In researching Virtual World Television, I am reminded of the saying that “nothing is new under the sun,” and that might reflect how we humans do go after the same things. There might not be anything new inside the screen, just different ways to watch and, of course, increasingly to participate. Even within our entertainment we do respond to classic storylines and embrace familiarity. The new and unusual is more often welcomed by first adapters, from which a groundswell can follow. We only have to look at social media trends, and our own digital families now, to know this is true.
In the 1990’s an unusual and terrific creation was made with the partnership of the BBC and some very talented individuals, including John Wyver and Steve Benford, to study “inhabited television“. Dr. Benford of the University of Nottingham gave me a wonderful interview, which I am posting in two parts, to give our readers good insights into the very origins of Virtual World Television. Here is Part 1, and Part 2 will conclude next week.
There were so many things that were incredibly futuristic about your project with InhabitedTV – I think at one point you even spoke of a set top box for internet connected TV. Please tell me about your experience in presaging immersive online entertainment content?
We had really started in 1996. Virtual world technology had existed since the early 1990’s, such as teleconferencing. We came to realize more and more, and began to argue internally about, entertainment, and to discuss what kind of fantasy environment could be created with some kind of entertaining story. This grew to a partnership at the local media center; the cinema had a theatre space and also we could have an online audience. It was completely colorful; it was a hard experience but it was really fascinating. Something about it was compelling and it began a long journey. We started to work with John Wyver (of Illuminations TV) and his production values and skills made it much more interesting.
We had a go at a game show – Out of This World, a kind of theatre festival show – which was technically, a real tour de force. We had to have a lot of technology to make it work in a virtual world environment, that would enable the participants to move into a different kind of experience – for example, a binding box so they could be in the right place at the right time – or to experience avatar changes, such as helicopter flying. We presented at SIGGRAPH. What we could do artistically was not great — it might have been hard watching — as well as audio was a challenge with the avatar sound. Getting people in an online world then, recruiting them for the entertainment, was what we were doing, and it had some very interesting technical things going on. We could record everything in the world, then project it sometime later, or recreate ghost-like avatars from the past and get a back story. We had to post-produce linear stuff, so there was a free recording of the world and then we put in the extras; it was a lot at the time. Technically it was great: the content went to a TV, but there was not much of a production value that people were invested in
Alongside that, British Telecom did a piece called Heaven & Hell Live. That was a text and graphics TV show. It was just one episode, but it was exciting and showed what could be done with inhabited TV, and it was really interesting to work with online virtual performances that took place in city streets while avatars would do the same actions in studio. We had video cameras and an online plan – a whole schema in the works – with augmented reality games on the street. It was a different kind of reality; not a direct TV over lay, but it was about giving notion to the idea. It was not like conventional TV, but at the same time if you want to work with the TV industry it must look recognizable; it must have that human interest to be accepted.
Did the experiment go on long enough to notice any changes from initial participants to those who completed a show of any kind?
It is difficult to answer this, but probably not. I want to say that the main thing was 5 or 6 years in the doing, and within that time there was not enough consistency. There was a lot more that the technology and production virtual reality platforms needed to do. It was something that started the technology, but with this focus on technology, we did not have the opportunity to study the results. We didn’t have a committed study group for that.
Some of the initial reactions show the limitations of the participants. Did anyone contact you in subsequent years to say how ahead of its time it was?
There was no contact from the participants in subsequent years, but we had conversations with various kinds of TV companies. This became part of the background now for the collaborations; some areas where people are doing the same thing / same problems. We would get people who are broadcasting computer games, this was really interesting, from what I have seen of how the cameras work in a synergistic way.
What success from Out of This World was the greatest? Achievement of collaborative inhabited TV play? Audience participation?
The big success was more concerning the technology and about being able to create a story that worked in some way. That if you worked it together, you would be able to cast and follow participants all over the world. An orchestration that enabled people to be at the right place at the right time offered great achievement, and while the graphics were terrible by today’s standards, the language was really the same: camera technique and virtual orchestration, that is.
For projects today, online and on the street activity was what it was about, so in that kind of relationship we were asking: how it can be? How do you use this? We had gone “live” with the video notions and avatars controlling the live video stream. We were active in that initial hybrid video TV space, which is a different angle from the last four years. The last four years have been more about TV interacting with a direct feed and the psychological response of audiences being able to tell stories.
And this all started with roller coaster rides, and using the images of someone on a roller coaster to give people more of the experience they wouldn’t have otherwise, and by giving people this close-up view, you change the dynamic of the spectator. This major close-up image also will tell you something about your emotions and the difference between spectators and participants. The roller coaster ride was quite hard to watch, genuinely what one felt were emotions and palpable physical reactions.
Out of This World was in a physical theater with virtual reality gear and screen capture. It was the original entertainment experience from which inhabited TV more fully evolved. Please tell me any main features that successfully ported over from Heaven & Hell Live to Out Of This World?
We had started a poetry jam in 1996 that led to our teaming up with John Wyver and he promoted Heaven & Hell Live. He ported from that to mainstream TV during a long time frame of 1996 to 2000. Round about then, the infrastructure was beginning to use certain technologies. There were developments coming out from TV companies, we saw broadband get more widespread, and there was also Second Life, which has some aspect of their research in this platform.
There was the use of virtual reality headsets in the theater. Do you think that people will go back to that level of immersion for entertainment?
Quite unlikely. We used it because it was the best way at the time, and by making them wear a headset we had a more expressive avatar. The team leaders in the theatrical event were paid actors to be wearing that. It was unlikely everyone would wear it. The actors were in a separate room and part of their job was they had to use it.
Do you think if the participants had been able to control their own cameras, the degree of immersion might have been greater?
It can give someone more of an immersive experience, though immersion is such a complicated concept. There is the story, like a large wraparound infomercial with a compelling narrative. Plus you are giving people a fantastic soundscape and you are drawing people into the content, which is one of the things that it can do with games. And then you carefully set the cameras recording.
Anything in retrospect that you would suggest that would enhance viewer/participant experience?
One would be good facial expressions and avatar emotional developments, having that kind of thing within games and virtual world technology. When you go from online to TV, there are still a few moments where a close-up is an important part of the storytelling, and for that you need to register recognizable emotions.
Please “Stay Tuned” for next week we will conclude this interview.