Unique Calit2 broadcast invites viewer input via the Web in August

By Steven Mihailovich

Although you can occasionally see history in the making on television, you can’t make history by watching television. However, the University of California San Diego is attempting just that with airings of “Kamza and Bar Kamza” this month on UCSD-TV.Two years in the making, the broadcasts of the previously staged performance will be synchronized with live Web content to allow interactive viewer participation as the musical drama progresses.

Once the data is tabulated by researchers at the UCSD branch of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), the audience input could have broader implications for a whole host of subjects such as education, performance arts, conferencing and even computers that can interpret emotions, according to Schlomo Dubnov, UCSD professor of music and director of Calit2’s Center for Research in Entertainment and Learning, which is conducting the experiment.

“I kept thinking about this after the (live performance) … was there some way to tap into the silent conversations that people have in their minds during a performance and bring them to the front of a performance?” Dubnov said. “Another question is what do entertainment and learning have to do with each other? This is where the potential is. A lot of learning already incorporates these technologies, but for a specific lesson. But in art, we don’t have a specific lesson.”

Created by Dubnov, “Kamza and Bar Kamza,” is a tale based on the Jewish Talmud about two men involved in events that triggered the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman armies in 70 CE. The stage production was first performed at Calit2’s Auditorium on the UCSD campus on March 5, 2008

and starred vocalist Phil Larson and percussionist Steve Schick, both UCSD music professors, according to Doug Ramsey, spokesman for Calit 2.

During the original performance on stage, Ramsey said the approximately 120 audience members were able to access supplemental information about the play, such as historical background and Talmudic interpretations among others, from laptops as well as engage in question-and-answer chats and analysis whose contents were flashed across a screen.

The TV broadcasts will replicate the stage experience Dubnov said, allowing home viewers to log onto the Web to research and discuss aspects of the play. Video segments between scenes will feature six different scholars offering points about the play’s various themes to lead the discussion.

“Every time the scenes change, the Web updates the page,” Dubnov said. “The more interesting part of the story is the questions the commentators bring up. We had two economic professors. The reason is that these people are close to rationality, or game theory. What were the actions of each side and what was accomplished? We let people hear different interpretations. From the rendering of the story to the interpretations of experts to the public debate, it triggers understanding and one’s own interpretation.”

Because of the repeated broadcasts and the parameters of the experiment, Ramsey noted that the data captured from the Web users will be twice as comprehensive as related information mined by companies such as Google.

“We’ll see how it changes over time,” Ramsey said. “People will see the previous chats and we’ll see where they take the conversation that is already stated. (The information) will guide us where to put effort going forward to develop more robust interface with future programs.”

Dubnov said one goal of the experiment is to deepen the experience of art performance, yet he admits that potential drawbacks exist, such as discussions that degrade into tirades.

“There is always a tradeoff,” Dubnov said. “To what extent does (the discussion) add to the content or distract from it? This probes the boundary of information overload. There is no one answer. During the live performance, the younger audience could easily split their attention. But some guests thought they came to see a musical performance and were annoyed that they became part of a game.”

As a musician, Schick said his live performance of the piece was likely affected subconsciously by the experiment in the same way that the introduction of TV cameras might have influenced performers 60 years ago. However, he believes there are limits to audience participation just like there are boundaries to opening up technical scientific debates to public discourse.

“When (the audience) was able to react, that means by definition, they weren’t listening,” Schick said. “There is a way in which the product decays because of interaction. If I start playing to comments, I think I’m abrogating some responsibility to the piece.”

Although the experiment is innovative, Dubnov said there is nothing new because television networks are already doing similar research. The results of his experiment will move the process along in the same manner that the creation of the modern automobile was not a singular invention but the result of incorporating existing technologies.

Yet with Dubnov talking about the process resulting in computers that can identify emotions and create art in the future, the experiment is as cutting edge as is attainable.

“The technology is already there, but it requires a lot of work to implement it,” Dubnov said. “We do witness a lot of technology helping or interfering in the artistic process, depending on how you look at it. What then is the role of the individual voice? Well, the answer is that you have to be better than that (the technology).”

If you watch


TV broadcast ‘Kamza and Bar Kamza’


10 p.m. Thursday, Aug.11 and Sunday, Aug. 14; 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19; 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22


UCSD-TV (In San Diego Cox and Time Warner Ch. 135; Time Warner Del Mar Ch. 19; AT&T Uverse Ch. 99; and UHF (no cable) Ch. 35.


Experiment to study interaction between viewers and program conducted by Schlomo Dubnov, professor of music and director of Center for Research in Entertainment and Learning at the UCSD branch of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology


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during the program’s scheduled airing