The SLife of I

Initial thoughts on PBR in Second Life

As the world and its mother probably knows by now, the team at Firestorm have just released their long-awaited PBR viewer, and – having held off from joining the beta testing or trying the LL viewer – yesterday was my first chance to jump in and give it a shot. This post is going to be a bit of a ramble (and honestly, if a Skell post isn’t a ramble then is it even a Skell post at all?) and will feature my initial thoughts, some of the EEP testing that I’ve done (and the surprises that testing threw at me), and a few of the things that have crossed my mind in the lead-up to trying out PBR for myself.

Before I begin, I want to start by mentioning that I have a pretty beefy computer (a water-cooled Intel Core i5 12600K Alder Lake-S CPU with 32GB DDR4 RAM, and an 8GB RTX 3070 Ti GPU, running Windows 10 from a 2TB SSD), a rock-solid 500Mbps fibre-to-the-premises internet connection, and I run Firestorm on High-Ultra while keeping my draw distance reasonably low [96m, usually]). I also use a large 4K monitor. However, I’m very aware – after reading Beq Janus’s post here, as well as the post linked in my first paragraph – that there will be some people (likely many people) whose systems may struggle with PBR. All I can give you here are my own initial Day One experiences with the computer and connection that I have; experiences that were additionally informed by my own curiosity and willingness to to give PBR a run for its proverbial money. The older I’ve got, the more I’ve learned to enjoy embracing change rather than shying away from it, so instead of holding back for even a few weeks I went charging in on the first day of release.

And boy, was I pleasantly surprised.

The first thing to deal with, of course, is that PBR is a complete overhaul of Second Life’s lighting engine. And with that comes one of the biggest changes that people will be getting to grips with: half of your EEP settings are initially going to look like crap. If you last logged out with CalWL or Nam’s Optimal Skin (or any similar ‘shadowless’ bright and clear EEP setting) enabled then your first login using a PBR viewer may well have you wondering when the hell you added that blinding 2007 multi-prim facelight setup, because holy hell, where did your nose go?!

If you need to deal with that before you deal with anything else, go into the Firestorm Graphics Preferences panel and pull the Exposure slider all the way to the left. It defaults to 1.0, but reducing it to 0.5 will help with that, at least until you get yourself set up with some PBR-friendly EEP settings.

Here’s where you find that slider (and can also see the graphics settings that I used for all the images in this post).

That was all I thought I needed to do, initially, until I teleported somewhere and suddenly realised that… hang on a minute. Now everything seems darker than it should be! So I tweaked the Exposure slider back up a bit, finished my shopping trip, and teleported home. And it was then that Revelation No. 1 hit me: the EEP setting I was using (which was [NB] Alpine-skinlight RGB) was changing the lighting depending on the tone of the scene around me or the lightness/darkness of the background behind me.

And so I set off on a mission: check a bunch of EEP settings, both old and ‘new-for-PBR’ against both a dark and light background. At this point, Revelation No. 2 whacked me upside the head: I didn’t want to be riding that Exposure slider every time I moved around Second Life. I needed to get myself some PBR-friendly EEP settings, and tweak some of my old favourites to be PBR-friendly.

Let me share a few of my findings with you.

I started by checking against a white background that was deliberately not set to fullbright (mostly because I value my eyeballs, but also because it allows you to see any colour cast from the lighting). I tried the default ‘Midday (Legacy)’ setting, and the new default Midday setting, alongside three resident-made EEPs: CalWL, [NB] Alpine-skinlight RGB, and the PBR EEP setting ‘A Better Daylight’ by gray.pixelbottom, which I found for just L$1 here on Marketplace). All of these images were taken with the Exposure slider set to the default 1.0.

The ‘legacy’ midday default setting is grey and dull, and the new default midday is greatly improved, but has a definite blue cast to it. Both CalWL and [NB] Alpine-skinlight RGB looked good against the white background, but it wasn’t until I tried the ‘A Better Daylight’ setting that the “Oh!” moment hit for me and I started getting more and more interested. The shadows popped, the white shirt had more tone and depth, the jacket looked just better overall, and the highlights on the hair looked more natural.

So then I moved to the black background. And here is where I made the decision to ditch my old faithful [NB] Alpine-skinlight RGB setting, which I had been using exclusively (when not playing around with EEP settings for blogging and fashion photography) for absolutely years. For everyday running, I’m switching over to the ‘A Better Daylight’ PBR EEP, because… well, take a look and you’ll see why.

