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Blue Man Group show has a text message for you

During performances on troupe's current tour, viewers interact with show's story line by using mobile phones. Photos: This message sent to you by Blue Man Group

SAN JOSE, Calif.--I'm sitting front and center in an arena here crammed with 10,000 screaming Blue Man Group fans and am witnessing an odd dichotomy: The show is both a celebration and a repudiation of technology.

This is "How to be a Megastar," Blue Man Group's second touring rock 'n' roll show and one that is based on its previous tour in 2003. This is a show where fans are not only permitted to use their cell phones to snap pictures of the performance, they're actually encouraged to do so.

Blue Man Group

has always been on the cutting edge of interaction between its performers and its audiences. In its permanent shows--it is currently in Las Vegas, Boston, Chicago and other cities--there are frequent moments when cast members in their now-familiar black pants and sweatshirts and all-blue faces and heads come into the audience and bring fans up on stage.

But now, with "How to be a Megastar," the troupe is taking interactivity to a new level. By incorporating technology called Mobkastr from a company called Counts Media, Blue Man Group is hoping its fans can take part and feel more directly involved in the tour performances.

The idea is to give audience members a way to use the text messaging features of their mobile phones to interact with the show's overarching story line.

"At certain points during the show, you'll get additional content, and it's kind of an insider track to the show," said Howard Pyle, CEO of Counts Media. "It's kind of like 'Choose Your Own Adventure.'"

Essentially, audience members are invited to proactively send text messages to the Mobkastr servers, which then feed back a series of messages throughout the performance. In a sense, the idea is that the entirety of the messages that flow back and forth comprise a game of sorts that give viewers additional meaning about the show.

Unclear instructions
Unfortunately, I failed to understand the instructions---and had missed several cues informing the audience that participating in the Mobkastr experience would cost $1.99. When I texted the very first codeword, "blue" to the required address and got back a message that said, "Get 60 texts and replies. $1.99 to opt in. Standard msg rates also apply. T&C's Send STOP to opt out, or HELP for help. Send NEXT to begin now," I assumed it was an ad and didn't bother to respond.

Big mistake, apparently. And I didn't realize that the language was mandated by my mobile carrier and wasn't bland text in the form of a poorly written ad.

As the show went on, there were several moments when the audience was instructed, via an LED panel, to text further codewords to the Mobkastr system. But upon texting "rise," I was told by the system, "Sorry, a concert is in progress..."

Later, upon texting the required codeword, "shadow," the response was, "Sorry, you've submitted an invalid keyword."

Both those messages were also carrier-mandated, and not reflective of Mobkastr's technology not doing what it was supposed to. It turns out that by not responding to the message I thought was an ad, I missed my opportunity to participate in the interactive element of the show. And that was a shame, as that was precisely the element of the show that I really had wanted to see.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge Blue Man Group fan, and I've now seen them seven times in four cities. But in this case, I had really been interested in the technological aspect of the show, especially since the troupe's shows often express a somewhat skeptical view of technology.

Afterward, then, I talked to representatives from both Blue Man Group and Counts Media to find out what happened since I had left the show feeling entirely left out of the interactive experience that many people around me were seemingly having.

Puck Quinn, Blue Man Group's artistic director, told me that the concept for incorporating Mobkastr came from conversations the troupe's organizers had with Counts Media. And Quinn said that he and the rest of the Blue Man Group leadership had been intrigued by the description of a system that would get audience members involved by utilizing technology that nearly everyone has in their pockets these days.

"We both worship technology, and we're technophobes," Quinn said. "We're the first to love a new technology and point out that this is worthless."

He said that the concept of Mobkastr in the context of "How to be a Megastar" was to offer viewers some extra explanation of the symbols and metaphors on display during the show, and to do so in a way that enhances their experience.

"It's dangerously close to being at a concert and having somebody texting you during the show," Quinn said. "So (we are) trying to time it so it wasn't pulling you away from the show."

Pyle, meanwhile, was nice enough to forward me the text message logs from someone else who was at the same San Jose show I went to Friday night, and by reading through them, I was able to get a sense, albeit an unemotional one, of what I missed.

The basic idea seems to be that at a series of points in the show, viewers who opted-in got messages asking them questions and tasking them with sending back replies.

"R U a Megastar?" one of the messages asked. "True or false? You ride to work in a bus that has your name airbrushed on its side, along with a giant picture of an eagle. Reply Y/N."

Another began, "OK, it's 'time to take this climb' to the roof: According to rock lore, Green M&Ms were demanded backstage by: PLEASE REPLY A) Eminen B) Ted Nougat C) Van Halen."

The user responded, "B," and the system shot back, "B. Sorry. That was a lame pun. Pathetic really. Except what's more pathetic is that you picked it."

This text-message-based banter went on and on throughout the show, with each new volley furthering the story line, Quinn said.

System signals show's progress
The several additional prompts to the entire audience--the ones that I followed--to text in codewords were actually meant to signal specific points in the show's progress to the Mobkastr servers, Pyle said, since rock concerts don't always proceed with precise timing.

Thus, Pyle said, the codewords were meant to alert the Mobkastr servers that those specific points in the show had been reached and that it was now appropriate to proceed with a new round of messages.

Hearing about all this after the fact is annoying. I feel like I missed out on something that, while largely mundane and meaningless, would likely have been fun and made me feel connected to the larger experience.

On one hand, I feel stupid for having failed to properly reply to the initial opt-in message. On the other hand, I feel a little bit like the Mobkastr system should have announced itself through a better message than one that seemed at the time, and still does now, as nothing more than an ad.

Pyle suggested I could participate from afar during Saturday night's show in San Diego by texting from home to at least see how the system works. But that didn't sound like much fun.

Nevertheless, I really do wish I had been able to participate on Friday night.

After all, said Quinn, "I think the Mobkastr is fun. It's a nice little bonus thing. It's like the audio tour of the Museum of Modern Art where there's this pretentious voice in your ear telling you what you're seeing. In this case, it's our pretentious voice that's texting you."