In an echoey green-room studio on the outskirts of Oslo, a small group of mainly stubbled men are attempting to revolutionise how we watch TV. Words such as “interactive” and “mixed reality” are being thrown around, along with the prospect of viewers impacting the action on their favourite shows from wherever they are.
This technology, if it becomes mainstream, will make dialling a number to vote a contestant off a reality show seem positively last century. There is talk of the “fourth age of television” after black and white, colour and high definition: viewers playing with game-show participants, shooting the same targets and dodging the same obstacles at the same time. It’s the future of multiscreen entertainment.
The story starts with Bård Anders Kasin, who is dressed for deep-winter temperatures in a thick cream sweater and brown leather jacket. A former technical director at Warner Bros, Kasin co-founded the company four years ago, developing the new platform with his friend and serial entrepreneur Jens Petter Høili. The Norwegian company, aptly called The Future Group, has teamed with FremantleMedia to devise a unique game show. Each week from 25 March, Lost in Time will air on TVNorge in the coveted prime-time slot of 20.00 on Saturdays. Three contestants will time-travel through six different eras with the prospect of winning NOK1m (€115,000). They could be racing logs down a river during the Jurassic period, blowing up wagons in the Wild West or lighting up neon billboards in 1920s New York. The twist – here’s the “interactive” part – is that so could viewers, via a smartphone or tablet app.
The “mixed reality” bit concerns what viewers will see on their television screens and aims to make Pokémon Go look, well, lame. “Mixed reality” places real people and objects into a virtual world, then in real time merges the real, augmented and virtual into one visual end result.
It all becomes slightly clearer the next day when the fifth of eight 60-minute episodes is being filmed. In the middle of a screen a blonde woman with Katniss “The Hunger Games” Everdeen plaits is stepping into the future. Humankind has entered the space age and is under attack. She has 90 seconds and a single laser gun at her disposal to save planet Earth.
“Up! Left! Shoot!” voices shout, trying to improve her aim. The two men barking commands from their “home base” as she misses target after target are less worried about their chances of survival than their teammate’s odds of boosting their potential prize pot. Thina, a 21-year-old special-needs teacher, is in that bright-green studio peering into a virtual world via a small screen in the middle of a big, brass cannon, which she is swinging left and right to aim at the targets hurtling from outer space. The more she hits, the bigger the jackpot that one of the three contestants will win. As will – here’s the novelty – one person watching, provided they’ve spent the week, and the show, competing with other viewers on the companion app.
It’s Candy Crush-meets-The Matrix, which is no coincidence as Kasin worked on the film trilogy’s visual effects. “She lied when she said she could shoot,” winces Stig Olav Kasin, The Future Group’s chief content officer and Bård Anders’ brother, who is watching Thina’s progress on a bank of screens one floor up.
The team hope that the show-and-app combo will get families watching TV together again, rather than scattered all over the house and glued to their own screens. This lofty ideal comes up again and again during the two days that monocle spent on set, making the venture something of a social experiment as well as a technological one. Everything will hinge on how fun the games are; back in December they were still being finessed. Stig insists that they won’t be aimed at “gamers” as they need to appeal to everyone for the concept to work.
Dug James is developing Lost in Time for FremantleMedia’s global entertainment arm; he’s desperate for the show to be as much fun to watch as to play. “It has to work even if you’ve never seen a second screen in your life,” he says. “The story is about three strangers who go on a journey to win a prize that only one of them can take home. The prize will be at its biggest if they play as a team for as long as possible but at some point everyone will decide to play for themselves.” It’s classic game-show territory, which could limit the attraction were it not for the prospect of new ground being broken.
Everyone is being typically Scandinavian about the odds of success, which is to say modest. But it’s clear that Kasin and Høili (the latter’s previous interests spanned Russian supermarkets and an app to help drivers pay for parking across Europe) think they have hit their own jackpot. Success will partly depend on whether rivals are working on something similar but they assure us that anyone with the relevant expertise already works for The Future Group.
The big question: did competing in a virtual world work for the trio? They swear that it did: money is money, after all. “Doing the competition in a virtual environment didn’t take anything away from the experience,” says Roy, a company chief executive who competed against Thina. Whether it was down to the plaits or the challenges, Thina felt as if she’d emerged from her own Hunger Games trial “like Katniss”. monocle went to press before any episodes were available to watch so the jury is still out on whether The Future Group has nailed a new TV age – but it will be fun finding out. The dream is to record future series live “so TV audiences could impact the game as it is happening”, smiles Stig. Just as long as it’s not the other way round.
VR: Virtual Reality concerns putting yourself in a virtual environment.
AR: Augmented Reality means placing a virtual object into the real world, as with Pokémon Go.
MR: Mixed Reality places real people and objects into a virtual world, then in real time merges the real, augmented and virtual into one visual end result.
IMR: Immersed Mixed Reality lets the TV viewer participate in the same virtual world as the character(s), joining the same story and playing the same challenges at home on their mobile phone or tablet as they see on TV.
Find yourself in 'Lost in Time'
1. Make a spectacle: Are you the sort of person who isn’t afraid of making a fool of yourself on national TV? Then you’ll have to hope that a broadcaster in your country buys the rights to Lost in Time from FremantleMedia and The Future Group.
2. Be unique: Next you need to keep an eye out for an open casting call for future contestants. Usual game-show rules apply so it will help to stand out from the crowd. Expect plenty of Katniss Everdeen hairstyles and facial hair to denote ruggedness.
3. Prepare to fight: Now you’re ready to compete against your two fellow participants. Please note: the show’s producers will call them “team-mates” but this is a winner-takes-all affair so it’s every man, or woman, for themselves.
4. Be a good all-rounder: Each show includes five challenges, which could feature one of four different games from logic to shooting, and could occur in one of six different eras. These are: the Jurassic period, the ice age, medieval times, the American Wild West, 1920s’ New York and the space age. The better a contestant does in each challenge, the bigger the potential jackpot that one of them will take home. Oh, and the more time they can bank to take into the final round, which takes place in some mystical future setting.
5. Go for gold: So you’ve amassed the most seconds? Congrats. That means that you can start the final challenge first; the goal is to catch as many of the silver or gold spheres – or “orbs” to use the Lost in Time lingo – floating around in the sky as you can. Gold ones are worth five times as much as the silver. Simply catch more than the other two and you will pocket the cash. Bear in mind that one person watching will win the same as you so the pressure is on.