Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Crowdsourcing television drama

As the worlds of television and the Internet converge, writers and television producers are developing new forms of interactive and personalised television. On 27 December, the world’s first ‘ShapeShifted’ romantic comedy was broadcast, as “Accidental Lovers” (page in Finnish language) was shown on Finnish national television station, YLE TV1 (page in Finnish language). Using original technology from European research project NM2 (New Millennium, New Media), viewers could affect the unfolding drama, encouraging, or spoiling, a possible love affair between the two unlikely lovers, Roope and Juulia, using SMS text messages. Directors and writers, such as Mika Tuomola and Leena Saarinen from “Accidental Lovers”, are exploring forms of television in which the viewer can affect the unfolding narrative. The NM2 project has set out to provide tools that support the production of such stories, including “Accidental Lovers”, and calls such productions ‘ShapeShiftedTV’.

ShapeShiftedTV is a term first coined by John Wyver of media producer Illuminations to describe stories whose narratives can be affected by choices made by the viewer. Illuminations is a partner in the NM2 project.

Viewers were able to see their SMS messages and will hear the characters respond to their texts. A glowing heart showed whether their messages are warming or cooling the hearts of the romantic couple, and the relationship developed according to the viewers’ wishes. If the romance didn’t progress as viewers wish on the first occasion, they can try again later: four runs of the programme will be broadcast showing ten different evolutions of the love affair; each will be different, each will react to the viewers’ wishes.

While concepts such as this are described in terms of the ‘personalization of television’, it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as the ‘crowdsourcing of television’. The path of the drama is influenced by the flow of text messages from viewers, as the NM2 technology monitors the opinions of viewers submitted by text message. This ‘democratic’ approach means that the wishes of the majoraty will be followed in deciding how the story develops. However, all viewers see the same story – it is not that each viewer gets a different outcome to reflect their own voting pattern. It is a remarkable development nonetheless, and is a landmark in the evolution of television from a passive to an interactive entertainment medium.

NM2 is an Integrated Project under the Information Society Technology priority of the European 6th Framework Programme. The main goal of the interdisciplinary project is to create new production tools for the media industry. These tools will enable the easy production in technically standardised formats of non-linear, personalised media genres based on sound and moving images suitable for transmission over broadband networks. NM2 is running from September 2004 to August 2007.

Doug Williams, NM2 Project Director at BT says: “The introduction of interactive TV changed the way viewers consume television programmes. Looking to the future, production companies need to seek new and more innovative ways to personalise the programmes they create. ShapeShiftedTV is the ultimate in personalisation, and NM2 is the driving force making it happen.”

ShapeShiftedTV stories are described by what the makers call a ‘story world’, whereas traditional linear programmes can be described by a timeline. According to the publicity material, NM2 describes this story world “using a new computationally-supported language of narrative represented on a screen using a “narrative canvas” and simple graphical elements”. This somewhat complicated description requires explanation in more everyday language:

  • The narrative of the programme automatically responds to text messages sent by its audience.
  • Text messages received from viewers are moderated and processed by the production team using a special tool which is linked to a dynamic model of the drama’s narrative structure.
  • A ‘Realisation Engine’ holds a detailed representation of the “Accidental Lovers” ‘story world’ as defined by the production team using the NM2 tools. It continuously analyses viewers’ text messages and automatically directs the mood and pace of the narrative, choosing how the video, audio and graphics layers should be assembled, delivering these as a continuous stream of instructions to the playout system.
  • NM2 uses PubliTronic Indigo4 playout hardware to render a broadcast-quality MPEG-2 video stream, which is delivered via a fibre-optic link to YLE’s Helsinki studios. Indigo4’s advanced multi-processor engine can composite up to 10 heterogeneous layers in real time.

The NM2 tools are being developed using numerous pilot productions including eight in the current project, covering genres as diverse as News, Documentary, Advertising and Drama. These productions are looking beyond broadcast to the delivery of personalised ShapeShiftedTV over broadband Internet and IPTV.

NM2 has 13 partners from 8 European countries. On the technical side, the participants are BT (UK), Joanneum Research, Austria; Goldsmiths College, UK; Telefónica I+D, Spain; Sony Netservices, Austria; and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Media production partners are Cambridge University Moving Image Studio (CUMIS), UK; Illuminations Television Limited, UK; University of Art & Design Helsinki, Finland; University of Ulster, School of Art & Design, Northern Ireland; Malmö University, Arts and Communication, Sweden.

Consumer behaviour & business analysis for the project is carried out by the Netherlands Organisation For Applied Scientific Research, and administration and financial management of the project by Eurescom, Germany.

The full broadcast schedule for “Accidental Lovers” on YLE TV1 is as follows:

Wednesday, 27th December 2006, 22:45 – 23:30
Friday, 29th December 2006, 23:00 – 24:00
Wednesday, 3rd January 2007, 23:00 – 24:00
Friday, 5th January 2007, 23:00 – 24:00

“Accidental Lovers” is produced by Media Lab’s and Media Centre Lume’s joint research group, Crucible Studio, in the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

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