You Judge It -- Wirelessly

By Gerry Blackwell

July 07, 2003

San Francisco's U Judge It! Film festival let Wi-Fi-enabled audience members vote for awards.

Film festival audiences often cheer, hiss, boo and walk out to express their feelings about the product on the screen. Some just fall asleep.

At the first annual U Judge It! Film Festival, held July 6 at the Delancey Street Theater in San Francisco, the audience was able to rate films, talk directly to film makers and vote for awards -- including distinctly odd-ball categories such as "Actor/Actress You Would Most Like to Date" -- all without leaving their seats.

U Judge It! was the first film festival in which audience members with Wi-Fi enabled laptops, PDAs and phones were able to participate directly in the proceedings. Media people and film makers at the 2002 and 2003 Sundance Film Festivals had access to a Wi-Fi network, but not audiences.

"We saw a great opportunity to use a new technology in a way that hasn't been done before," says festival organizer Evette Murray, executive director of the Media Arts Interplay Association (MAIA). "It will be a lot of fun for people and it will be very useful interaction for the artists."

MAIA organized the event with sponsorship from multimedia software developer Macromedia, San Francisco-based wireless handheld application developer Primal Cause, The San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper and Skyy Vodka.

Incorporated last December, MAIA is, according to its charter, "a nonprofit arts education organization committed to providing opportunities for artists and audiences to interact with each other. Our mission is to empower both the creators and consumers of media arts by facilitating the sharing of creative processes and products."

The film festival was the organization's first event. "The original idea was to have a film festival that focused on the user experience and that would bring artist and audience together," Murray explains. "Then the question was, how to do this?"

The answer, which occurred almost simultaneously to the original idea being formed, was Wi-Fi. "I couldn't say Wi-Fi is the reason we decided to do it," Murray says. "But it's an extremely powerful tool in bringing artist and audience together."

Primal Cause, which also developed the Macromedia Flash-based application to be used at the event, installed just one Linksys access point at the 150-seat Delancey Street Theater. It covered the auditorium, the lobby and a little way out onto the street in front.

Capacity could have been an issue, but audience members were connecting to a local server, not the public Internet, and the Java application was not particularly data intensive, notes Primal Cause's Josh Krinsky. The Linksys access point supposedly supports as many as 200 simultaneous users.

"We think it's manageable," Krinsky says.

Murray expected a full-house on July 6, and said she wouldn't be surprised if every single person turns up with a Wi-Fi device. This is the epicenter of techno-America, after all. In fact, this may be the only place on the planet such a scheme might actually work.

Murray takes a longer view. "The Bay area is really good place to start out," she concedes. "There is definitely a high concentration of people with wireless devices here. But it's like the telephone -- people everywhere are eventually going to have this, it's just a matter of time."

Organizers planned to walk audience members through the process of setting up their devices to access the ad hoc network. Participants will need to have Flash, Version 6 installed on their systems.

Users opening the Festival intranet page were to have a choice of four activities: rate a film, vote for an award, talk to a film maker or sound off at the "shout-out" bulletin board.

To rate a film, they simply clicked on the film title in the menu and then used radio buttons to rate it. The awards were, to say the least, kooky. Others include "Film You Wish You Were In" and "Line You Will Quote."

If they choose to talk to a film maker, they could either enter a free-form chat session or answer the four questions about their work that each artist is allowed to post. Some of the film makers were scheduled to be at the event, others planned to participate remotely via the Internet -- including one in Turkey.

The audience-artist interaction is what the event is all about, Murray says, and Wi-Fi is a key enabler.

"When you have Q&As at these things, some people will get up to ask questions if they're not too shy. If they're a little more shy they might wait until after and run up and ask a question."

"By doing it through technology, we're letting anybody ask whatever they want. It means we'll get a lot more questions, and it's very valuable feedback for the film makers. They're really excited about participating."

We almost forgot, there were also films at the U Judge It! festival. Most were indie and short subjects. Programmers looked for award-winners from other recent festivals and new works by former award winners.

Murray is convinced the U Judge It! festival will be back next year, and she also believes there are lots of other applications -- trade shows in particular -- where artists or advertisers could benefit from audience feedback delivered wirelessly.

In fact, Murray says a contact in the film industry in L.A. was intrigued by her project and thinks the idea could be applied to post-release audience surveying for commercial releases -- or even on-the-fly tinkering with the editing of movies.

"Let's say you get all this feedback at the 2 p.m. showing," Murray speculates. "With digital [projection] technology you could download a new version of the film with the offending scene edited out for the 4 p.m. showing."

Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.