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Moving the Image: Visual Culture and the New Millennium

John Wyver
The Illuminations Group, London

"You Are There": Inhabited Television and the Perils of Pompeii

Keywords: participatory media, interactive television, online broadcasting, shared virtual worlds

In the mid-1950s CBS television in the United States ran a television programme which related historical events in the style of contemporary television journalism. The series was called "You Are There" and Walter Cronkite anchored a telecast in which correspondents reported on the Salem Witchcraft Trials, the Gettysburg Address and the Fall of Troy. For those fascinated by trivia of television history, the show's best aspect was perhaps its closing lines: "What sort of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times . . . and you were there."

What I want to sketch here is a variant of this idea utilising a media form that my colleagues and I call Inhabited Television. This I believe – modestly – has real potential for collaborative learning, for new kinds of museum experiences, and even for the reinvention of one variant of true public service broadcasting.

My company Illuminations has been working with the University of Nottingham, BT and others over the past four years researching Inhabited Television, which in essence combines traditional broadcasting and networked 3D shared virtual worlds. My paper outlines our work with Inhabited Television, from The Mirror in early 1997 to the recent experiment Avatar Farm. And I want to speculate on how this form might be used in education and in museums and on television to achieve that idea of "You Are There" in relation to history and to art, in our new research project Pompeii.

One particularly powerful advantage of Inhabited Television and other such new media forms at the conjunction of broadcasting and online is the centrality of participation, offering the potential for collective learning and communal creation with audiences.

My perspective is that of an independent producer operating in broadcasting and in online and convergent production. Illuminations is a group of three production companies, the first of which was founded in 1982 when Channel 4 Television began to commission independent producers. We specialise in content production about the arts, ideas, science and digital culture.

The interest of Illuminations in projects that bring together broadcasting with network systems is in part to seek new, deeper and different relationships with those who have traditionally been thought of as audiences. At one level these relationships can simply provide feedback to assist us as producers to make better, more effective and more useful programmes. But we are also looking towards systems in which users create content and shape in direct ways the evolution of a programme or a media system. Hence our claims for the social potential of such participatory media.

The Context for Convergence

Fundamental to any discussion of the questions explored here is an understanding of the paradigms on which the current communications systems are founded. Telecommunications is essentially a one-to-one system that is distributed across an extensive network of nodes, each of which can connect directly to each of the others. It is also non-hierarchical, i.e. no node has an inherent superiority or advantage when it comes to offering information to one or many other users of the system.

Broadcasting by contrast is a one-to-many system, which is highly centralised with communication being essentially one way from the centre out to the periphery. Such a structure is inherently hierarchical, with the power concentrated at the centre, and with the "receivers" having little or no opportunity to contribute to the communication process.

As currently configured, and largely because of its historical development, the Internet remains closer to the telecommunications paradigm. But there are powerful corporate forces which would be pleased to see its present many-to many structure shift more closely towards a one-to-many framework in the future, not least because the revenue models for such a system are clearer and longer established.

Our involvement with the potential – and the problems – of convergence began with the series The Net, created by Illuminations Television for BBC2. The first programme in this magazine series about computers and networks went on the air in April 1994. I claim this show to be the first to include an e-mail address in the closing credits. But such was our knowledge and sophistication with e-mail in those far-off times, we managed to mis-spell the e-mail address, omitting the crucial @ symbol. Nonetheless within hours of its broadcast and at a time when e-mail use was far less widespread than it is today, some 600 messages had streamed in - many of them delighting both in the fact that we had mis-spelled the address, and in the sender's triumph in being able to send us a mail even so. Most television programmes attract at best a dozen inconsequential letters, but these were thoughtful and engaged, knowledgeable, concerned and even passionate. It was a kind of Pauline moment for me, the beginning of a unique and influential dialogue with the programme's viewers.