You might look at that and think, “Oh, that’s fine! Just switch to Exposure 0.5 and it’ll be okay!” But remember what I said about how dark it suddenly looked as I was moving around? Here’s an intensity comparison of those two EEP settings at both 0.5 and 1.0 Exposure, against both a light and dark background.

Exposure 0.5 looks fine against a dark background but it looks horribly dark against a light background, so – like I mentioned earlier – I’d be riding that slider like a sodding rodeo bull, and ain’t nobody got time for that. So, the ‘A Better Daylight’ setting is a no-brainer for me. Below is a comparison of that and the two default midday settings, against both light and dark backgrounds.

Editing this post the next day to add that Veronika Blackwood of Nuve has generously provided a free PBR-ready version of the ‘shadowless’ EEP setting that she uses for her skin ads. If you previously used a bright, no-shadow Windlight/EEP such as CalWL, Nam’s Optimal Skin, etc, then perhaps give this a try: Nuve – Shadowless WL PBR ready.

Over the course of my experiments I’d also picked up a few other PBR EEP settings, mostly sticking to the lower end of the price spectrum initially. Now, I’ve not run with a full day/night cycle for many, many years in SL, so at first I just tried out the Day settings. Some were good, and some didn’t really appeal to me. But then I thought why not take a look at a full day/night cycle, so I tried out Studio SABERHAGEN’s free PBR EEP Collection, which includes a day/night cycle, a midday, and a night setting. And, since night was falling in Second Life at that time, I decided to bite the bullet and see what the inside of my main home looked like in PBR, because I’d heard all kinds of secondhand horror stories about interiors being pitch black unless you futzed around with lighting, and then the whole thing with reflection probes (more on those – albeit very briefly – in a bit) and I was honestly dreading what I would see.

Welp.

You know this gif?

Yep. That was me when I teleported into my home, because this was what greeted me:

Yeah.

Oh hell yeah.

I started camming around and finding other little areas of my home that looked so damn good with this new lighting engine. I didn’t tweak anything; instead I just moved around my home and then checked a few other places on our parcel. And everywhere I looked, I was delighted by the glow cast by candle flames and the deep shadows that just shaped a world that had become so familiar as to make me complacent about how beautiful it truly was.

I need to impress on you here that all of the images in this post are completely raw shots. No post-processing, no filters. I didn’t even take actual screenshots; instead I just used the Windows Snipping Tool. (And yes, I still have two little paper Christmas trees out in June. Hush, you. They’re pretty, okay?)

What’s known as ‘The Golden Hour’ is my favourite time of day IRL, and here it was in my Second Life home, everywhere I looked. Note that while the walls in the below screenshot are shaded (texture-wise) around the edges, the lighting just shadows everything else to match up with that. Look around the plant pots on the floor to the left of the image. I wish I’d thought to take some ‘before’ screenshots, prior to updating to the PBR viewer, but I honestly didn’t expect to be so utterly blown away by how incredible the changes were!

Just one single candle here, and look at the beautiful light it casts on those dried seed pods.

A couple of low candle flames provided a moody golden glow around this seating area:

And for a little colour variation in the lighting, this juxtaposition of the warm firelight against the cool green light from the farola just looked fantastic. Pre-PBR, these colours had just blended together, with only the light immediately around the farola being green, and none of those gorgeous surface-specific tones and shadows:

All this with no tweaking of any lights. You can be assured that in future I’m going to pay much more attention to how I light the space around me, because if this is what I get without even realising it, then I’m pretty sure I’ll be thrilled with what I can achieve when I really pay attention to how I light my Second Life.

I haven’t even touched mirrors yet, even though I’ve had one particular spot in my home that’s been crying out for one: my valet. Even now, with only the pre-PBR ‘faux mirror’ that’s installed in it, just camming around and watching the shimmering light playing off the semi-shiny surface is fantastic. This weekend I plan to add an actual mirror to it.

I’ve not touched reflection probes yet, either, although I’d both read and heard a great deal about their arcane magics, and wondered if I’d ever be able to figure the damn things out. Turns out they’re easy to create, as evidenced by this video by Zanibar Pixelbottom from the Alchemy Viewer team. Zanibar also has other videos about PBR on his YT channel, so go take a look at them if you want those arcane magics to be translated into, “Oh hey, I could do that!” speak ;-)

So, what are the cons? Surely there must be some cons to balance out all of these pros, right?

