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Digital Living Room

'Pearl Harbor' Site Will Give Movie Fans an Added Dimension

March 29, 2001|JON HEALEY | jon.healey@latimes.com

To Internet users with dial-up modems, the typical Web site feels like a magazine whose pages are stuck together, or a slide show with a slow motor.

Maybe that's why entertainment sites on the Internet have done so poorly. It's not the material; it's the presentation.

Designer John Textor of JesterDigital aims to change that by transforming the look and feel of the Web.

"The Internet is not prepared for entertainment, the entertainment customer," said Textor, who is JesterDigital's chief executive. "We believe that you should dive into the Internet, not have to go through page after page of crap."

Some companies contend that the main problem is dial-up modems, which choke down the amount of data flowing from a Web site to the visitor. But Textor argues that Web designers don't take advantage of the medium, which has the power to immerse users in virtual worlds.

Take, for example, the site that Jester is building to promote the movie "Pearl Harbor," one of those massively expensive would-be epics that Hollywood unleashes every summer.

Instead of a set of static Web pages, Jester's "Pearl Harbor" site is an interlocking series of three-dimensional environments. Visitors navigate through them the same way they'd wander around a room--or a 3-D video game--using their cursor keys and mouse buttons to create the illusion of movement.

Although 3-D has caught on in some corners of the Net, such as multi-player games and real-estate sales, it's never lived up to the hype of virtual reality. Jester, Worlds.com and Activeworlds.com, among others, are starting to make inroads in the music and film industries, building 3-D sites for bands and films as a way to boost fan interest.

The same approach could be applied to any endeavor that has an active fan base, Textor said. One of the company's projects is to build online, 3-D replicas of NFL stadiums where fans could hear locker-room interviews, watch workouts and poke into all the hidden recesses that TV never shows.

On the "Pearl Harbor" site, which is due to open to the public next month, users will be able to explore the Hawaiian harbor from the sea and the air, trigger videos that reenact scenes from the surprise attack and possibly even chat with survivors.

For example, visitors will be able to wander around the Arizona, a battleship destroyed in the assault, and launch a video from the movie showing Japanese Zeroes flying overhead. They also will be able to take the controls of a U.S. or Japanese plane and buzz around the island. They might even take a ride on a bomb.

How interesting it ultimately is will depend on the amount of detail that Jester plugs into the site. Textor said Jester has a massive amount of material that it's trying to integrate in installments, giving Web surfers a reason to make multiple visits.

In the test version that launched last week, visitors could tour the bridge of the Arizona and watch various members of the crew working the controls. They could climb to the main deck and see the warships lined up around the harbor. And they could hop into a virtual plane and scan the harbor from a few hundred feet in the air, getting a feeling for the scope and the allure of the target.

Michael Bay, director of "Pearl Harbor" and a co-founder of JesterDigital, "wanted everybody to get a sense for the scale of this, physically," Textor said. "I don't think people realized how stacked up these boats were, sitting ducks, just waiting to be attacked."

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the site is that it's designed for dial-up speeds, not cable modems or other supercharged Net connections. Once visitors have spent a few minutes downloading the necessary plug-in for their browser, they can move seamlessly through each 3-D scene. There's a brief pause when they move from one setting to another, but it's no more than the time it takes to load a Web page.

JesterDigital is one of a small cadre of companies developing Web sites that have the look and feel of 3-D. It was created by Textor, a former professional skateboarder and snowboarding retailer, and his former college roommate, Bay, director of such adrenaline-fueled flicks as "Armageddon" and "The Rock." Another founder is Phil Ruggieri, a former IBM executive.

"I'm not a big believer in e-commerce," Textor said. "I think the most powerful application of our technology is not just 3-D visualization but applications that lend themselves to building community."

That's why the 3-D sites are built so visitors can interact with one another through public and private messaging tools. It's also the feature that gives 3-D navigation such great potential for educational sites, such as one Jester has demonstrated for the pyramids in Giza.

Unfortunately for Mac users, the initial version of the "Pearl Harbor" site will work only on Windows-based computers. Textor said he hopes to have a Java-based version that will work with most Mac or PC Web browsers before the film premieres Memorial Day weekend.

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Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the digital living room.

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