Can Jellyvision Charm Real World With Gaming Craze?

CHICAGO – Do games emulate life or does life emulate games?
For Chicago-based Jellyvision, creator of the highly interactive “You Don’t Know Jack” game series, the same principals that drive its entertainment are now being extended into the real world. First stop: Chicago’s Columbia College.

Running up against competitive interest from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia College’s David Gerding best clicked with Jellyvision founder and CEO Harry Gottlieb. Gerding, an interactive multimedia professor at Columbia College, is one of Jellyvision’s more rabid fans.

“I had been using You Don’t Know Jack in class as an example of good interactive design. I met Harry years ago at a game developer’s conference and said we want to be the site he partners with educationally,” Gerding said. “The conversational interface used in the game has pioneered a dominant new way of thinking as a replacement for navigational graphical interfaces like the Web.”

Gerding says the ultimate shortfall of a participant-driven medium like the Web (rather than a user-driven medium like Jellyvision’s game) is its passive nature. If your computer screen stays on one Web site for 60 minutes, chances are you’ll see the same content when you return. The missing link, Gerding says, is the prompt to engage.

“The brilliant thing about Jack is the visceral and engaging quality of TV that still remains highly interactive. No one else has done it consistently and done it consistently well,” Gerding said. “It’s the same suspension of disbelief at the movies. While you know it’s not real, if you create the design the right way, people will buy in and suspend their disbelief to engage in a rich level of interaction.”
Harry Gottlieb, founder and CEO of Jellyvision, plans to take his iCi game engine out of the box and into the real business world.
Photo courtesy of Jellyvision
Gerding says he has demonstrated the game to some 400 people over the years. When asking for a thumbs up or thumbs down, he says he has received zero negative reaction.

The trend has even caught on locally, Gerding says, who attributes the first-person tone of United Airlines’ automated phone system to Jellyvision’s emotionally charged responsiveness.

“If you want a medium that is engaging, it has to have a timeline. It has to move ahead in the same way a TV show doesn’t wait for you,” Gerding said. “Our brains are wired up to watch for change. Most Web sites sit there and wait for us. Even looping Flash clips have to call out to you with context. Most of us filter out the noise on the Web that’s supposed to grab our attention.”

Gerding cites his father as an example of someone who understands the way Jellyvision is exploiting communication to connect with people of all ages and experience levels. He added: “My dad, who to this day is in his 60s and doesn’t use a PC, was playing Jack three minutes after I turned it on. He understood it. The learning curve is nominal to none.”

In class, Gerding says he’s taking some of Jellyvision’s original thinking and exploding it anywhere the interface might have a natural fit. He says the medium isn’t as much about technology as it is about the human psyche and the way we yearn for attention. In this case, Gerding views technology as a means of catalyzing better communication.

Columbia College’s new Jellyvision course, which began its first class about a month ago under an obscure “interactive multimedia” name, signed up 10 students out of 16 available slots. Not discouraged by the turn out, Gerding says students don’t yet understand what the course is about. He says the next new class will begin in the summer or fall of 2003.
CD COPIES SOLD:
About 5 million since early 1996
PRICE PER CD:
Between $10 and $30
PROFITABLE COMPANY SINCE:
1995
FRANCHISE WORTH:
About $75 million
REACH:
11 CDs, two PlayStation titles, TV show (ran on ABC in summer 2000), two books, tabletop game version, two online versions
EMPLOYEES:
15 full time plus external contract workers
Though students currently have access to Jellyvision’s software, Gerding says the company is sensitive to how much of it they can see.

Gerding, who runs his own Chicago consultancy called Versive, added: “There exists a certain degree of secrecy in class. There’s a fuzzy gray area that Harry tries to talk about without revealing innovations to his competitors.”

Gottlieb, who lectured on the first day of class, has even made the students beta testers to Jellyvision on the path to identify software’s notorious bugs. As far as why he chose Columbia College over competitive interest, Gottlieb says he bought into Gerding and Columbia’s analogous vision.

“Dave really gets on my soapbox. We’re on the same wavelength,” Gottlieb said. “It’s very clear that the Columbia College faculty understands that communication is about using tools and technology to tell a story. It’s about what it is you are communicating more than the art of communication.”

