Veil adds new ring-kle to Ericsson TV spots

Interactive technology lets viewers of 'Millionaire' know whether they've won prizes

It's usually Regis, questions and contestants that draw viewers to
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

This week, though, it will also be the commercials. Ericsson Mobile Phones is using technology from Veil Interactive to give a new interactive dimension to the company's television spots.

"It's a very robust technology," says Mike Power, vice president and account director for Impiric, Ericsson's advertising agency. "What we liked about it is, it has the ability to take a mass medium and personalize it. Also, it's portable and isn't contingent on any sort of a box to work. As long as you have the game piece, you can play."

Ericsson has direct-mailed 100,000 "game pieces," plastic molded "cellular phones" that will be activated optically by the TV commercial to let viewers know whether they have won cash or a prize. According to Power, the cost of the game pieces was in the vicinity of $650,000 because they are based on the CAD drawings for the new 280LX phone.

To find out if they've won, viewers point the game piece toward the TV like a remote control and press the Yes button when told to during the commercial. The "phone" then rings, the game piece is activated, and a message on a small LED screen tells them whether they've won.

Although it sounds rather high-tech, it's actually a very simple form of interactivity, according to Veil Interactive Operations Manager Jim Withers. "We take each alternate field of video and change the luminance level by about 1%. When the fields are recombined, the human eye can't see the change in luminance, but the optical detector on the 'phone' can."

The technology has an advantage over other interactive technologies in this simple application, he says, because the signal is encoded over the active video. "It's very transparent to consumers, which is a huge advantage. They don't need a set-top box or anything."

That advantage gets passed on to the broadcaster, which doesn't need to add equipment or change operations. Programming is played to air as usual, and, even if the viewer records the content on a VCR or PVR, the interactive capability is recorded as well.

Because the company wants to retain control of the technology, the encoding of the Veil signal into the commercial is done at Veil's St. Louis headquarters. The only other place the encoders are found is at Competitive Media Reporting in Los Angeles and New York, which uses the technology to encode commercials so that it can verify that commercials are played.

"The encoding doesn't add any appreciable cost to the commercial," says Power.

About a dozen other advertisers have expressed interest in the technology, Withers says, adding that he expects the next Veil-enhanced commercial to air sometime in first quarter 2001.