It's three o'clock in the morning in Davos, Switzerland, and I turn on the TV set. I can't sleep. 3sat runs Piazza Virtuale - interactive television. I hang out.
The screen is crowded: the upper half shows two video windows, where real people look down into the camera, virtually into my living room. Their heads loom large and I can hear their voices. The lower part shows text: a bulletin board conversation by modem between three people. In the middle of the screen it shows the phone numbers for voice, modem and fax. Everybody is talking to everybody: the people in the video windows (one says 'entry point kassel' ), the three
people on the BBS, and others on voice lines. One of the modem users types in the lower part of the screen: Hey you guys up there, show us more than your heads! The people in the video windows laugh. One head moves its body into the picture, draws up his t-shirt and shows his belly. The modem reply is favourable. Someone else plays with a mirror in front of the camera. The modem person types: I can look myself in the eye, ha ha…
The screen changes. It shows a room filled with computer gear, and someone working at least four keyboards and ten screens. The control room? The program schedule appears. There is a 'piazza' linking Kassel with another location throughout every hour and 15-minute special 'piazzetta's'. The next
unsere computer laden jetzt / our computers are loading
Classical interactive orchestra...
It starts. Call now if you want to participate. The screen is split into four, showing four telephone touch-tone pads. This is the soundcheck. Push the buttons and hear what happens. Callers push their phone pad buttons, and on my screen their equivalents turn red. There is a piano sound, a kind of violin and something else. Then the soundcheck is over. The screen switches to a video image with people in entry point kassel again, and four small icons on the left side of the screen show when there is an interactive musician online. The virtual musicians play. At the top of the screen it says: singing: 0561-719020.
Several callers are heard mulling it over and then singing. Everbody's is trying: a concerted effort seems far away. It'll take at least a decade before quality virtual opera.
After 15 minutes exactly (precision TV timing imposing its limits on virtual reality):
VAN GOGH TV/ presents / the / deutsche / piazzettas
The screen comes on in fully interactive set-up: two video windows, the bulletin board area below, and a second bulletin board superimposed over one of the video pictures:
mr Yeah, live on German tv
microbyte How many people are watching?
mr I'm one
mr I guess not many because it's 4 am
microbyte Hello Germany
mr Hello USA
Berlin talks to Kassel. The Kassel picture is jumpy - ISDN? People in the Kassel picture have a mike and one asks if the green bbs text scrolling over their faces can be changed. Can they put up their own text? Immediately the green text reads: / shut up kassel / we stay / I have a problem, Kassel says. Somebody digitizes that piece of text, and slows it down. I h a v e a p r o b l e m ... dark-sounding and slow, it becomes a background sound and is used as such for
the next five minutes.
Dirty Harry, Tom and Frog talk to each other on the lower half of the screen, complaining about the lack of attention from the heads in the 'entry point kassel'screen, whom they call 'voicers'.
/ dirty harry: who is tom? / tom: moment / tom: hi jessica / dirty harry: hi voicer. berlin charlottenburg greets / dirty harry: voicers read downhere / frog: ''the voicers
read seldom / goodbye / goodbye'' /
The time limits cut off the callers. / welcome / And processes the next call.
our computers are now loading / unsere computer laden jetzt
muskart, die robotcamera
The screen shows a picture of a phone pad and a drawing of a camera hanging from the ceiling on a rail. A voice explains that pushing buttons on the telephone pad moves the camera. The screen switches into a room, the tel pad in the lower left hand corner, and in the upper right, a counter counting down from 3350. One of the buttons of the tone pad lights up, and the camera moves. It slides on a rail and turns, showing a large room crammed with computers,
screens, and people watching and typing. The people are the ones we saw inhabiting the entry point kassel screen before. A guy with headphones comes into
view and asks the viewer to focus on his head, guiding him: A little to the left, no that's enough. Where do you live? Bielefeld. Shall I arrange a meeting for you? ok You like the station there? yeah, ok. Suddenly the camera jerks into movement, racing past the guy's face. The caller pushes another button and it moves back, as jerkily as it moved forward. ok tomorrow at six what's his name will be at the station in Bielefeld for any girl interested.
The counter in the upper left hand corner is down to zero and there is another caller. Hi, where do you call from? Bremerhafen! Turn to me. How? Turn the camera. Left or right? What do you think? The camera turns. Then it stops. No movement. Are you there? Push arrow-star-arrow. You have to move the camera otherwise it will disconnect you. Move the camera. The caller is gone and a click gives way to the next one. This guy knows what he's doing. What is your name? But the camera slides fast along the track, and turns are exercised expertly. He seems to look into the different spaces between the racks with stuff.
One, two, three, four. People wave absent-mindedly, while working and talking into phones. It's late, and the flying camera was news long ago. The caller seems satisfied. He says Yendo isn't there is he? No – who are you? I'm Matt, and I was here yesterday. He disconnects before the timer is down to zero.
Who are you? Somebody from Berlin. Somebody? Yes. East or West? There is no East or West.
our computers are now loading / unsere computer laden jetzt
Silvia and David...
Text on screen and a voice explains that callers may control a couple, who, like all couples after a while, have their moods. The '*' key switches moods (loving, day-to-day, fighting, making up) and the numbers let you choose texts. ('Please let the speakers finish their text, otherwise they start stuttering!') The two callers ('the first to call controls Silvia, the second David') push buttons selecting moods and texts. Silvia and David, close-up shots of a woman (left) and a man (right), talk to each other ('movie now being loaded'). Under their heads their mood is printed while they talk: I don't understand why you are so stupid and I can't stand it any longer. I love you. Come over here and let's have fun! When the time is up, a sign saying 'divorced!' disconnects the users and lets others play. The callers let Silvia and David experience violent mood swings while pushing their '*' button. It's virtually real life.
In the background telephone conversations go on (what's your name and what can I do for you?)
The piazzetta gives way to the piazza again.
van gogh tv / the coffeehouse / communication with fax,
minitel, modem and telephone / dial germany and 0561 kassel /
send your fax to be displayed here
The last piazzetta is Do You want to Confess? where, while the screen is black, callers may confess and a priest ('this is a pre-recorded voice!') offers little sound advice. Calls end with no absolution is granted! It's not very interesting, and I zap for a while, waiting for the end to come.
At six o'clock the program signs off. Now we get to see the architects and the owner of the piazza. It's the early morning of September 6, 1992.
The piazza is a special feature from the Dokumenta IX in Kassel, thanking all the people, all hard- and software suppliers, and proudly announcing that they were switched into Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and a couple of other eastern European countries. It's broadcast by the largest German TV station: © ZDF 1992.