Virtual drama unfolds on web

It sounds like a script from the Twilight Zone - television viewers who move behind the screen and into the action.

At the University of Nottingham yesterday, the Mixed Reality Laboratory demonstrated Inhabited Television, a new entertainment medium where television shows are staged within 3D virtual worlds over the internet.

Today and this weekend, Avatar Farm will bring together four members of the public and seven professional actors to create an online virtual drama.

The drama is in a mythical virtual universe with four worlds - Kindergarten, Behaviour Shift, Trade and Power and Nirvana - where the deities Virbius, Egeria and Attis use the public avatars as pawns in their feuds. The challenge for the non-actors is to discover, in their avatar roles, the secrets of the worlds that will allow them to break free.

Chris Greenhalgh, head of the laboratory, said the actors would work within a scripted frame-work while the members of the public would have to learn the characters quickly and exploit the weaknesses of the deities to succeed.

"The hope is that bringing so many resources to bear will create a rich situation so people will be drawn into the narrative without having to play scripted roles," said Dr Greenhalgh.

There will be two ways to experience the inhabited television show. People can play a role by entering the virtual world and controlling a 3D graphical avatar. They can move it around the world, use it to manipulate virtual objects and to talk to other avatars, some of which may be controlled by professional actors.

It is also possible to watch the show as a normal viewer - virtual (software) cameras capture the action within the virtual world and their output is then mixed and broadcast as television.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham, Illuminations Television and BT have been developing inhabited television technologies for the past three years.

The web broadcast can be seen at: http://www.illumin.co.uk/avatarfarm A research paper on inhabited television can be downloaded from: http://www.crg.cs.nott.ac.uk/sdb/papers/siggraph99.pdf

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