As The Net evolved, more and more online components were used to enhance the programme's transmission. A Web site provided extensive further information, including extended interviews with those featured in the programmes, additional resources, competitions, and detailed feedback. Viewers were engaged in chat and forum dialogues. Such services helped the production team shape The Net in significant ways, and the torrent of external commentary was mostly heartening and only rarely discouraging. The show improved directly because of this rich feedback.

The Mirror

Inhabited Television was first developed for the third series of The Net in early 1997, when Illuminations collaborated closely with BT Laboratories at Martlesham, with Sony and with the BBC to extend the online elements of the project in an original way. Developing their own extensive work with shared virtual spaces, BT Laboratories built The Mirror, six inter-linked virtual worlds, mostly in VRML 2.0, for operation with Sony's Community Place server and browser software. Each of the worlds related to one of the themes of the six programmes in that series of The Net, such as Space or Play, and took its visual style and its activities from the theme.

Viewers of the programmes registered for The Mirror across the Web and received through the post a CD-ROM containing the graphics for the worlds and also the Community Place browser. Using this the viewer could connect with the server running the shared components of The Mirror and participate in collective discussion and collaborative activities. The Net television programmes carried occasional recorded reports on these events. During its seven weeks of operation, The Mirror attracted more than 2,000 registered users and at the end of the world party was inhabited by approximately 80 users simultaneously.

What we learnt very quickly - as have many others in this business - is that the "Field of Dreams" principle (after the Kevin Costner movie), "if you build it, they will come", is not in itself sufficient. However attractive the space, however engaging the collaborative activities, entry and social use will remain at a low level unless a programme of activities is organised to attract, at specified times, a critical mass of users and to provide a focus for social interaction. In other words, the space needed to be scheduled much like a television channel.

Events which we organised for The Mirror included a debate about the future of the book, a quiz show, an opening for a virtual art exhibit, a mock wedding, and a final end of the world party, during which the server was switched off as the project was closed down. All of these provided peaks of attendance for the spaces.

The other key element that contributed to the success of The Mirror, much as in real life, was the provision of regular "hosts" for the space. These needed to be frequent visitors who spent a significant amount of their time in the world, and whom users could have some reasonable expectation of encountering when they logged on. These hosts would greet new entrants, introduce people to each other, point out activities and generally help people around. More than this, however, over time they became the core of the community of the world, encouraging people to return and beginning to develop the particular language and culture of The Mirror. Needless to say, they were the saddest to see it turned off after seven weeks - although a number of relationships begun virtually have continued in the real world - including at least one marriage and one recently born child.

"Heaven and Hell - Live"

The project Heaven and Hell - Live was conceived to develop many of the ideas initiated in "The Mirror", but to work with live broadcasting. Continuing the collaboration between Illuminations, BT and Sony, this was a live television broadcast for Channel 4 Television which was created entirely from within a shared virtual world - and we think it was the first such anywhere in the world.

Heaven and Hell - Live was created primarily for a single live broadcast in a late-night slot. Again participants - conceived of as lost souls (as indeed, unintentionally, many were) - registered in advance and received through the post a CD-ROM on which was the worlds and the browser. The broadcast used conventional television technology and an outside broadcast director to mix video and audio feeds sourced by six PCs running the system. Each of the PCs operated as a camera avatar, able to move within the world to offer images to the director.

The broadcast itself, done on an experimental basis in the early morning on August 19, 1997, took the form of a quiz show. A host and two competitors were located in the studio and some 150 participants joined the worlds across the Web. Each of the two competitors was meant to collect lost souls as they went along, and the intention was that the souls themselves - the participants who had entered across the Web - should be able to assist or hinder these competitors with the various games and tasks set them.

On (rare) occasions this was very effective, and when it worked it was very exciting - for example, Katie Puckrick, one of the competitors, sought help with answers to the quiz and received many alternatives from which she chose the correct answer. But problems with the technology, structure and conception of the show meant that the experience was both exciting and frustrating for all those involved. Nonetheless it was a real technical success, with the broadcast staying on air for a full 50 minutes, with some 150 users in the space pretty much throughout the broadcast, and with the fundamentally anarchic and chaotic transmission apparently watched by some 200,000 viewers.