Well, of course there are. Judging from the Firestorm support chat yesterday, well… let’s just say that, as someone who has also provided inworld support within SL, I truly, truly feel for the Firestorm support team right now. People get very attached to how their SL looks and how their avatar looks, and many (if not most) people don’t like change for what feels like the sake of change. Kneejerk reactions can take over, and as more people log in with trepidation – having heard “the worst” from others and expecting the worst themselves – they might take one look at how the world has changed around them – their “OMG, this is the worst!” fears confirmed – and immediately nope the hell out of there, reverting back to the previous viewer version and joining the chorus of “LL has ruined Second Life!”

And, y’know, that’s okay. This is a massive visual change, and not everyone’s going to be comfortable with that. Not everyone has a computer or laptop that can handle it. Beq Janus did forewarn of this in her post at the end of May: PBR – Where we are, where we are going, and what you can do to be ready. But this is SL, and many users don’t keep on top of SL news, so when they get prompted by a popup that there’s a new Firestorm viewer, they download and install it, log in, and their whole world has changed, then… yeah. That’s upsetting. But if you’re struggling, then I strongly suggest you read that post from Beq. It’s a long one, but she explains what’s happening and why you might be struggling.

And, if you are struggling, then there are specific things you can try, including (but not limited to) –

  • A new viewer. Both the Alchemy viewer and CoolVLViewer (links can be found on Linden Lab’s official Third Party Viewer directory) are apparently working very well with regard to PBR on less powerful machines. And, as always, Firestorm will keep their rule of supporting the three most recent releases, so you’ll have a while yet to test out other viewers and figure out if you want to make the switch.
  • If you’re sticking with Firestorm, take a deep-dive into the Preferences > Graphics settings. While you can now no longer turn off ALM, you can still disable shadows, turn off mirrors, tweak your draw distance (a reminder that, even though I’m on a decent machine, I keep my draw distance at 96; there’s no need to have it set to 256 or higher unless you simply have to see across two whole regions in all directions for some reason!) and make other adjustments. Inara Pey goes into more detail about the graphics preferences for PBR in this post (link will take you to that precise section).
  • If you’re having trouble getting textures to rez, remember to whitelist specific folders and files for Firestorm in your antivirus program. The latest Firestorm update has a new menu feature under Help > Whitelist Advisor that will tell you exactly which folders and files you need to whitelist, and this page on their site will explain how to do that in most major antivirus programs (scroll down to select yours from the horizontal list across the page).

A personal plea from me: As someone who has worked inworld support, I beg you to please not take out your upset/anger/disappointment on the Firestorm support people. Every single one of them is a volunteer, and they can’t do a damn thing to change SL and revert everything back to how it once was. PBR is here to stay, and all they are able to do is help you – to the best of their ability – to work with what you have, and optimise it to run as best it can in what is now “the new normal” for Second Life.

As for me, I know I still have a lot to learn, and I’m looking forward to it. The only main ‘con’ for me after my first day of using the PBR viewer is most of me being invisible when I arrive at a new location until I cam back and cam back in again, but I’ve been in SL for long enough (17 years this coming Monday; I’ve lived through the ‘shredded Jesus’ glitch, the ‘head-up-butt’ glitch, and the ‘hair/shoes attached to your butt after a teleport’ glitch, and I’ve added more boxes and unpackers to my head – and later to my hand – than you can even contemplate) to know that stuff like that is part and parcel of the charm of living in a world that’s comprised of old and new code held together by parcel tape, string, and a prayer, and I never cease to be amazed at how – even after all these years – something like PBR can come along and make me fall in love with Second Life all over again.

Addendum to this post:

This simple fix for EEP settings was shared on Primfeed, so I’m adding it to this post. The notecard mentions CalWL but this should work for any older EEP setting that now appears too bright under PBR:

A more detailed explanation from the Firestorm team can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Initial thoughts on PBR in Second Life
  1. Thank you; I very quickly put my exposure setting down to 0.8 and that seems okay for now but I have bookmarked your excellently researched essay for further reading as I explore.

    1. You’re welcome :-)

      I’ve just edited the post to add a new free PBR-ready EEP setting that the owner of Nuve has provided. It’s similar to the old CalWL and Nam’s Optimal Skin settings in that it’s bright and shadowless, so if you previously used one of those then it might be worth looking into the Nuve one.

  2. So incredibly helpful! As a person who is not well-versed in EEPs and graphics settings, I appreciate your suggestions and all the photos you included.

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