Palm Computing and the Promise of Real Convergence
The "convergence" of television and computers has been the elusive goal of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But it has been happening recently right under their noses. The only company positioned to take advantage of this is Palm Computing. Just as Regis Philbin saved ABC-TV, Peter Tomarken can help save Palm Computing and make all of us want to indulge in some "Paranoia"!
Palm Computing and the Promise of Real "Convergence"
Mike Cane (firstname.lastname@example.org)
© 2000 by Mike Cane. All Rights Reserved.
Exclusive to Palm Infocenter
The Holy Grail of Silicon Valley and Hollywood is summed up in the buzzword "convergence." Various "interactive" and "on-demand" schemes have been tested -- and have failed -- on the road to this goal. Their scope has been ambitious and their failure has blinded everyone to what true "convergence" can be.
But true "convergence" has nearly arrived and hardly anyone has noticed.
It has been taking place on -- of all places! -- the Fox Family Channel, available on cable TV systems across the country.
It has been happening in the form of one of the new game shows that has been created to take advantage of the popularity of ABC-TV's megahit "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The Fox Family Channel's entry is called "Paranoia" and it offers a glimpse of a future marriage between televisions and computers unlike anything foreseen by the "experts." It offers a huge opportunity, unprecedented in possible market size, and is tailor-made for Palm Computing and its licensees. In fact, this could be the first real reason for everyday people to actually want to buy a future version of Palm's current all-in-one wireless offering, the Palm VII.
ABC-TV's smash "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a fifteen-question multiple-choice quiz show based on a British original of the same name. To become a contestant on the show, viewers call a toll-free 800 number to answer three questions in which the answer is some form of ordering (i.e., "Put the following words in order to form the name of a 1971 non-fiction book best-seller"). Winners from this initial competition (only 7% pass) are then randomly selected to play a second round of five additional questions of increasing difficulty. For each tape date of the program, ten of the winners from the second round of telephone competition are then further randomly selected to become on-air contestants. Once on the program, these ten players compete against a further "Put the following in order..." question for a chance to get in the Hot Seat, where they have the chance to answer questions that begin at a $100 win up to an eventual $1,000,000 jackpot. This is a program that, in its seeming simplicity, offers the kind of suspense and unpredictability that no scripted comedy or drama has offered audiences in decades.
Soon after the program's inception, ABC offered Internet users the chance to play online in mock games that also offered the same dramatic sound effects and music found in the TV show itself.
ABC has since increased the on-air program's interactivity by offering an "Enhanced TV" version of the Internet game in which viewers can play the game on the Net at the same time of the program's broadcast, with the same questions that appear to on-air contestants. Unlike the mock game, where both question and four possible answers appear, the Enhanced TV version tries to ensure players are actual viewers by only offering the four possible answers (which are meaningless without the question) as well as "bonus questions" that do not appear on the on-air program but which might relate to what host Regis Philbin is wearing or to which sponsor's advertisement is currently airing.
The runaway popularity of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has led to NBC reviving "Twenty One" (a game that was rigged during its original run in the 1950s), CBS quickly failing with "Winning Lines" (from the same creators/producers of the UK "Millionaire"), Fox offering "Greed" (which tries to mimic the "look and feel" of "Millionaire") and, finally, just very recently, the debut of "Paranoia" on Fox Family Channel.
"Paranoia" is unique in TV game show history for a variety of reasons:
1) Its use of computerization allows it to have a "virtual set." If you were an in-studio audience member, you would see two people standing against a huge green screen. Viewers at home see a gigantic multisegmented video wall and pit which looks like it was derived from the first "Star Wars" movie. This is TV designed for the "Matrix" Generation.
2) Its use of remote locations. The in-studio contestant competes against three other players who are beamed in from their homes or public locations via satellite. (One recent program had a satellite contestant competing underwater in full scuba gear!)
3) It is LIVE. Everything is happening in real time. We are seeing that in-studio contestant now and those satellite players now. Nothing is -- or can be -- edited for time constraints. Being live actually does add an additional layer of suspense, if only because one is left wondering, "How can they finish this game in time? Look at the clock!" (And, yes, also: "Will the satellite links stay up?") Being live also adds a degree of topicality that the tape-delayed "Millionaire" cannot hope to match (on a recent program, one question dealt with a news report of that same day and another question was about an event that would take place in three days!).