As we analysed the event we carefully considered whether choosing the television form of the game show was appropriate. It seemed necessary to provide a tight temporal structure for the broadcast, and also that to use a familiar television form which might help counteract the strangeness as television which would be apparent during the broadcast.

Might it have been better to have developed something built more on a sporting analogy, with different events happening in different areas of the space, so that the broadcast visited them from time to time much as coverage of, say, an athletics meeting roams around field and track events in a stadium? Or could we have begun to develop a spatially dispersed narrative within the world?

What is clear is that with "Heaven and Hell" we failed, partly from scheduling exigencies, to develop any kind of community amongst the lost souls. We did not develop relationships with and amongst them, we did not provide hosts to explain the space and the rules of the game show, and we did not even rehearse in any systematic way with the souls - and yet we then expected them to play along with a complex set of our rules which we had hardly explained. Any future project would have to have much more respect for the participants - and also, almost certainly, work with less of a top-down model (i.e. rules imposed from outside) and more of a bottom-up understanding in which the participants are properly involved in conceiving and developing activities for broadcast.

Out of this World

The third experiment with Inhabited Television took place in Manchester in September 1998 as part of the ISEA (Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) conference and arts festival. Working primarily with Nottingham University, Illuminations mounted a simulation of a broadcast, but this time shown only in a theatre to a small audience.

Operating within the eRENA research consortium, with funding from the European Commission's ESPRIT long-term research programme, the team set itself the goals of creating a coherent and structured "broadcast" which would avoid the problems afflicting Heaven and Hell - Live. A different platform was also used: Nottingham's own MASSIVE-2 system that afforded different forms of functionality, including real-time audio communication and a far greater degree of camera control.

A much stripped-down world was built, which consisted on a linear games arena, apparently marooned in outer space. Two teams of four, each with a leader, competed against each other to be the first to reach a spaceship which would take them away from this arena before it exploded.

The simple design of both world and characters was one aid to clarity and structure. But far more important was the introduction of systems for controlling both the movement of the characters (Taking away their autonomy for limited periods) and the four virtual "cameras". Each of the cameras was still controlled by a camera person, but he or she could pre-programme smooth movements, find particular vantage points or lock on to an avatar and follow it through the space. These new controls facilitated a much more coherent "broadcast", which was then judged - and often harshly so - by the watching audience.

It was apparent that the audience for the linear "broadcast" now accepted this as a substitute for television, but just because they did so, they expected from it the narrative and entertainment values of the older medium. In part because of a lack of preparation time, these values were largely absent, but now that the technical problems appeared solved these needed to be the next ones to be tackled.

Avatar Farm

Questions of creating compelling content not just for those immersed in the environment but also for those watching the linear broadcast are central to the most recent Inhabited Television project, Avatar Farm. Set within four fantastical electronic worlds, Avatar Farm aimed to create, both for participants and for those watching a linear webcast, an engaging story and believable characters. Professional actors and members of the public took on the personae of avatars and engaged in a semi-scripted, tightly plotted fable involving gods and tricksters, innocents abroad, lizards and purple tufts. The settings and some of those taking part were carried over from Ages of Avatar, a collaborative project with Sky's television channel.

Avatar Farmwas mounted utilising Nottingham's Massine-3 collaborative virtual environment system. Each of four 20-minute episodes was mixed as television and webcast, but every 3-D detail of all the events within the widely dispersed worlds was also captured, along with the audio. Indeed during the episodes, fully 3-D playbacks of earlier events were triggered and viewed in the worlds.

Avatar Farm felt like an exciting step forward for Inhabited Television. There was (at times) a sense of a developing narrative and of characters with whom one could feel empathy. There was a sense of being drawn into an imaginative world, even if one was only watching the linear broadcast mix. And certainly a complex, multi-stranded plot developed across the worlds and amongst the participants which was surprising and genuinely shaped by the participants.

