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Interactive Television: Are We There Yet?

Interactive television with its animated real-time games has been a hit across the globe but not here in the States. Sharon Schatz profiles the first venture in the US arena Throut & Neck, and probes why there aren't more.

Throut & Neck. Courtesy of Interactive Television Entertainment.

"What kind of wussy name is 'Lynn' for a guy, anyway?" the crusty voice asks. The voice belongs to Throut, one of the two real-time animated monsters in the interactive game show Throut & Neck. "He's probably a stud," Becca, the sexy live-action host chimes in. Throut and Neck are mocking one of the two viewers who are operating their movements via telephone in a video game that involves smashing cute little sheep to smithereens.Game Show Network's Throut and Neck may not be the most tactful characters, but they are just about all we have -- for now. Throut & Neck is the first real-time animated game show to be broadcast in the United States. The live show involves interactive game playing where viewers can compete on national television. The program is quite groundbreaking for the United States, but internationally, we are an exception. The Producers ITE (Interactive Television Entertainment), the Denmark-based company that produces Throut & Neck is the largest producer of interactive television. The show premiered on MTV Brazil in 1997, but ITE has been developing and producing interactive television since its foundation in 1988. Their most popular franchise is Hugo the TV Troll, a jovial, pointy-eared creature who has appeared cumulatively in 39 countries on television, multimedia games and merchandising. Hugo, the live interactive television show, was launched in 1990 and is the number one interactive game show in the world. It is currently airing in 12 countries, including parts of Scandinavia, Europe and Latin America. The games take viewers snowboarding, parachuting, scuba diving, and skateboarding with Hugo -- almost literally. The Hugo games involve the same technology used in Throut & Neck.

The Animation Mask System is a real-time motion-capture technique used to create

Both shows use AMS (Animation Mask System), a real-time motion-capture technique to create the "live" animated characters. The system includes a helmet, remote control and hardware module. The actor providing the voice of the character wears the helmet, which contains sensors that can read his facial expressions and translate them to the character. (All of the characters' body movements are pre-rendered using motion-capture animation techniques.) He watches the screen as the game is played and uses the joystick on the remote to move the eye and head animations. During the show, a phone number is displayed and viewers call in to play the game. If chosen, the caller uses his telephone keypad as a joystick, pressing certain numbers to make the character jump, throw, and move left or right. A hardware system runs interaction between the game, the animation system and the phone. Both shows are a combination of 2D and 3D animation.

Joe Razz on Easter Island. Courtesy of Total Control Media.

Total Control Media is the other major player in the world of interactive television programming. Founded in 1993, the London-based company grew out of a TV bartering corporation called Television Barter International Limited (TBI). Total Control Media uses their own method for producing real-time animation for interactive games. Real Time Presenters are live animated hosts who introduce the games and are operated by an actor in a studio. The actor/engineer uses a mouse and keyboard to manipulate the host's movements and also provides the voice. The mouse controls the character's head motion, the spacebar provides the mouth movements, and various keys create other movements, such as making the eyes pop out or spinning the ears. The games themselves work with the use of pre-rendered animation as well. The caller presses specified telephone buttons to move the character and the tones are interpreted by a computer that chooses the corresponding strip of animation. The company uses Softimage, a high-quality 3D animation package.

Total Control Media has provided interactive programming for 20 countries and their most popular character is named Joe Razz. Originally launched in Sweden on TV4, Joe Razz is now known around the world. The character is a life-like boy with dreadlocks who travels through time to take on various adventures. There are currently 12 Joe Razz games, which include a hike through the Amazon Jungle, a trip to the Inca temples, and a treacherous swim through the lost city of Atlantis. Unlike Hugo, Joe Razz games are usually inserted into other television programs, including children's magazine shows. In Italy, Joe Razz games are played on RAI Uno during a one-hour children's program called Solletico. In Greece, Blue Sky airs Joe Razz games on an all-interactive game show. Fox Kids in the UK airs Joe Razz games as filler between their programming and commercials.

