Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sprial Staircase! The Strange & Twisting Case of Roderick Usher

Spiral Stair 3
Location: Jokaydia Grid, Virtual House of Usher

As the interior walls rose in Usher, I realized that not only do I have a generous prim-allowance, but I also have a book that I've rarely cracked: Creating Your World: The Official Guide to Content Creation in Second Life.

SL made me lazy. I could just buy stuff. Now I have to make it. So, I opened the book!

I thumbed through the text in search of good tips for building components we did not have, or did not know how to make, in the Second Life House of Usher. Then I hit upon it...the visual element from all classic film noir, the spiral staircase. It's also the title of a wonderful thriller from 1945.

Given Madeline Usher's afflictions, I thought I'd have her isolated chamber atop a spiral staircase. So I made one and here's my cautionary tale.

Lazy-bones take note: there's a free staircase-generator script at SL's wiki. I've not tried it.

Lesson 1: Watch the rise on the stairs.  

My manual method, culled from the book, went slowly the first time but now I think I could generate new sets very quickly, once I found the necessary rise from stair to stair; .1 or .2 meters worked; .3 for each stair's "riser" was far to tall for the avatar to climb. The instructions were clear but too complex to repeat here. You can read them at this Google Books page.

I made individual steps and attached a "pivot point" to each, colored red so I'd be able to unlink all but the bottom point when I was done.  That final pivot gets turned into the column to which the stairs attach.

Suffice to say that the pivot point, as a root prim, becomes the point on which each stair rotates a set number of degrees. I started with 10 degrees of rotation and that worked great. I then made a ton of stairs that way, coiling like the shell of a Nautilus.
Spiral Stair 2
When I tried to climb them....oh oh. Maybe the stair dimensions work in SL, but in OpenSim Roderick could not get up the first step. I'd copied the staircase into inventory, so I played a bit with the original, shortening the rise to each stair's "tread" (the part of the step you step on) and lengthening each tread. My final staircase was half the original height, but it worked!  I stretched the Z dimension of each step to overlap the one below, to get the effect of the stone stairs I have seen in castles.

Whether the effect desired is open-air Moderne or dank and spooky Gothic, I'd recommend making a few stairs first, then trying to climb them. There's an advantage to in-world building that way. I could take the avatar up the stairs, into a room, under a ceiling to check it's height and what that did for the camera. With off-world tools like Blender or Maya, can that be done?

Lesson 2: Place the stairs carefully.

I had many bumbling adventures trying to climb the spiral and falling off. Luckily, once I placed walls around the stair, the results gave a mysterious peek at the spiral and kept the avatar from tumbling down. In castle turrets I've climbed in England, the spiral stair winds that way nicely, leaving one guessing what might be around the next bend. Although I used a square rather than round enclosure, the effect in OpenSim was similar. I also found a small opening at the bottom of the stairs, a perfect place for hiding clues.

Stairs consume lots of space in real or virtual buildings. Spirals and multi-landing stairs conserve space while providing places to meet, fight in a combat simulation, or hide clues in simulations like Usher.

Lesson 3: Randomize the Look.

My finished stairs, shown in the first picture, looked awful. The stone textures, while impressive on a span of wall or floor, looked cookie-cutter on duplicate stairs. I so chose another more uniform texture of flagstones, tinted it dark, then made sure the repeats for the textures on the top of the pillar and visible sides of the treads looked good. Here's the final result. All I need is a mournful statue for the top of the pillar supporting the stairs and some a tapestry for the wall.  Since I took this shot, I went back to place a tapestry on the far wall, and I tweaked the horizontal offset and flip direction on a few treads to add more variety.

Spiral Stair 1

This process educated me in several ways. First, I learned about the builders' grid and some of the useful features such as planar drag-handles that let me quickly duplicate my steps and keep their Z-axis distance right.

Finally, it also helps that I'm redoing a physical set of stairs at our farm. We have too steep a rise there, too, but we're going to live with it, and our new oak treads are much harder to shape than prims. For all the fuss over building in virtual worlds, it's much easier than shaping and cutting actual wood.

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