4) It is truly interactive -- to the point of almost indulging in "divergence"! It goes beyond the "Enhanced TV" offered by "Millionaire" in two distinct ways. First, a RealAudio feed of the actual live show is available for those who cannot get to a TV but who do have access to a desktop computer (probably while still stuck at work!). Second, Internet contestants have a chance to actually win a prize and to step up one level from Internet player to possible satellite contestant (winning satellite contestants are then made in-studio contestants!). Internet participants have a true chance at competing in the game, not simply playing along for the fun of it (which is mostly the point of ABC-TV's "Enhanced TV"). And this is live competition. ("Divergence" emerges when one considers that people can actually play the game while totally ignoring the TV game -- and yet the Net competition cannot exist without the TV game!)
5) It is even more truly interactive. Aside from playing via the Internet, viewers can play via a toll-free number. Because, again, this is live. I have done this myself and won $50! (This is the largest amount most phone players have a chance to win. Unfortunately, there is no way to progress to in-studio contestant from this point.)
It is "Paranoia," which has gone largely unnoticed in the huge flow of cable TV programming, that points to the future of "convergence."
This is how it is now: It is Friday at 10PM (Eastern Time) and you are tuned to Fox Family Channel. "Paranoia" is beginning. "Get in the game," host Peter Tomarken exhorts. It's your choice: play by computer while ignoring the TV (it seems the TV is always in another room when cable is involved) and hoping the RealAudio stream keeps up (especially if you're going through a middleman such as AOL, which millions of people do for their Net access) or play by phone (redial, redial, redial...) while sitting in front of the TV. But shouldn't there be a better alternative? Yes.
This is how it could and should be: It is Friday at 10PM (Eastern Time) and you are tuned to Fox Family Channel. "Paranoia" is beginning -- live. "Get in the game," host Peter Tomarken exhorts. "Why not?" you think. You pick up your PalmOS PDA and attach the free wireless communications module to it and connect to a special "Paranoia" site on the web which allows you to become an at-home contestant. Like the "Enhanced TV" version of "Millionaire," this also ensures that players are viewers by transmitting only the possible answers. Unlike anything else that currently exists, however, during commercial breaks, special offers are transmitted to your PalmOS device. This is why the wireless communications module is free and why you can compete in "Paranoia." To continue in the game, and to guarantee the continued activation of this cellphone module, after some of the special offers, a one-question quiz pops up to ascertain if you have read the ad.
But this module is not simply for use only during "Paranoia." No. It is provided through a collaboration of television networks, cable TV channels, cellphone companies, advertisers, and TV show producers. It is good only for use during TV shows connecting to sites which run the "Live Action Protocol" (a special standard all TV producers and broadcasters have agreed upon). With it, you can play "Millionaire," "Paranoia" (which will always be remembered fondly for inspiring this largesse), "Greed," and anything else producers choose to offer to the public for actual prizes or prize money.
Imagine watching "Win Ben Stein's Money" and beating him even through the Best of Ten Test of Knowledge. Or watching "Hollywood Squares" and deciding that Whoopi really doesn't know the answer; she's bluffing so as not to look stupid. Or solving puzzles on "Wheel of Fortune."
And having the chance to get paid for doing so.
Other attempts at so-called "convergence" have been premised on a question that, when crudely put, basically boils down to: "How can we get more money out of people?" This puts the potential customer in the position of being a passive cash cow, with money flowing out of them, seemingly hypnotized by a vast array of things they never knew they even wanted (with the concomitant fear on the provider's part that their customers might wake up to discover they neither want nor need this so-called "vast array of things" -- which is the primary reason why all past attempts at "convergence" have failed).
Perhaps the question should have been, "What engages people's interest the most?" For most of us, the answer is: the chance to make money or to get things in a way that seems free and easy! Which precisely accounts, in large part, for the success of "Millionaire" and the current scramble for even more game shows on TV. Underlying all of them is the compelling message, "This could be you!" It is a formula that has worked and continues to work and will continue to work.
