The light fantastic

lightALM… Three letters that some people will instantly recognise and many will not at all. Ancient Lyre Music? Nope; Amazing Legs Miss? Er, no; Alarmingly Large Muscles? Afraid not; Accessible Latex Merchant? I don’t think so!; Advanced Lighting Model? Yay! That’s the one.

We’ve had ALM in SL now for quite some time, yet I’m pretty sure that if you surveyed an average cross section of SL users, the majority of them wouldn’t have heard of it, and wouldn’t have the first idea what it was. In fact, at the risk of completely disproving my own assertion, let’s do a quick survey right now…


To give give some illumination on the subject for those still in the dark – before which, I will apologise for those two appalling puns – the Advanced Lighting Model is a set of options built into the viewer which enable the user to manipulate ‘light’, or rather, the illusion of light that we have inworld, in creative and clever ways that mimic the behaviour of light in the real world. The first thing that will spring to mind for most people is shadows, but ALM opens up a whole world of possibilities for enhancing our inworld experience. ALM also does away with some of the traditional annoyances that we’ve grown used to living with in SL – finally, we can have face lights that illuminate just our face, in exactly the manner we choose, rather than lighting up the whole face of the planet! With ALM, gone too is the restriction to being only able to view the effects of a maximum of six light emitters at the same time – with ALM you can have Blackpool illuminations in all their gaudy glory, if that’s really what you want!

Then there’s the fun world of point lighting and projectors, bringing all the potential of spotlights and gobos into our virtual lives, enhancing and transforming our environment.

The real beauty of Advanced Lighting however, is when Materials are brought into the equation. Materials may seem to be some sort of arcane blank art if you’ve never created anything utilising them, but they’re really not that difficult to grasp. Let’s imagine you’ve created a beach ball in SL – you’ve made a sphere and spent the last week trying to work out how to apply a beach ball texture to it – congratulations, you’ve done the hard part! But, you’re not happy with your beach ball… It looks dull and flat, like you’d expect a painted plywood sphere to look actually. Somehow, it’s not as you’d envisioned it… It doesn’t catch the light in the way that plastic should, and those seams and the dimple where the valve would be just don’t look at all realistic. You need materials!

In SL, any object can have up to three textures on a face: There’s your colourful beach ball texture, and then you have two magical materials textures that can bring it to life. There’s the normal map, (technically, it’s a tangent space normal map), and the specular map. A normal map is your texture, stripped of its colours and given a new coat of paint – special paint that tells the viewer how to map out, using highlighting and shading where all the bumps, dimples and 3-Dimensional features of your texture should be. It works very much like a sculpty texture, (an object space normal map), but rather than a rainbow of colours, it’ll tend to be rather purple. What the normal map does is give the illusion of depth, even though you have a flat texture.

Your other new friend is the specular map, which works in the same way as the ‘shininess’ setting in the build floater; the big difference is that you can use a specular map to specify exactly how shiny individual areas of your texture are – and more importantly, how that shininess will be rendered in terms of where the light will fall on it at any given time – rather than just saying the whole thing is shiny. So, you could make the viewer render the bits of your beach ball covered in sand as less shiny than the exposed plastic surface. Genius!

Using maps in this way can make inworld objects look incredibly realistic, with the appearance of real depth and texture that alters according to the ambient light and your perspective. Provided, of course, you have ALM turned on, otherwise things will look no different than any non-materials enabled object.

And therein lies the problem.

ALM can be pretty demanding on graphics cards, even high end machines can struggle, particularly since SL doesn’t implement some of the more useful graphics features that manufacturers take for granted, (so it’s probably pointless splashing out on an expensive top of the range graphics card for SL, because you’ll get no better performance than if you stick to something more basic!). As a consequence, most of us will rarely, if ever turn ALM on, and even if we do, it’ll just be for the odd, artistic screen shot, and then it’s back to medium graphics and acceptable frame rates once more.

All that hard work that people have expended on beautifying their creations and manipulating virtual light to replicate the real thing is lost to us… And that’s such a shame, because knowing how good it could be simply doesn’t compensate for the majority of time we spend inworld, where everything still looks like 2006!


Maybe, one day we’ll find a workaround, but until then I’m afraid that I’ll stil be spending far too much of my time inworld wondering just how much I’m missing (-:

s. x

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade Of Pale

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