Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Facing Up To CyberExtruder

This post first appeared at 3pointD... here with extra piccies!

Are you a Second Life resident who is fed up with your appearance? You’ve scoured the shops, looking for an avatar face that would be unique to you; something that captures the very essence of you — or at least, the persona you wish to project in Second Life. But you just can’t find it. Frustrating isn’t it?

You could opt to make your own, but most of us lack the skills to create something convincing, realistic and actually worth showing in public. Now, though, this need not be a bar to personalising your avatar — after a fashion. CyberExtruder provides a quick and relatively easy solution to your personalisation dilemma. Using a passport-style photograph, their automated conversion software will generate a realistic Second Life face in about a second. Whether you opt to use a self-portrait, or an image of someone else, is entirely up to you, though you might want to think carefully before pursuing the latter route.

The CyberExtruder service is a nice convenience for SL residents who want a more photorealistic face for their avatars, but the results can sometimes be a bit startling.

So how does it work? The CyberExtruder facility is modelled as a laboratory, housing two scary-looking morphing machines. You initiate the process by lying down on an operating table. Your avatar is then taken automatically through a number of stages, in which your face is subjected to a viariety of bizarre operations.

The real work, however, happens outside Second Life. While your avatar is going through the process you are given a link to the CyberExtruder website. Here, subject to handing over the requisite sum, (L$2700 each, or L$5400 for 3) you are able to upload a photo for conversion. By return you receive your new avatar face. Once you have uploaded this into Second Life you are ready to don your new, uniquely-personalised look and venture forth to strut your stuff.

Beware though, you might need to do some fine tuning of skin coloration if you are to avoid giving the appearance of one person’s head on another person’s body! Here’s the effect of the CyberExtruder on Al Kronos, who has resolutely stayed with his newbie look until now.

An improvement? Well, maybe. At first sight I was impressed — but I found it impossible to adjust Al’s skin setting to provide an exact match. It would have been better, for me at least, if the new face had a degreee of transparency at the point that it meets the neck, so that there would be a smoother transition from new face to old body. I have hand-crafted a face (that I am still not happy with) which does just that. Another problem I had was with the re-rendering of the head. Every so often it redisplays, which leads to a seam running down the back of Al’s bald head that bears an uncanny resemblance to a pair of buttocks! I would not like this to be taken as some kind of visual metaphor — especially that one. For those who don’t want to hand-craft, but still want something unique, then CyberExtruder is a useful tool — but I remain undecided about using my new appearance.

CyberExtruder have been around for about eight years, producing personalised avatars for a number of games, including Quake from id Software, The Sims and others from EA Games. Following 9/11 they moved into security, specialising in facial recognition. Now they have seen a potential market in the rapidly growing Virtual Worlds, and have partnered with build company, Cranial Tap, to bring their product into Second Life. They opened their doors a couple of months ago, with a highly successful visit from the Things To Do group that resulted in a lot of positive responses in the blogosphere. Since then they have banked some L$500,000.

Cranial Tap have constructed »Avatar Island« around a central hub housing the CyberExtruder facility, about which a cluster of other vendors, offering complementary avatar products, is arrayed. Floating above the facility is a giant head, which is changed on a regular basis. If you have ideas about whose head you would like to see, you could always drop an IM with your suggestions to Trogg Garrigus. The aim for the island is to build not just a shop but a community, and to this end they are looking at hosting a variety of events ranging from training to parties and live music.

CyberExtruder are looking for best-of-breed vendors to share the island, with the intention of offering the ultimate “pimp my avatar” experience. Vendor participation is by invitation only. At present CyberExtruder have only this one outlet, but are now looking at the development and deployment of vending machines across the Second Life grid. They are also looking at other virtual worlds, but feel it is too early to comment further at this stage.

The lab is a nice piece of design, and the inworld operation is fun to watch. The other shops have not been built by Cranial Tap, and as only minimal guidelines have been specified there is a risk that the island’s appearance would lack cohesion. However, thus far it seems to hang together OK. It is not unique in offering the fulll “pimp my avatar” range of services, but it is a welcome addition.

Incidentally, a new feature of the island, due for launch next week, is an Orientation Zone. Along with a number of other companies, CyberExtruder and Cranial Tap have signed up with Linden Lab to provide a “privatised” orientation experience, as part of Linden Lab’s efforts to improve user retention. Clearly the benefit for the Avatar Island vendors is a steady stream of newcomers who, they hope, will be eager to avail themselves of the services on offer.

But more of this anon...

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