BBC picks a ‘Fight’

Pubcaster mixes gaming, virtual reality, warriors

LONDON — Forget reality shows, the BBC is pushing into uncharted cyber space with the first virtual reality show — and the pubcaster is betting that it has a major hit on its hands.

“Fightbox” mixes gladiatorial combat, virtual reality and live computer gaming on the TV screen. The technology, developed in-house, has the studio audiences’ own computer-generated warriors slugging it out with one another as well as set-piece challenges in a futuristic amphitheater.

The 20 30-minute shows are taped in Europe’s largest virtual reality studio at BBC TV Center in London and has contestants sitting in high-tech control pods manipulating their customized eight-foot warriors through various obstacles.

Some 61 contestants were drawn from almost 100,000 entries to the BBC’s online “Fightbox” contests. Cheerleaders, family and friends will support them in the studio. It makes for a heady mix.

The technology depends on the BBC’s own “Free-D” camera-tracking system, which allows the show’s presenters to walk behind and in front of the virtual reality characters. “Fightbox” uses 11 cameras and the director can revisit the action at whim, pulling down a different camera angle long after the audience has left.

“We wanted the whole thing, the warriors as well as interaction in the studio, to be seamless enough for non-techies and non-gamers to enjoy,” says the show’s executive producer Nick Southgate.

Helping in the mass-viewer appeal are six “house robots” called Sentients. While five are ugly monsters, the sixth is a pretty, three-toed warrior named Pearl, who packs a punch.

The enthusiastic atmosphere comes from 300 spectators able to view the action at eye-level on a giant projected screen.

The fast-paced action has all the elements found in console games, with flames, spikes and the house robots to bar progress.

The show’s winner will become the seventh Sentient and will, says BBC2/BBC3 senior commissioning exec Celia Taylor, appear in subsequent series.

“Fightbox” is the brainchild of Southgate and Finbar Hawkins, and developed by BBC-owned multimedia outfit Gamezlab.

The show, says Danny Popkin, the BBC’s technical development manager, has “pushed the boundaries. We bring humans, 3D virtual characters and a live audience to interact flawlessly for the first time.”

The BBC says that there are other applications, especially in news, for its 3D technology, for which it has filed for a patent.

“Fightbox” is a major commission for the BBC’s digital channel, BBC3, and it will air nightly in primetime this October.

BBC2, a joint commissioner along with BBC Worldwide and BBCi, will air the show a month later.

The format will be presented to buyers at the October’s Mipcom in Cannes, and Taylor says it already has had attention from U.S. producers as well Japanese and European interest.