Kids Talk To The Screen

Kids visiting Bloomington, Minnesota's Mall of America are lining up to experience 'interactivity' in the truest sense of the word....
January 1, 1996

Kids visiting Bloomington, Minnesota’s Mall of America are lining up to experience ‘interactivity’ in the truest sense of the word.

Through a specially scripted and designed film based on the television series Groundling Marsh, kids are able to do what generations of filmg’ers have only fantasized about – they can literally ‘interact’ with the characters on the screen.

Equipped with individual headsets and three color-coded buttons on the arms of their chairs, each of up to 65 children seated in a customized theater can talk back to characters as the Muppet-like creatures ask questions from the screen.

It is not uncommon to see kids rising in their seats and shouting back to the characters on-screen as the 27 minute film brings the viewers, aged 3 to 8 years, deeper into the narrative.

‘Children are very familiar with the concept of interactivity,’ says Lisa Olfman, president of Portfolio Film and Television, co-producer of both the Groundling series and the interactive film with production partner J.A. Delmage Productions, both of Toronto.

‘Children adapt to technology well. They’re not afraid of guessing the wrong answer. They’re not intimidated by the process,’ says Olfman. ‘In fact, kids see this as an opportunity to deepen their relationship with the characters and become a part of the experience.’

The Groundling Marsh series is set in a mythical outdoor community inhabited by fuzzy puppet characters. The scripts have an entertainment and educational element, often focussing on how the Groundlings can live together in harmony with each other and nature. The show airs in 30 countries.

In the film, called The Great Cave Adventure, the Groundlings are led by a purple coyote-like character named Hegdish to explore a cave in search of a treasure. They encounter a scary monster before making their way to safety.

The interaction takes place every minute or so when a character turns to the audience and asks a question. Children respond by pushing one of three buttons.

‘It’s exciting to watch the children become more and more involved as the computer begins to add more information on each child,’ says Joy Rosen, Olfman’s partner in Portfolio. ‘They begin wriggling in their chairs and talking out loud to the characters once they realize that they’re really connecting.’

The Great Cave Adventure opened in late November in an entertainment center called The Amazing Space.

‘I’ve been surprised at how animated the kids become at certain points in the movie. They’re pushing buttons, talking back to the screen. Even the little ones (three-year-olds) are getting into it,’ says Amazing Space General Manager Anni Gunderson.

In addition to its theater – which is brightly colored throughout – Amazing Space has adjoining play centers that offer games and amusements ranging from a puppet show and climbing areas to computer terminals. The center also has a retail outlet where, among other things, children can buy apparel, audio and video cassettes and various novelty items featuring Groundling characters.

Amazing Space founder Bill Frank, of Greenwich Entertainment Group based in Stamford, Conneticut is looking to recreate the concept in other centers.

And, Portfolio expects to be shooting a second interactive film in the spring. The company is also hoping to have an American broadcaster signed early in the year, and is working with York City-based The Beanstock Group as a licensing and merchandising agent.

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