FoxPop: DVD Bonus Features, Via Laptop and iPhone

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The recession has been kind to movie theaters but rough on DVD retailers. As sales have slowed – with the exception of Blu-rays, which continue to be embraced and adopted at a rapid pace – studios have looked to increasingly creative ways of enhancing the home entertainment experience. That typically means more special features, more interactivity through PS3 and web-connected Blu-Ray players and a whole new generation of software programs that attempt to pump up the run-of-the-mill DVD by linking together multiple entertainment appliances.

The newest bit of DVD software is an application called “FoxPop,” which is being promoted heavily in conjunction with tomorrow’s release of “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” on both DVD and Blu-ray. Powered by Spot411, FoxPop is a program that essentially allows a home viewer – watching the film in any form – to link their television to both their computer and iPhone. Using the internal microphones of the device, FoxPop listens and synchs up with the film, and then delivers random facts, trivia and behind-the-scenes details that pop up for the viewer at specific points throughout the film. In the video above, you’ll see my first exposure to the program: We switched on our iPhone, listened to the DVD for about 10 seconds so our phone could synch up, and then every minute or so, a new fact would download to our phone. It’s pop-up video for your DVD, all powered through your computer, which you can then use to compare your trivia answers or responses to all the others being submitted by users on the FoxPop network.

I found the whole setup rather impressive. Unlike other iPhone programs, which seem to routinely fail in their promise to capture audio and produce the name of any given song, FoxPop synched up effortlessly time and again. And the facts that followed rolled in at a steady pace, allowing me to stay immersed in the story even as I was engaged with the software. There were only one or two times during the film when the facts were streaming in so rapidly that there was a traffic jam of sorts, as the iPhone was both uploading data that I had entered while trying to download additional items.

As for the content of the pop-ups, I thought the “Night at the Museum” lineup offered a healthy cross-section of asides. There were biographical insights into Amelia Earhart and Sacajawea. There were special effects breakdowns, revealing how they got a giant squid to kiss Ben Stiller and how they used CG to animate all these elaborate historical hallways. There were even facts about the layout and geography of the Smithsonian.

Even better were the pop-ups that followed up on statements made by characters themselves, messages that asked essentially if you believed what just happened. I often find myself questioning things just like this in movies where history or religion is on the table. When Stiller meets Brundan the security guard, for example, there’s the claim made that “Brundan” was the most popular boy’s name of 1984. And sure enough, a second later on our phone, the trivia popped onto my screen: True or false? I said it was false – who would name their kid Brundan! – and sure enough I was right. But looking at my answer, what intrigued me even more was that FoxPop revealed the full statistics for this question, and that a third of people thought that the claim was true. I enjoyed this flexibility, that I could play along not only with the movie, but with all the other home viewers as well.

It’s that sort interactivity with FoxPop that I think has the most promise: This ability to see what others thought of a given fact, scene or plot point. There’s one moment in “Night in the Museum” where anarchy breaks loose, and FoxPop asks: What do you think he should next? I offered my answer, as to what I thought Ben Stiller should do, and then saw what the other iPhone users said as well. To be honest, I was excited to see what their answers were. This is sort of a high-tech variation on all those choose-your-own-adventure books when we were kids. The movie’s not going to change direction, mind you, but I think this could be a riveting device for measuring how audiences actually wanted a film to play out. In an action film, what weapon would you have used? In a romantic comedy, how would you have tried to pick up the girl? In a sci-fi film, what crew member of the spaceship would you have wanted to be? Did you like the ending, or how would you have changed the ending?

Could this be a way for studios to measure an audience’s appetite for a sequel?

The promise of this technology is evident. But for now, it makes the most sense to keep FoxPop relegated to projects that seem ripe for a game of trivial pursuit. It’s already been announced that FoxPop will be used with the “(500) Days of Summer” DVD release, which seems to make perfect sense. Musical trivia galore. But another upcoming release is planned for “Jennifer’s Body.” That one could result in a rather boring stream of pop-ups, unless they’re planning on literring the film with horror genre tidbits.

Paired with titles that make sense, FoxPop could be an ingenious way of integrating the audience into the spectacle. But used with a title that can’t offer much juicy trivia, it runs the risk of becoming just another distraction from the reason you bought the DVD in the first place. So first impressions: Impressive and fun. But now we’ll see where they go from here.

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