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Nashville Scene Use the Mouse, Luke

The Jedis return with some new multimedia tools

By James Hanback Jr.

MAY 24, 1999:  In the late 1970s, America was in need of heroes, Star Wars creator George Lucas said. We were coming down from a space-race high, and our parents were still sore over Watergate even though we were already well into the Carter administration.

Pac-Man was not yet a phenomenon. Indiana Jones was still a couple of years away from being chased through an ancient treasure cove by a gigantic boulder.

But thanks to Lucas and other filmmakers, not to mention a host of new special effects technology, we found those new heroes, and a tad of escapsim to boot.

In 1977, we stared rapt at theater screens, watching a "band of rebels" fight an evil galactic empire a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Not long after that, we believed a man could fly when Christoper Reeve donned blue tights and red underwear to save Margot Kidder from a fall to certain death off the roof of the Daily Planet.

As children, we collected the toys, the comic books, anything we could get our hands on to celebrate the Star Wars experience. It was how we continued to enjoy the film even after we could no longer see it on the big screen.

The special effects techniques of the late 1970s are old hat now, replaced by newer and more sophisticated technologies that awe us by creating spectacles like The Matrix. But more than that, the experience after the film has changed.

Oh, sure, we'll always have the toys and the action figures, but there's also a new dimension of technology that allows us to experience Star Wars on a more intimate level. That technology, of course, is spawned from the World Wide Web.

Two weeks before the release of The Phantom Menace, Interactive Pictures Corp. announced "an immersive tour" of the set of the new Star Wars film (http://www.starwars.com/episode-i/features/tour/). Specifically, users can virtually enter Anakin Skywalker's home and stroll around.

Up through the film's release, starwars.com has been instrumental in news and multimedia related to the Star Wars experience. The site was responsible for releasing both a teaser trailer and the official release trailer for the film to the Web.

But the addition of the interactive tour of Anakin Skywalker's home brings something to the Star Wars fans they've never had before: a chance to see the set in a 360-degree environment, and explore it beyond the depth of a movie screen.

"The surfer can easily download the IPIX viewer and take a complete tour of Anakin Skywalker's home on the planet Tatooine," Interactive Pictures officials said in a statement about the technology. "Seven different images allow you to explore the whole dwelling and really feel like you are visiting the set."

I downloaded the IPIX plug-in for Netscape Navigator on a 90mhz Power Macintosh 7200 running Mac OS 8.1 with a T-1 connection to the Internet. The Mac version of the plug-in is a one-megabyte download and may require users to increase the memory Netscape uses to operate properly. (The plug-in is also available for Windows machines running Netscape Navigator 3.0 or later, or Internet Explorer 3.0 or later.)

Installation and adjustments for the plug-in took approximately 30 seconds, after which I immediately returned to starwars.com and began my tour of Anakin's home.

If you're a fan of interactive puzzle games like Myst or Riven, then the tour may seem like familiar territory. The IPIX plug-in allows the user to move around Anakin's home with the mouse, and view each room by rotating a full 360-degrees right, left, up, or down.

It is not the first time the 360-degree imaging technology has been put to use. America Online partnered with Interactive Pictures to showcase the technology with the telling of a haunted house tale one Halloween.

Unlike the haunted house story, the tour of Anakin's home does not have a soundtrack. Nor is it interactive beyond the ability to move around the rooms. (There are no characters in Anakin's home with which to interact, nor can the user pick up and examine the objects lying around the room.)

Lacking in those multimedia as it may be, the tour is still an effective way to add to the new Star Wars experience, and provides the user with a view of the set that cannot be seen from simply watching the film.

If nothing else, the interactive tour bodes well for the future of filmmaking and entertainment technology. Perhaps in another few years we'll have Star Wars: Episode VII, in which we will wear cybersuits and special glasses that allow us to become completely immersed in the film, perhaps even allowing us to interactively affect its conclusion.

We can believe Christopher Reeve could fly. We can believe a Jim Henson muppet is an ancient Jedi master. And now, we want to be involved.


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