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Commonwealth Games 2002

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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Virtual TV bets on success
horse racers
Racers will compete every 10 minutes
By media correspondent Nick Higham

Welcome to the world's first entirely computer-generated television channel.

It's called I-Race, it's the brainchild of a computer games company in Scotland called VIS Entertainment, it's coming to a digital television set near you some time next year, and BBC News Online has had a sneak preview.

I-Race will consist of nothing but horse-races - with computer-generated runners and riders competing every 10 minutes on computer-generated racecourses.

Only the commentator's voice will be real. The channel will be interactive as well.

computer
The races are computer-generated
Viewers will be able to bet on the outcome of each race, and, for a monthly subscription they'll be able to "buy" a horse, specify the way it is fed and trained, and enter it for the channel's virtual races.

It is all the fun and kudos of being a racehorse owner without the ruinous expense or the hassle.

The graphics are impressive, combining the speed and excitement of many games with the 3D rendering and natural-seeming movements of the elaborately rendered beasts in film and TV productions like Jurassic Park and Walking with Dinosaurs.

Chris van der Kuyl, VIS Entertainment's chief executive, says the high quality is made possible because they run on high-powered servers rather than computer games consoles or PCs.

Carmageddon

With processing power many times greater than even the most expensive games console, VIS's servers can achieve a much more realistic effect.

The aim, he says, has been to create a "parallel universe" of horse-racing as exciting and involving as the real thing.

Van der Kuyl knows a thing or two about computer games.

His company, based in Dunfermline with four branches across the UK, employs more than 100 staff and was responsible for one of the most controversial games of recent years, the car crash game Carmageddon.

An equally controversial new game, a "riot" game called State of Emergency, has just been released in the United States to predictable cries of outrage.

Arguments

To provide expertise on the horse-racing side of things van der Kuyl has recruited Bill Oppenheim, an American who makes his living advising owners in the real world on what horseflesh to buy.

Oppenheim maintains the real world of racing is "a nightmare", in which owners spend as much time and energy embroiled in politics and in arguments with race officials, trainers and jockeys as they do devising training strategies and actually racing their horses.

For its virtual owners I-Race, he says, should be a distinct improvement.

Cheap

VIS, which has gone into partnership with one of the UK's two big cable TV companies, Telewest, is investing 4m in creating the channel.

But once it is up and running it will be extraordinarily cheap to operate - running 24 hours a day and employing just a handful of technicians and commentators.

VIS will make its money from selling horses to "owners" and from on-screen betting.

But is it really a good idea for punters to bet on races whose outcome could be controlled by the very people who are taking your money?

Random

Does VIS not have an incentive to rig the result so as to avoid paying out too much money?

Van der Kuyl claims that cannot happen - partly because there is a significant random element in the outcome of each race which is beyond VIS's control, but mainly because I-Race won't offer fixed-odds betting, like that provided by conventional bookmakers.

Instead it will offer pool betting, like the Tote, where van der Kuyl says the operator pays out the same amount regardless of which horse wins and so has no interest in rigging the outcome.

The initial reaction from the real world racing establishment has been cautious.

John Maxse of the Jockey Club says the graphics are impressive, but that the feeling of being involved with a winning horse, whether as owner, trainer or punter, is not something that can be readily replaced.

Launch

The likes of Red Rum and Desert Orchid earned their places in punters' hearts precisely because they were real live horses.

If the racing establishment is lukewarm, the television industry has yet to give its verdict.

VIS is unveiling its plans at this weekend's Edinburgh Television Festival and hopes to launch next year.

But the digital television market is increasingly crowded. It may find the going a bit heavy.


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