Mirror to reality

Shared spaces in a virtual environment? Couch potatoes will never be the same again.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In January, viewers of BBC2's The Net were invited to get online after the programme ended and take part in a project called "The Mirror". This was an exercise in "shared spaces" - whereby a large group of people can come together to create a community based on mutual interests in a virtual (shared) environment. It was also a major piece of research between BT, the BBC, Illuminations (the production company behind The Net) and Sony for the future hybrid of TV and online communications.

More than 600 successful registrations were logged within an hour of the programme finishing, and over the project's seven weeks, 2,250 people from as far afield as South Africa and Australia joined The Mirror.

If you have ever participated in a MUD (multi-user dungeons) or a 2D social shared space such as The Palace, then you will have experienced the disembodied joy of "talking" online in a rich graphical environment. The Mirror went one step further into this territory by utilising the latest in VRML (virtual reality) technology, allowing users to chose their own customisable 3D atavar and move around six fantastical VRML "worlds": Space, Power, Play, Identity, Memory and Creation.

While online, users could move between the worlds, "talk" to each other by typing in text boxes; participate in game shows; watch and vote on a debate between Peter Cochrane (BT's head of research) and the writer Douglas Adams on the motion "The book is dead"; play on a bouncy castle, relive classic moments in football's history and join in interactive dramas.

The Mirror was most successful during time-specific events. As with traditional television, the majority of users logged on when there was something specific to do. John Wyner, head of Illuminations, said that he had more fun at the virtual art gallery opening than at 90 per cent of the cultural bashes he had to attend in real life. The last-night party climaxed with a virtual conga of 45 atavars, snaked around a virtual beer tent. Who says surfers don't know how to have a good time?

Anyone could register to join The Mirror - as long as they had a powerful PC running Windows 95 with a minimum specification of a 90Mhz Pentium. Anything less would not have been able to run Sony's Community Place software, which included an AO (application object) facility (for the insertion of complex shared objects and behaviours) and a VRML 2.0 browser.

Even so, many users noticed that The Mirror still ran slowly, especially if you increased the default window size from 350 pixels. It was fairly easy to use - with a little practice. One participant learned by his mistakes during his first time in The Mirror. "My attempts to start a dignified conversation in Power World were thwarted when my new friend kept asking why I was apparently buried up to my neck in the ground. That was how I learned the use of the up-down buttons."

"Inhabited TV" is the theory behind The Mirror: a meshing of traditional broadcasting (coach potato passive viewing) with the future of multimedia. The Mirror took place on the Internet via a PC but the logical extension is through digital television, where the viewer's set-top box contains a modem for internet access.

The idea is that viewers will no longer want just to sit in front of the television set; they will want to join in - either while the programme is on (perhaps by responding to quiz show questions) or after the programme has finished, by joining a "shared space".

In a shared space such as The Mirror, viewers can discuss the programme with the broadcaster responsible, which delivers invaluable audience research. John Wyner explains: "This was the first time that I, as a producer, got qualitative feedback from the audience, thereby shifting and changing what we as programme-makers put on the screen."

The possibilities for extending the television experience into a complementary online world are endless. Newsnight could be followed by a debate in a virtual news "world"; EastEnders characters could play out viewers' plot choices in a 3D virtual set; children could log on after a wildlife programme and interact with different animals in a virtual safari "world".

As the results of The Mirror were released at BT's London headquarters, Martin Freeth, head of the BBC's Multimedia Centre, highlighted the fact that broadcasters must get involved. Freeth argued that broadcasters are the people with the right skills to create interactive environments which become "media-rich places, containing high production values like existing broadcast television". Graham Walker, project manager at BT Laboratories, agreed: "Much creative and experimental work remains if we are to understand the essence of compelling content, and the features that will build online communities by turning 'surfers' into 'settlers'."

As television and online multimedia draw closer together, our experience as viewers and participants will become richer. Interacting with television in shared spaces such as The Mirror should increase our pleasure and understanding of the medium. Part education, part entertainment, future projects like The Mirror will also extend the way we communicate online.

Get ready to customise your atavar and develop your 3D virtual multi- personaen

A discussion of the results and feedback from The Mirror can be found at htpp://vb.labs.bt.com/msss/IBTE_Mirror/

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