So what we now want to do is to take these ideas, but to turn them around in the sense of starting with a television format and then applying the ideas of Inhabited Television to this format. And our interest is in creating some kind of cross-genre mix of You Are There, 1900 House and Walking with Dinosaurs - and setting it all (and here perhaps, finally and slightly tenuously, is the link with the History of Art) in Pompeii just before the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

So Pompeii is conceived initially as a four-part television series recreating - with strikingly detailed computer graphics - everyday life in the Roman town. In the television films, these graphics are combined with evocative film images of Pompeii today, of its ruins and frescoes, and of the fragments of everyday existence - a bowl of eggs, a plate of walnuts, a calcified bread roll - preserved amongst the volcanic ash.

The aim would be to provide the most detailed imaginative recreation that television has attempted of daily life during the Roman Empire. The films would be scrupulously grounded in the records and images of Pompeii, but they would also make legitimate use of the numerous accounts of daily life throughout the Empire during the mid first century AD. The films would introduce the audience to historical characters from the age - the aspiring politician C. Julius Polybius and his friends of ill repute; the wealthy and beautiful Julia Felix and her immaculate good taste; the precocious six-year-old benefactor of the Temple of Isis, N. Popidius Celsinus; and the prostitute known as Zmyrina the Exotic.

And the films are intended to take us right into the world of Pompeii – inside the homes of both rich merchants and struggling bakers; to the private and public gardens and cemeteries; to the shops and markets, and the seats of local government; to the temples and places of entertainment.

As I am sure some of you know far better than I, in the last twenty years Pompeii studies have flourished, even as the ruins themselves have been rapidly decaying. Amongst much original work of great interest, that undertaken by Paul Zanker and others has examined the arrangement and appearance of domestic space, and the uses of the various rooms of the Pompeian house. Researchers have also become fascinated with the other private spaces of the city.

At the same time, following the pioneering work of Jerome Carcopino and others, there has been extensive investigation into the private lives of the Roman world, and particularly - as in so many areas of recent historiography - into questions of gender and sexuality, and understandings of class and race. Pompeii would draw heavily on this academic work and, for the first time, make it available in a vivid form to a broad audience.

I am also much taken by the writings of Keith Hopkins, and in particular the opening chapter of his recent "A World Full of Gods", in which he sends two intrepid time travellers back to Pompeii at just about our chosen moment, and manages to combine rigorous scholarship with an engaging, if slightly cheesy narrative. Such is the aim of our Pompeii, both on the television screen and in the parallel Inhabited Television applications.

For Pompeii of course is conceived with Inhabited Television as integral, so that alongside the television films either the Web or a local area network could allow viewers themselves individually to explore the streets and homes of the city, to meet and converse with the central characters of the series and to take part in their day-to-day activities. This parallel application of Pompeii could run at home with a DVD player and on the web, and it could also be the focus of a location-based attraction, in for example a museum.

What are the perils of a project like this? Well, finding the money for a start – and to date we have modest development funding from the MEDIA II programme, together with strong interest from Channel 4. But while I'm confident we can create the narratives for both television and the participatory components on the web or elsewhere, the obvious complaint will be, "It's the graphics, stupid".

My hope and expectation here is that the Temporal Links capability of Nottingham's MASSIVE-3 platform is the key element here. We can record and playback fully 3-D recordings of a virtual world, and we can use these recordings for post-production, including the insertion of far more detailed textures and surfaces. The avatars too can be significantly more humanoid and, although I recognise how loaded the term is, life-like. The real-time participatory forms, at least across the web, would inevitably have to run with lower-end graphics, but maybe the vividness of the stories and characters would lead users to forgive the lack of detailed textures and finely rendered wall hangings.

So perhaps, with Inhabited Television, you cannot just observe events on a screen, but meet and talk with other people in the world of Pompeii, played perhaps by actors or by other participants like yourself. You can shape and develop events and stories, and you can learn as part of a compelling collective experience. That anyway in the aim. What was it like on the day Vesuvius erupted? "A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times ... and you were there."

September 2000