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An Internet Stadium

Dr Peter J Scott
The Knowledge Media Institute
The Open University
United Kingdom

Article produced for Stadium Magazine 2000

The broadcasting of live events that can usually only be attended by physically joining the crowd at a large stadium venue has seen a dramatic increase with recent developments in digital television. The large number of channels has meant that cameras pointed at even minority interest sports and occasions have been able to find a voice. In the UK at least some broadcasters are now able to take multiple camera and commentator approaches to the same occasion and allow the viewer a wide range of choice. However, this recent flood of mainstream television interest is itself under long term threat from the inevitable freedoms offered by the internet. An increasing range of replay and live broadcasts are now being offered on the internet as Webcasts, free from the tyranny of the television moguls tight schedules and high pricing. In principle, anyone with a domestic personal computer, videocamera and friendly internet service provider can make their event available to the world.

In practice, the domestic product is still likely to be a small and low-resolution image, which is entirely unsuited to a fast action subject such as pretty much any live sport. And the art of getting the event to the audience is still somewhat arcane and requiring some specialist knowledge. However, the inevitable march of technology through the last few years has seen product quality and ease of use advancing in leaps and bounds. Those who were listening to internet-radio cricket commentary in the office last year can now listen at home, and whilst they must still watch internet-tv basketball from the office, we can be confident that they will be able to watch from home fairly soon. The main technical advances are those which rely on improvements in the rates of data that can be shipped out to the audience via the current phone systems or newer cable and digital telecom systems which are being rolled out by the telecom companies.

Streaming is the process of getting data to you, on demand, when you require it - with just as much data as your connection can handle. In the mid 1990s this meant lowish quality audio. Over the last few years the technology has advanced sufficiently to force the music industry to start a serious review of how it makes its money. In the broadcasting field one must only review the plethora of the worlds radio stations that are now broadcast free through the internet to anyone who cares to tune in on their computer. Look for example at the listings under http://realguide.real.com/stations/ and just twist that digital dial. These days with improvements in the rates of connected users and innovations in the streaming technologies, lowish quality video is also easy to ship to domestic users. You wont find many live sporting events on offer, as we have already noted that fast-action is not yet domesticially watchable, but you will find very many live concert type venues opening their digital doors. Where the focus is audio, and the image on stage is not moving quickly, the experience can be very good. Certainly none of the large computer companies like Microsoft and Apple would dream of launching a new product these days without a live event out into the internet.

Unfortunately, the biggest catch for any new event producer is that quality of video alone is not sufficiently compelling to a web audience which has come to expect serious interactivity in the medium! The techniques that can be used to help someone to fully engage in a remote event are described as telepresence. The telepresence concept demands the exploration of the feeling of "being there", providing the participant with cues that help them to feel that they are as fully engaged in the remote event as if they were standing in the venue itself. How can a software environment support (potentially thousands of) remote users and give them a real sense of being integrated into a remote activity!

At the Open University, based in Milton Keynes in the UK, the Knowledge Media Institute has been exploring educational telepresence since it was established in 1995. The series of experiments that we have undertaken have been under the general banner of a project called "The Stadium". The history of this project and a selection of the live events conducted in this framework are available on our web site (under http://kmi.open.ac.uk/stadium/). So successful have these experiments been, that we have recently launched a web company (http://www.websymposia.com) to exploit this experience commercially. Here we will disuss just two of these educational events.

The Stadium PubQuiz Webcast

The KMi Stadium PubQuiz was designed to serve the needs of OU Masters of Business Administration students who were preparing for an examination on the finance course they were taking (in a course we label BYM800). The session was webcast on 11th April 1997. Instead of flying to a central site in the UK or continental Europe to attend a large-group revision seminar, this particular cohort of IBM-sponsored students went to a local Technology Learning Centre and partake in a world-wide session run by faculty members at the Open University headquarters in the UK. The "pub quiz" concept may require some explanation outside the UK. The quiz is a team game which is conducted with simple general knowledge questions in a traditional British pub - and the prize is usually more beer.

Students registered as teams (a typical grouping comprised six or seven sharing a single PC with a projection screen, and a designated 'team captain' to type in the responses; virtual teams of isolated home-bound individuals could also be created). Live streaming audio from the tutors provided running commentary and feedback, and a sequence of questions appearing in a custom browser frame challenged the students to think about their coursework. A special scoring interface enabled the tutors (sitting in Milton Keynes) to score the teams answers at the end of each round, and an instantly-updated team scoreboard appearing on the left of the screen inspired some friendly competitiveness. The scoring could have been automatic and therefore large scale, but it was kept open and personal to allow participants to be creative in their responses. The scoring interface simply allowed tutors to turn around a large number of questions and answers very efficiently.

