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Experimental Play Juxtaposes Humans With Electronics

Gabor Csanyi -- The Tech
HOLODECK v0.1 -- Freedom Baird G poses under the electronic eye of her computer partner on stage in It/I, a computer theater play by Claudio S. Pinhanez G.

Katie Jeffreys
Staff Reporter

A graduate student in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences has created a system that allows people to interact with computer characters in the production of a play. Claudio S. Pinhanez G developed "It/I," an experimental theater play which uses state-of-the-art computer technology to create and control a computer graphics character on stage screens.

The play consists of two characters, a human, played by Joshua Pritchard, and a computer-controlled one. The person interacts with the computer, as it trains him to follow orders, and it plays games with him. This is a reversal of roles, with machine controlling man, resulting in a "real fantasy," Pinhanez said.

The live interaction between man and machine is facilitated with the use of three cameras suspended above the audience that construct images of the actor's silhouette. These vision systems were created by John Liu G and Chris Bentzel G.

A program then analyzes the data and the computer character reacts to the actor's actions with animated graphics, sounds, and lighting effects. "The idea is to build something active enough for a scripted situation" Pinhanez said.

Program reacts to actor

While the computer's abilities are limited to those specified in the program, the behavior is not entirely predetermined. It reacts to the human's movements, causing each performance of the play to be different.

For example, when the human grows tired of the computer's games and decides not to play, the computer gets angry and throws virtual bricks at the actor.

The system allows for a unique form of performance art. "The question is: How can we use this in other applications?" Pinhanez said.

"We can use this sort of technology in entertainment places such as a mall, theme park, or museum," Pinhanez said.

In addition, Pinhanez envisions his interactive technology becoming part of everyday life. "The problem with video games is that the action happens on the wrong side of the screen," he said.

By putting cameras in living areas to "augment the physical reality" using interactive sounds, pictures, and video. This would allow for a mood to be set in one's environment that corresponds to their activity and state of mind.

Pinhanez studied theater in Brazil, and was very interested in computers as well. After coming to the United States five years ago, he began thinking about interactive computer theater, before the appropriate technology was available.

In the summer of 1996, Pinhanez went to Japan and was able to create a four-minute interactive piece. He began working on It/I last May, and he is now looking to take it to other venues.

It/I can be seen in the Media Lab today, Saturday, and Sunday.