Interactive Advertising

Interactive television has also made its way into the world of advertising. In 1997, ITE produced the world's first interactive commercial which premiered on Denmark's TV2. First, the station showed a 15-second trailer promoting the commercial for Tuborg beer. The actual commercial involved a live interactive game where the winner would receive a year's supply of beer. Against the clock, one lucky player had to drive an animated Tuborg truck through a maze, collecting cases of beer on the way. Viewers actually waited by their televisions in anticipation of the commercial.

Joe Razz' Real Time Presenters, Skull 'Ed and Wingnut. Courtesy of Total Control Media.

Going Digital

It's almost hard to believe that technology currently used in countries including Croatia, Russia, and Israel hasn't quite taken off in the United States. The field experts seem to believe that things will change as television and the Internet become more and more integrated. Peter Golden, Total Control Media's Technical Director, says that US broadcasters are interested in the technology, but claim that it's too early for the US market. Golden believes that things will change with the conversion to digital television. "I think that when digital television really settles down, there will be a huge capacity for interactive. There will be more interest because people will just expect more," he explains. Golden also feels there is a perception that the technology seems complicated in relation to analog television. "When you put it in relation to digital," Golden says, "It all makes sense."Digital television is growing internationally. Several US broadcast network affiliates have already gone digital and the FCC is slowly enforcing a complete conversion. In theory, analog television will be gone by the year 2006. For those who currently own digital systems, interactivity is slowly becoming available via special set-top boxes. The units, which are being test-marketed in select cities, enable viewers to buy products, do their banking, vote, and of course, play games. When a viewer wants to access a game, he simply dials up the cable company's server using the box.Tracy Swedlow, President of InteractiveTV Today, an e-mail newsletter, believes that set-top boxes will increase the popularity of interactive games. "Cable systems interested in offering interactive television...will certainly be interested in offering interactive gaming, which may include animated environments," she comments. Swedlow expects that viewers will prefer the set-top box over phone-in games because it eliminates the problem of tying up the phone line. Looking Ahead Amy Meyers, Vice President of Business Development for ITE-USA, agrees that people in the States are drawn to newer technology. "Most producers and broadcasters know that they want to have an agenda for interactivity, but they don't really have one yet. Whatever they introduce, they want it to be `the new thing.' So, typically, they're looking for something that hasn't been created yet," Meyers continues, "Nobody knows where [interactive television] is going to go, and as a result, they don't look at what's out there now."According to Ivan Solvason, CEO and founder of ITE, the "new thing" in interactive television in the US will, in fact, be the full convergence of television and the Internet. WebChoice, Inc., a division of ITE has created WebChoice, a technology that links computers with television and is an alternative to WebTV. With WebChoice, both the computer and television screens are used, as opposed to sharing the TV screen for both web and TV content. Using free downloadable software and an audio cable, WebChoice enables the computer to detect special audio signals from the television that will automatically link the viewer to websites connected to the television content. CBS/Eyemark show WildWebTV is the first entertainment and pop culture television show that integrates the Internet and the television with the use of WebChoice. This syndicated show airs in 141 markets all over the US, usually in overnight or early morning timeslots and has a huge following in the US, Australia and Singapore.

Solvason says that the next generation of interactive television games will include expansion into the Internet arena. His companies are developing a way for the AMS system to be connected to the Internet so that they can run animated shows on the web; some in conjunction with television shows.Clearly, interactive television is the wave of the future, but the US wants to wait for the TV and computer to merge to be a part of it. In the meantime, we have Throut & Neck. The monsters bicker as they compete in Sheep Slam, a game similar to handball, except the sheep serve as the ball. Throut cheers his player on, while Neck, who is getting creamed, taunts his own player: "Sam, try a different phone!" Pretty soon, "Sam, try a faster modem!" will be more like it.Sharon Schatz works in the programming department at Fox Family Channel and is also a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.