Mentioning the Contacts List brings me to perhaps the biggest new item this release next to the ability to render mesh objects: Contact Sets. This is actually worth a blog post on its own, so excuse me if I just touch upon it here.
Essentially, Contact Sets allows you to organise your Friends into groups (so that someone can have, say, personal friends in one group, customers in another, role-play colleagues in a third, and so on – Friends can appear in multiple Contact Sets).
The process for creating a Contact Set is very straight-forward, and the Contact Set display can be used as an alternative to the main Contacts List – access it via COMMS -> CONTACT SETS.
The display has some nice touches – no scroll bar, simply hover the mouse and the top / bottom of the window to scroll up/ down; there is a Zoom option that enlarges the names directly under the mouse as you move it up and down the list, giving a rather nice rollerdeck feel, while making it easier to select people from the list. Finally, there is a range of dedicated settings allowing it to be further customised, and which are accessed directly from the window itself.
Contact Sets allow for easy “group” communications – a merchant can put all their customers in a single Contact Set, for example and use it to initiate a conference call with them, or offer a mass Tp to a special event. It is even possible to include people not in a Friends List – with certain limits (they will be excluded from any conference call or Tp offer & their online status will not be revealed).
Navigation between Sets is relatively easy, as the sets you create are displayed at the top of the window by default, and you can adjust how the colours assigned to your Contact Sets are displayed – useful if you have multiple Sets and do not wish to end up half blinded by a wash of colours on-screen when you open the window.
Contact list colours can also be “exported” to things like Viewer tag colours as seen in your world view and the mini-map icons. This is again handy for the likes of role-players: with the ability to set non-Friends into a Contact Set, it is possible, for example create a Set for an “opposing” team and thus ease the process of recognising them on-screen.
And if you have issues reading people’s Display Names because of the fonts / characters they use, you can use this option to rename them into something more understandable. Again, it is important to remember, when using or reading about this feature, that you are not affecting anyone else’s view of things. Changes are only seen in your world view in your viewer. A part of me cannot help but think no matter how much that is emphasized, there are some who will be outraged by the option, largely because they’ve failed to grasp how it works…
Mesh Object Rendering
This was the reason for this Beta being pushed out: so that people could see mesh objects. Personally, I could have waited another week or so for a formal release of Firestorm; let’s face it, mesh has yet to make a really big impact on the grid, and so delaying things a little longer wouldn’t really have hurt. But given the sheer volume of mesh object rendering questions that flow into the Phoenix / Firestorm Support Group, I’m really not surprised the team give into the pressure; hearing the same question over and over again must be akin to the “Are we there yet?” syndrome parents face at one time or another…
Firestorm renders mesh objects perfectly – as hopefully the image of a couple of familiar favourites from the Beta grid should ably demonstrate.
There is currently no upload capability; as I’ve explained elsewhere, this is a non-trivial amount of work in itself – but the team hope to get an upload option into the Viewer in the future.
Other Key Enhancements
- Depth of Field: Photographers and Machinima artists now have the Viewer 2.x/3.x Depth of Field option. This can be found under PREFERENCES-> GRAPHICS and the DEPTH OF FIELD tab.
- Custom Viewer tag colours: Firestorm allows you to define your own Viewer tag colours. These can be set via the TAGS tab under PREFERENCES -> FIRESTORM
- Texture Lag Protection: found under PREFRENCES -> FIRESTORM -> PROTECTION, this allows you to hide objects with high bandwidth texture loads (which can slow performance). Turning it on may cause some objects in-world to appear broken
- Phoenix particle beam effects: the Phoenix particle beam options are ported to Firestorm, and can be found under PREFERENCE -> FIRESTORM -> VIEW
- Font options: found under PREFERENCES -> UI EXTRAS and the Font tab, this allows you to change the font used in the Viewer’s UI. Fonts are selected from a drop-down list, and the Viewer will need to be restarted in oder for a new font to be applied. A note of caution here: the UI uses fixed spaces for buttons and labels, etc., so changing he font might result in some odd display characteristics
- Skins: The release sees improvements made to UI skin offerings, and should resolve issues around the use of Starlight skins A minor issues I found here is that if a Starlight skin was enabled and subsequently changed for the default Firestorm skin, the Hybrid UI option would lose the transparency around the toolbar at the foot of the screen, giving it the same appearance as the Phoenix option.
Additionally, Phoenix’s script count option is now included in Firestorm, appearing in both the Pie Menu and the Context Menu. Auto Correct has also been added, and there are a range of other nips and tucks, and a lot of bug fixes. However, I’m going to leave things at this point in terms of features, as this article is turning into a monster, length-wise.
Firestorm on Other Grids
Thanks to the team at Imprudence / Kokua, Firestorm’s ability to connection to OpenSim grids has been improved; however, given their workload, the Phoenix / Firestorm team emphasize that they cannot support issues related to using the Viewer on other grids. With this in mind, I did take time out to try Firestorm over on InWorldz. Everything appeared to work spiffingly-well, including the Bridge Flight Assist. Performance was comparable to Second Life (see below), and all seemed jolly good…. other than the fact I would not rez in my own view, and none of the usual bake fail tricks worked. Hopefully, this will improve in time.
Beyond my (minor) personal issues in using the release, there are a couple of important issues that need to be noted.
Those using more recent nVidia graphics cards (400 series and above) may encounter severe crashing issues if Basic Shaders are enabled in PREFERENCES -> GRAPHICS. This is a but inherited from Linden Lab, and it is advised that users of such graphics cards use this release with caution & with Basic Shaders disabled.
A number of other significant bugs have been inherited from Linden Lab and are known to be in this Beta. A list of these bugs is available on the Phoenix / Firestorm wiki, and users are asked not to raise tickets against them, as they are known and will be dealt with as the team / Linden Lab develop fixes.
Performance and Stability
My test machine for this release (as always) is a quad-core Q6600 2.4GHz CPU with 3.00 Gb RAM and an nVidia 9800 GPU with 1.00 Gb RAM on-board and the Windows 7 operating system with all Service Packs installed.
Overall performance of this system was slightly slower that the “main” Beta release: frame times work out at around 10-12 fps slower, but nothing drastic. With shadows enabled, the FPS rate drops to around an average of some 5 fps slower than the current release – again, pretty trivial.
Generally performance has been smooth – I’ve only encountered 2 significant crashes in running the Viewer all day and across several grids. Nevertheless, this is still a Beta, and your experiences may vary.
Overall, another excellent release from the Firestorm team, although one that might be regarded as premature as a result of the pressure to see mesh rendering capabilities included. The Spell Check didn’t make it into this release, and there are a few other matters - such as the Lab-inherited nVidia issue – but these will hopefully be sorted in time.
I personally would like to see the “old” version of the Contact List returned, or the option to turn off the Display Names option on the list (or the Username column at a push), as I really do think the new Contacts / Communication window takes up an unreasonable amount og screen real estate, even on a widescreen monitor.
I’ve been using the release since it came out, and, as mentioned above, have only encountered two actually crashes within SL, and the rezzing issue when visiting InWorldz; but then I am using a older-generation graphics card. Others might not be so lucky. Even so, if you think your system can handle it, it is certainly worth taking a look at. If nothing else, this release significantly raises the bar where V2.x/V3.x Viewers are concerned.