You are such a scary audience

April 9, 1999

Universities are helping to invent the future of digital television, Tony Durham reports

The digital television industry is looking to universities for ideas that could expand the fledgling medium's technical, creative and commercial possibilities.

Last week an Oxford-based consortium showed off some of the university research projects to which it has channelled industry and government money. They range from 3D television to the possible use of virtual reality to overcome stage fright.

The Virtual Centre of Excellence in Digital Broadcasting, usually known simply as Digital VCE, was set up in 1995 on the recommendation of one of the Department of Trade and Industry's Foresight panels. Its director, Peter Gibbins, has been both an academic and an industrial research manager. After an academic career that led from physics through philosophy to computer science he ran the IT research department at the European laboratories of Sharp, the Japanese electronics group. He remains a part-time academic, with a visiting professorship at the University of Exeter.

Six universities are members of Digital VCE. Among the dozen industrial members are consumer electronics leaders such as Sony and Philips, programme producers like the BBC and S4C, and companies with a stake in the developing infrastructure of digital communications, including BT and the cable broadcaster NTL.

Industrial members pay an annual subscription of Pounds 25,000, which is matched by DTI funds. As a result of this gearing, each company gets access to the intellectual property resulting from about Pounds 600,000-worth of pre-competitive research.

When digital satellite and terrestrial television services went on air last autumn, they were promoted mainly as a way of getting more channels and a better picture. Broadcasters were wary of committing themselves to more sophisticated interactive services until the digital TV audience grew big enough to justify the technical and creative investment. But since almost any kind of information stream can be folded in with the sound and vision, digital television could evolve into a medium resembling the internet, but faster and perhaps easier to use.

Satellite and terrestrial broadcast technologies are inherently asymmetrical. Unlike the phone or the internet, they cannot provide full two-way communication between members of the public. But the cable version of digital television could become a much more participatory medium.

Sharon Springel of the Centre for Communications Systems Research at Cambridge argued that people are turning to new media for something very different from the traditional, passive TV experience. In evidence she cited the soaring popularity of online 3D games such as Quake. "It's not about watching, it's about doing," she said.

Research at Cambridge will put groups of people into 3D virtual spaces where they take roles in an improvised "immersive drama". It will be the cyberspace version of the role-playing weekends that firms like Initiative Unlimited lay on for management training or simply for fun.

Conventional broadcast producers may not relish this prospect of people making their own entertainment. But it could be a big opportunity for companies selling virtual reality software and hardware. Springel believes it will also be an opportunity for content producers: those who create the most popular scenarios for immersive drama could enjoy the kind of fame and success that has greeted games such as Tomb Raider 3.

The emotional impact of computer-animated human figures can be intense, even when there is no real human behind the mask. An experiment at University College London proved that the sight of virtual audience members yawning or walking out can shatter a performer's morale.

According to Mel Slater, UCL's professor of virtual environments: "The experimental study showed very, very strong reactions of people to a virtual audience. People do respond appropriately even when they know intellectually there is nothing there, there is just a bunch of pixels on the screen."

The comedian Michael Macintyre has donned a headset and faced a virtual audience in the hope of controlling the stage fright from which he suffers.

"For ethical reasons," Slater explained as he showed videos of the experiments, "the last session is always one that goes from bad to good." It ends in applause, so the subject leaves in a good mood.

The next challenge is to create emotionally expressive avatars good enough to be used in drama rehearsals. Actors in rehearsal need to respond to the emotions expressed by other actors. As it is difficult for a computer to monitor every facial muscle, Slater hopes to find a set of simple, easily learned emotion-signifying actions that can be used to control avatars.

The UCL team is planning an experiment in which actors will meet for rehearsals in a virtual space over a period of four weeks before a final real life performance. Their experience will be compared with that of a control group attending live rehearsals.

Virtual rehearsals could be a real money-saver for organisations such as the BBC, which sometimes has to fly in a cast from all over the world for rehearsals, several times, before a production even begins.

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