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The harder we work, the harder - in theory - we should play to counteract the stresses and strains of everyday life. Jo Davies says new technologies are opening up a whole seam of playful possibilities for each one of us. So it's time to get down to the cyber café, theme park or mall for some serious fun.

For any teenager in the early 1980s, location-based computer entertainment meant little more than having a go on the Pac Man machine at the local sports centre. How things have changed. Today, theme parks are massive global attractions that pull in people of all ages, even from the other side of the world. Cyber cafés, located in towns and cities across the UK, offer multi-player games arenas as well as online access over a cappuccino, and shopping malls everywhere present a range of companies with a forum and a captive audience to demonstrate new games and hardware.

Have booth, will travel

BTexact Technologies has an active role in improving cyber-entertainment too. A team at BTexact's radical multimedia lab has already travelled far and wide to demonstrate to the general public how avatar technology can add to these exciting and playful times.

Matthew Lawson, head of the lab, says: " We wanted to get out there and show people how the new technologies that BT is developing can be used not just in an office environment, or running e-commerce but also for fun. To that end, we've already taken our world-leading avatar booth to Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the USA, as well as several locations in the UK and people have seen for themselves how they can be immersed into computer game action - so far, we've drawn some incredible crowds."

The avatar booths, created by a partnership between AvatarMe and BT, use new software technology to quickly generate a photo-realistic 3D avatar, or computer-generated version of a human being. They are no bigger than a traditional photo booth, which means they can easily be moved between locations. The individual wanting an avatar of him or her enters the booth and stands still for just over one minute. During this time, a digital camera takes four photographs of their body. The built-in computer then generates an avatar by graphically wrapping the digitised pictures around a generic wire mesh frame, to produce the resembling figure. Within minutes, the avatar has come to life and can walk, run and jump.

Lawson says: "People love it, because they can see themselves in such diverse environments. And the technology is pan-cultural - it can go anywhere in the world. A recent demonstration we installed in a Singapore shopping mall saw those people just as delighted being immersed in a Quake III game as did shoppers in the south west of England!"

Electronic playground

BTexact's multimedia lab is already engaged in preliminary discussions with a number of large companies on the subject of future avatar-led attractions, which indicates that already big business is interested in pushing forward the boundaries of the electronic playground.

This type of technology could be introduced to theme parks and other locations in a variety of ways, and be of interest to young and old alike. For some time, theme parks have offered adequate virtual environment entertainment to large audiences such as simulation films of hair-raising train rides or motor racing, in 360 degree Technicolor, but until recently, many of these attractions have lacked the personal touch.

Scanning while-u-wait

Says Lawson: "This is one example of the thought leadership we're offering. In this instance, people queuing to see a 3D film, or play a 3D game, could put the waiting time to good use by having their avatar created, and learn what they should be doing during the interactive sessions of the ride. Overall, we see this kind of technology as crossing a number of genres, from competitive combat gaming to emphasising an experience, virtual journey or storyline, that could be based in any number of locations."

The 'experiencing it' factor is a key driver that makes this media so different to any other. Imagine if the user could immerse him or herself - with the help of a head-up display or even a virtual reality headset - and be surrounded by sound and vision into his or her favourite sporting event, film or live concert. And there are possibilities for entertaining younger children, too, through narrative storytelling on a large screen, where their own avatars could appear next to their favourite cartoon characters.

Cruise control

Imagine, for example, how the attraction of virtual skyboarding could interest even the most recalcitrant teenager on a day out.

Lawson says: "Theme parks are the obvious starting point, but who's to say this kind of attraction wouldn't be welcomed in other public spaces, leisure centres, fitness clubs, supermarkets, or even libraries in the not too distant future? It all offers an educational and fun experience for visitors."

Corporate competitors

There is huge potential for corporate entertainment too, as avatar technology allows the interchange of company logos and branding; identities that could be projected onto a virtual racecourse, a motor racing track or an Alpine ski slope. Competitors, kitted up with virtual reality headgear, could battle it out and see for themselves their colleagues or clients engaged in the more fun side of advanced communication technology.

In striving to offer this feast of fun, BTexact and its contemporaries are putting across a serious message: fun in the future is big business. So why not hop on for the ride?

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