Imagine further, however, and let's sever the link for a time with TV. For if "convergence" is to work at all, it is a habit that must not simply be created and nurtured, but sustained as well.
It is your lunch break at work. For most people, this is still between 12-1PM. It is time to play "Time Zone," the first competition of a global nature. Using your PalmOS device with the Live Action Protocol wireless communications module, you tap into the TZ special site and have to answer five questions -- each separated by a brief ad -- and compete against several *hundred million* people across the face of the earth, who have also been playing during their lunch breaks (the quiz is only available for transmission during lunch breaks around the world, local time). Prizes range from a million dollars in local currency, trips to meet other players in their country, to a free dinner at a local restaurant of exotic cuisine. Questions, with multiple choice possible answers, are a global mix of topical information:
1) Yesterday, which of the following became the Prime Minister of Japan?
2) On which date will the national presidential election occur in the United States?
3) How many broadcast television networks exist in Great Britain?
4) On which continent is Katmandu located?
5) Which country has produced the most Nobel prize winners in Physics?
(OK, so I will never be a quiz show writer!)
The point is to grasp the essence of "Millionaire" -- that someone can actually win a million dollars, and why can't it be you? -- the excitement and liveness and expanded competition offered by "Paranoia" -- and to package this lightning into a bottle that virtually everyone will be able to afford (a PalmOS device is still less expensive, more portable, and simpler to use than any full-fledged PC or notebook) -- but without the limitations or expense of a special-purpose or single-use device -- and in a way that will allow everyone to choose the frenzy that appeals to them most. This is true "convergence" -- and beyond.
And some of that "beyond" might look like this:
* Dan Rather is delivering yet another update on the CBS Evening News about the Elian situation (after being sent back to Cuba, the kid has hopped a raft and floated over yet again!). Rather wants to know what the public thinks. The Live Poll is open, using the Live Action Protocol (which is basically, as has been shown, a secure, very fast, and very low-bandwidth polling protocol), and along with the millions of others tuning into the news, you let Dan -- and your neighbors -- know what should become of Elian.
* NBC is again broadcasting the Olympics live. Three events are available for live viewing. The hosts ask the viewers which they would like to see now, live, and which two should be taped for later. Women's gymnastics wins and men's weightlifting and men's volleyball will be taped for later airing.
* PBS is doing an experiment in live TV with its weekly "Mystery" series, featuring a sleuth who is not unlike Sherlock Holmes. Just as in the Conan Doyle stories, all of the clues are given to the audience to be reasoned out. During the course of the drama, using the Live Action Protocol module, audience members are quizzed on what is valid evidence and what is a red herring. The goal is to see if you can out-think the sleuth before the program concludes. The first one to do so will win a free one-year membership to the station.
* As a movie fan, you're always the first on line for a premiere. This time you've camped out for three days to see "Star Wars: Darth Awakens." When the movie is over, you pull out your PalmOS device with its Live Action Protocol wireless communications module, turn it on, and find that LucasFilm wants your opinion now -- and will give you the chance to win one of several props from the movie for your opinion.
Each use of your PalmOS device and Live Action Protocol wireless communications module during these polls accrues to the continued activation of your module. When you aren't trying to win a prize, you are earning the right to continue to participate by simply participating. "Convergence" means that you are active, not passive. And that your activity also has the possibility of being additionally rewarded through special offers, exclusive discounts, prizes, and other incentives.
To get a glimpse of this possible future, catch "Paranoia" on the Fox Family Channel. It's on this Friday (May 5th) at 10PM EDST live (9 Central, 8 Mountain, 7 Pacific), then again live on Saturday (May 6th) and Sunday (May 7th), both at the earlier timeslot of 7PM EDST (6/5/4). Do it now, because this might be its final weekend. Even though it's a pioneer, the Fox Family Channel has not committed to an extension of its run and this might be your only chance to see the future as it's being made -- live.
And then imagine what it would have been like if you could have played along on your PalmOS device -- live.
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