Without an announcement on its official blog, Linden Lab, makers of the virtual world of Second Life, seems to have introduced a new capability for its in-world building tools that will allow them to better support established formats, something that SL builders have long found sorely lacking. The new feature should change the landscape for the SL building community by inviting in modelers whose skills have not been applicable before.
The new addition is known as a “sculpted prim” (short for primitive, the word used to denote the basic building block of SL objects), and should make it possible for 3D artists who are used to working in more standard formats to work more easily in Second Life. The scultped prim takes its shape from information encoded into the color channels of a texture. For reasons beyond my technical expertise, this makes it possible to create a more complex, more natural shape than is possible with the current set of SL build tools.
More importantly, it means that SL objects are suddenly a lot more interoperable with objects and shapes from other worlds and modelling programs. According to the Second Life wiki, “We provide an exporter for Maya, and hopefully exporters for 3ds Max, Blender, and ZBrush will be available soon. We also have plans to provide a sculpt editor within the Second Life viewer.” The wiki doesn’t say where this Maya exporter is available, but according to Tao Takashi, it may be in the next preview build of the client, due shortly.
Also according to Tao, sculpted prims may be slightly more difficult for some SL builders to master, but their advent also means that it will be possible to create textures for them in free tools like Blender, and perhaps SketchUp and others. This will be good news to those who have been experimenting with importing shapes from those programs into Second Life.
I’d say this changes the landscape of SL architecture and building considerably, as it invites in a whole cohort of builders whose skills did not formerly apply. While it could spell the end of the specialized SL modeller, it could also raise the level of quality of many builds in Second Life, and make the world better integrated with other 3D applications. They’ll probably come on slowly, but big changes are afoot.