It’s probably no great surprise to learn that I’ve only sold one of these so far (actually, it probably is a surprise to learn that I’ve sold even that number). This might all be about to change, however, because last week I finished creating a mesh version, and it has a land impact of just seventeen. Words cannot convey the sense of man-accomplishment this gives me. The mesh version looks identical to and has precisely the same amount of functionality as the original prim version: two cabinets (one for drinks with a walnut veneer, the other for storing LPs), both with opening and closing doors (and a sound effect for this sampled from the actual item), two single shelves, one shelf unit, a cupboard with opening doors and a unit with three opening and closing drawers. Even now that a few days have passed since its completion, I still look at it in awe and cannot quite escape the conclusion that I’ve become some sort of god.
But wait, you cry: mesh? Did I not mere moments ago eschew all that? I did indeed. Happily, I bought from the Marketplace last year a copy of ‘Mesh Studio’ by TheBlack Box, essentially a script you drop into the root prim (which, incidentally, is the yellow one when you’ve clicked edit on your object, if – like me – you spent ages wondering how people knew which prim was the root prim) of your build so that when you subsequently click on it a copy of your linkset is uploaded to a server and a download link is then sent to you in chat for a mesh conversion. Instant mesh; no messing about in Blender required. I adore Mesh Studio.
(A note about Mesh Snobbery: if you’re not already aware of this, it still probably won’t surprise you all that much to hear that some of the mesh builders who construct directly in Blender (or other comparable 3D application requiring at least an undergraduate degree in advanced geometry) express a little bit of a virtual sneer when you identify yourself as a Mesh Studio user. In fairness to them, designing in dedicated software does indeed offer infinitely more complexity than converting Lego bricks and a Blender skillset probably doesn’t pay a great deal in hard cash, so you might as well take your recompense in superiority sneers. In fact, it’s the same kind of sneer I myself use when taking slide film photographs and spot someone taking snapshots with their iPhone.)
As with all systems, there’s a process to learn and tricks to understand, and issues that arise which aren’t covered in the explanatory notecard and which require knowledge about mesh that’s probably as obvious as the sky being blue to the experienced mesher, but which require quite a bit of trawling through web forums to get insight into if you’re a complete noob to this like I am. I thought I’d gather some of the ‘magic knowledge’ I’ve acquired thus far in case you’re similarly ill-equipped:
- Mesh objects can only have eight ‘faces’, which translates as eight textures. The Mesh Studio script will alert you to how many faces you’ve used so far in your prim build in a bit of floaty text. Be warned: Using different colours counts as a different face, so if you’ve used the same texture all over your object but applied four different tints to it then that’s four faces you’ve used.
- Making unseen prim faces 100% transparent will eliminate them from the mesh build and thus reduce its eventual land impact on conversion. Choosing a transparent texture for the face will not have the same effect.
- You will inevitably best learn through trial and error. Given that each time you upload a mesh object you have to pay a little, it might be best to perfect your models on the Beta Grid (where uploading is free).
- And, speaking of uploading, before Linden will allow you to upload mesh models to SL, you must have your payment information on file and have completed the Intellectual Property tutorial (https://secondlife.com/my/account/ip/tutorial.php).
- Once your mesh model has been imported into SL, scaling it up in size will increase its land impact, whilst scaling it down will usually decrease it.
- When you link a mesh object to a prim, the combined land impact often goes down. For my Ladderax, I needed to link each of my cabinet doors to a cylindrical ‘hinge’ that contained a rotate script; the cabinet door had a land impact of 2 and the hinge a land impact of 1: when selected together they had a combined land impact of 3, but when I joined them this went down to 2. I have no idea why this works, however I assure you that I’m not complaining.
- There are other mesh conversion products available, such as ‘Prims to Mesh Convertor’ by egphilippov. This product (currently L$3,000 less than Mesh Studio at an introductory price of L$1,999) offers some sort of browser-based editing of mesh objects before you import them into SL; the blurb is a little vague on what this actually enables you to do, however the reviews left so far appear to love it.
- There is actually a completely free way of converting prims to mesh if you’re a Firestorm user. By right-clicking on a prim object, clicking More > More > Save as > Collada, you can then save the object to your hard disk and then import it back as a mesh model. As with Mesh Studio, everything in the build must have been created by you for this to work (check scripts and textures as well as the prims themselves); a restriction to this method that does not appear to apply to Mesh Studio, however, is that individual prims with more than eight faces will break the process and cause an ‘element is invalid’ error on upload – so cutting a hollowed prim cube, for example, would cause this (because it creates nine faces).
Sadly, the building bug rarely lasts more than a few days in a row for me; a couple of weeks at most: the feverishness passes, the obsession over shaving off just one more prim passes and I emerge, slightly bleary-eyed and ready to resume life in the non-building world.
As you might have guessed, however, I’m in the midst of mesh addiction right now. I should be editing my latest novel, but I decided to write this article instead.