Beyond the game box, Gerding appears to latch onto Jellyvision’s grander vision. If commercialized extensively, he believes Jellyvision’s conversational interface will surpass the number of hours people spend on other media.

The Secret to Jellyvision’s Jack

So what is this “interactive conversation” thing? Playing off the much older GUI moniker (a human-to-machine tool that stands for graphical user interface), Jack’s silver bullet is something called iCi. The company’s interactive conversation interface is designed to reach through the screen and grab unsuspecting users.
Rather than relying on computer menus or a mouse for human input, iCi communicates through words and has the appearance of a back-and-forth conversation between a machine and a person. That in itself, Gottlieb says, is a very old idea.

Though humans and machines have been talking in some form or another for decades, Gottlieb says most approaches have been dominated by AI (artificial intelligence). A computer-science approach, AI uses algorithms that try to convince the human brain of the fantasy of communicating with another human. The success of that approach, Gottlieb says, is still far away.
“You Don’t Know Jack,” Jellyvision’s flagship product, has gone international.
Courtesy of Jellyvision
The “Turing Test,” which was developed by codebreaker Alan Turing, places a machine on the other end of a human in a chatroom-like environment. If the human can’t tell the difference between a machine or another human on the other end, one has passed the test. To this day, Gottlieb says no machine has come close to passing without a human eventually detecting some trace of artificial intelligence.

Rather than a computer science approach, iCi on the other hand is an audio-visual production approach that mirrors radio and television but without the complex rule set of AI. With iCi, humans create an intricate branching structure and determine at every branch how a computer responds. Real writers write the responses and real performers perform the actions.

When playing one of the Jack games, an immediate example hits gamers at the very beginning of the game. The host, who in the first Jack is actually Harry Gottlieb himself (who plays “Nate”), will ask you your name. If a few seconds elapses without any typed keystrokes, you’ll be asked again. After more time passes, the game will make an unflattering name for you.

(By the way, the second Jack is hosted by outside talent and the third Jack is actually Harry’s brother, Tom, an actor who plays “Cookie”.)

A more complex example of iCi in action is at the end of a Jack game where players compete head to head in a “Jack Attack” showdown. There, the game often analyzes interactions between the players throughout the game and remarks on a stash of recorded observations.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Originally an educational company called Learn Television, Jellyvision began in 1989 with educational films and a series called “That’s a Fact Jack” for the educational market. With 38-year-old Gottlieb at the helm, Jellyvision is run entirely by 30-somethings.
To date, Jellyvision has sold about 5 million copies of You Don’t Know Jack, according to Jellyvision President Amanda Lannert. With each CD ranging from $10 to $30, Lannert says the private franchise is worth in the ballpark of $75 million. Gottlieb says Jellyvision has been profitable since 1995.

The company currently has 11 CDs, two PlayStation titles, a TV show (that ran in the summer of 2000 on ABC), two books, a tabletop game version and two online versions. Jellyvision, which is currently working on its third Jack in German, also has one version in French, one for the U.K. and one in Japanese. Gottlieb declined to disclose his next Jack for the U.S.

Though Jellyvision only has 15-full time employees, the company often seeks external talent.

Lannert says Jellyvision’s business model is atypical to Chicago and is more similar to a Los Angeles entertainment model. With a fully internal design team, Jellyvision contracts external aid when requirements surface. Lannert says Jellyvision first chooses from a pool of alum and then seeks new help secondarily.

Looking toward the future, Gottlieb has created Jellyvision Labs, which raised an undisclosed amount of money about a year ago. Still in start-up mode, Gottlieb’s vision for iCi is to take the same interactive Jack approach into business services. He is currently eyeing sales, teaching, tour guides, investment advice, improved automated phone systems and advertising.

Gottlieb believes there is whole new industry whereby the illusion of awareness can be created to communicate a great number of things in chorus. The goal, he says, is to make conversation adequately seamless so people willfully suspend their disbelief and aren’t bothered by working with a machine.

“iCi is agnostic to content and style,” Gottlieb said. “Though it’s just another way of saying something, it can speak to millions of people one on one simultaneously.”