Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 11 (November 2001)

Setting the Stage




Fans get a virtual behind-the-scenes look at a popular television show

By Karen Moltenbrey

Every Thursday evening, hardcore fans of NBC's hit television show Will & Grace tune out everything around them as they tune in to the half-hour sitcom about two close friends who would make a perfect couple if it weren't for the fact that he is gay and she is straight. For some viewers though, a weekly fix of the show's zany, lovable characters is not enough, as can be witnessed by the burgeoning number of unofficial Will & Grace sites on the Internet. To satisfy these fans' hunger for just about anything Will & Grace, NBC is offering a unique experience-a 3D virtual tour of the show's primary sets at www.nbc.com.

"With interest in Will & Grace at an all-time high, the virtual tour provides followers of the show with new ways to involve themselves in the characters' living space," says Maureen Burke, senior marketing manager at Pulse Entertainment, which spearheaded the project. Pulse previously collaborated with the network to produce an interactive virtual Jay Leno character, which appeared on The Tonight Show and is still featured on NBC's Web site.

The immersive digital set environments provide a first-person look at Will's apartment and Grace's office, the focal points of the show. With a keyboard stroke, visitors can navigate the photorealistic models and learn behind-the-scenes tidbits about the show, or they can use their mouse buttons to interact with various props. For instance, fans will learn that production assistants often write personal messages on the to-do list that appears on the chalkboard in Grace's office. Or if they open the refrigerator in Grace's office, it will reveal a stash of alcohol that belongs to Grace's wealthy socialite assistant, Karen, who is often seen on the show with a martini in hand.

"I believe the Will & Grace application is the first interactive photorealistic walkthrough of a TV show's sets to appear on the Web. So there wasn't any established course that we could follow," says Burke. "We had to figure things out as we went along."
Pulse Entertainment partnered with RealViz to create an interactive virtual replica of the Will & Grace television set for the Web. A 3D clone of the show's set director (top image) serves as a tour guide.
Images courtesy Pulse Ent




To build the virtual sets, Pulse teamed with image-based content creator RealViz. First, the group spent two hours photographing the actual show sets from every angle, then used RealViz's Stitcher software to combine the photos into a single panoramic image. Next, they transformed the photographic scene into a realistic 3D model using RealViz's ImageModeler program running on a Windows-based PC.

The artists at both Pulse and RealViz also created a variety of individual interactive objects that can be rotated in real time within the set environment. At Pulse, this was done using Pulse Creator, while at RealViz, it was accomplished with ImageModeler.

The virtual tour also features a site guide. Artists at Pulse created a photorealistic model of Melinda Ritz, the set decorator for the television show, using a beta version of Pulse Creator's new virtual cloning technology with automatic lip-sync functionality, which will be available by the end of the year. The guide appears at times in the lower right corner of the computer screen to offer insights regarding the set designs and the show in general. "When we interviewed Melinda, we tried to uncover interesting or unknown facts about the set that people who watch the show would find interesting," says Burke.

The entire environment, including the models and virtual guide, was then imported into Pulse Creator, the same software used by the Pulse team to program the camera moves and interactivity. According to Blake Porch, Pulse's senior director of creative services, the group set up collision planes to prohibit users from entering certain areas of the environment that do not exist as part of the actual set. The modelers also added a blank "fourth wall" to fill in the portion of the set that is open to the audience.

The Will & Grace tour can be downloaded through narrowband or broadband connections, and will be available indefinitely. While the Pulse formatted files take approximately 5 minutes to download via a 56k modem, each contains the equivalent of about 75mb of digitized video, which otherwise would require more than 6 hours to download using a 56K modem, says Burke. "But unlike video, the files are interactive and navigable," she notes.

Adds Chris Gelke, marketing manager at NBC: "The Will & Grace tour adds a third dimension and interactivity to previously two-dimensional content, allowing viewers to become more engaged with shows that already hold a place in their daily lives."




Key Tools:
Pulse Creator, Pulse Entertainment (www.pulse3d.com)
Stitcher, ImageModeler, RealViz (www.realviz.com)
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