Interactive Television: Are We There Yet?

by Sharon Schatz

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 "live" animated characters such as Throut & Neck and Hugo.
Hugo the TV Troll. Courtesy of Interactive Television Entertainment.

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.

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