A world map indicated the location of all the participants, and a chat room enabled tutors to field questions and the 'control booth' to deal with any technical glitches.

The basic pub quiz interface

The pubquiz interface uses a simple model based around the concepts of a British Pub scene. The main controls are present on the 'bar' at the bottom: the ashtray resets the user to the current state of the quiz; the map 'beer mat' shows the live location of other players; the comments and questions 'bar towel' provides an interface for the user to participate in the live text chat; the quiz 'beer mat' is used in the replay to start the quiz; and the 'pint of beer' shows where you are in the quiz - when you are out of beer the quiz is over! The blackboard to the left reflects the current scores of all registered players (nb. the link at the bottom is not available in the live version - it is for replay users to see how the marking happened.

A question screen in the pub quiz

When the player registers and enters the virtual pub they are connected to the live audio stream which carries the discussion and questions. The area above the bar is the activity area - showing the current state of the session. As the quiz game progressed the teams were led through a series of questions and were given a specific time to return an answer. Between the 3 rounds of the quiz, we ran slide based revision sessions and question-and-answer sessions based on the activity in the text chat interface.

The world map view of pub quiz participants

The Stadium Virtual Degree Ceremony

In the latest KMi Stadium we invited students from another of the Open University Masters Degree courses to receive their degree itself via a web ceremony. This Virtual Degree Ceremony was an invitation-only event which took place on March 31st 2000 (see http://vdc.open.ac.uk/).

The presiding officials were in the main auditorium of the Open University at Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom, but the auditorium itself was empty, as all the participants, students, their family friends and guests, plus a few invited members of the general public were all at their personal computers somewhere in the world (from the USA, through Iceland, Finland to Taiwan).

The virtual degree ceremony web pages

The web site supporting the event allowed students to post entries describing themselves and their work into an online course yearbook. When they launched the Stadium application itself the students saw a video stream of the presiding officials in the auditorium. When they were awarded their qualification the students saw their "virtual certificate" appear on screen and have it "virtually signed" by the University officials. All through the ceremony, students were able to type in to chat to each other in text chat rooms that were partitioned into 'graduates only', 'graduates plus guests' and 'general public admission'.

Now, we would never argue that this sort of virtual presence is really akin to the real presence of the large scale gathering of a physical graduation ceremony, but like the pub quiz discussed above, this sort of virtual event has features that are very exciting too! One student was seated in her workplace, sharing the event, and a bottle of champagne with all her workmates. Another student was able to invite her husband and daughter to join her live, whilst they were all on completely different continents! In addition, the ceremony is now captured on the website and CD for instant replay in a very compelling form. And, that replay form is actually much more personal (in many ways) than the large scale physical gathering could ever be!

So what are physical stadium venues doing?

Whilst few venues are offering live internet streaming of events like the ones discussed above, most major international stadia now have their own website hooked in to their marketing and sales strategy. The more enterprising offer useful advertising space, places to book tickets, games for the kids and so on. Many stadia now offer on-line tours of their site. You can see a 3d interactive picture from the floor of the yankee stadium in New York (http://www.nyctourist.com/ivrs/yankee_pano.htm), or take an extensive tour of the Tiger Baseball stadium via CNN Sports Illustrated. (http://cnnsi.com/baseball/mlb/features/1999/tigers/virtual_tour/). You can even peruse a stadium that hasn't been built yet - see the proposal for the new home for the Boston Red Sox (http://www.redsox.com/ballpark/virtualtour.html). In terms of video of events, there are many nice replays via TV and news services (eg. http://www.foxsports.com/) or via the technical sites eg. http://www.apple.com/quicktime/hotpicks/sports/) but relatively little live. Most live views of stadium events are still in the hands of the major broadcasters, who have simply opted to offer the audio and video feeds they give to TV to the internet audience. But the challenge to the broadcasters is that the complex (expensive) TV infrastructure is no longer a strict requirement in this upcoming market. There are no schedules which prioritize one event over another and the basic equipment required can be purchased in any computer store.

The only very real limits are on the imagination that is required to present any event in such a way that the virtual participation is more compelling than attendance at the physical venue. So when do you think you might start selling more virtual tickets than real ones? When you have sat listening to someone speaking out to rows and rows of empty seats in a vacant auditorium in Milton Keynes, and you think of the real seats occupied somewhere 'out there', then you will know.

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