Giving Birth To Bozlo

A quiet cowboy is discarded and the interactive beaver is born. But, first, a question must be answered: Coyote or Road Runner?


When Marc Singer wakes up each morning at his messy apartment on 12th Street, he eyes a host of inanimate objects: a TV, a couch, clothes (on the floor), a month's worth of old newspapers, boxes of Eudora e-mail. "All these things are potential interactive characters," he thinks -- potential tools for revolutionizing the Internet and ushering in the next great form of human entertainment.

Why not? People yell at their golf balls. They give names to their cars. They routinely treat fictional characters, natural phenomena and inanimate objects as if they were alive. And as long as there has been drama, audiences have wanted to participate. At the Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare's audiences yelled back at the players, who changed their deliveries accordingly.

Yet on TV or radio -- or on the comics pages of one of those piled-up newspapers -- characters can talk to us but we cannot talk back. Those are all broadcast media, the same message sent to millions of receivers. Broadcast media are passive. And there is nothing passive about the character Marc Singer wants to create.

Marc and his partner, Paul Maya, have had little trouble deciding to use a cartoon figure rather than a human being for their first interactive character. The likeness of any recognizable human being would be too costly for their Internet company, togglethis. Besides, anyone who grew up watching "The Simpsons" or "Scooby-Doo" knows cartoons evoke real emotion -- such as laughter.

It was their inspiration, during the early days operating out of Paul's Hoboken apartment, to set their first characters in the Wild West. The parallel is simple. The Internet is wide open, untamed, there for the taking by anyone with gumption, regardless of experience.

Togglethis can't go wrong with a cowboy character, Marc thinks. And maybe an animal, a beaver, because, well, all the other animals have been done.

And so Coolie and Outlaw are born.

This is the tale of two characters, of how the second is launched from the computer of the first. To begin, togglethis' animator, a 29-year-old art college graduate, Gwen Kaczor, offers several different drawings: one a cowboy obscured by a huge hat; one a skinny, toothy beaver with a small head. She soon creates a slide show, starring Outlaw the big-hatted cowboy and his sidekick Coolie, a sweet, trusty beaver.

In the show, Outlaw and Coolie are shown advancing on a house. "It looks like The Waltons' home," says the bubble that appears over Coolie's head. "Hey, John boy, it's me, Coolie. Can I come inside and use the bathroom?" After Marc shows the slides to potential investors, he follows up by sending postcards of the two cartoons. "Need money for horses," the smiling beaver says.

With the show done, the programmer, Raj Parthasarathy, begins the task of giving Gwen's animations a full, interactive life on the computer screen. He also starts the arduous process of writing code for new software that will allow programming Philistines like Marc to animate and direct the characters' motions.

Paul, toying with already existing animation software, designs movements and shows. Marc gives the characters voice and personality, writing some of the scripts out longhand on yellow legal pads -- the same way he did homework at McDonogh School in Baltimore.

Even seemingly small matters prompt discussion at their office on 25th Street. When Raj objects that Coolie's name is offensive to Asians, the beaver becomes Buckett.

The stories Marc and Paul conjure for these two characters rely on a tight collaboration, a sharing of Paul's gifts for logistics and design and Marc's talent for timing. The work moves slowly as both men feel their way. Both say they know that interactive stories must have a unique, natural rhythm, like good writing or music or the movies each had dreamed of making. But neither has heard this interactive music before. They have to pull it from their heads.

After a few months and several, evolving demos, Marc and Paul tire of Outlaw, the quiet cowboy. Better, they decide, to focus on his sidekick, the beaver. By the fall of 1996, they have put together a Buckett Beaver demo of which they are proud.

With a click of a mouse, the computer screen turns into a Western range, and the theme from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" begins playing in the background. Buckett appears, throwing mud at the screen to get your attention. He walks down Old West Street, which has a saloon and -- in a New York touch -- a Desperado Bagels.

Buckett tells you he needs your help, or he'll be mauled. Evil cacti are approaching from the East. "I'll attack them from the West," he says. "You beat them like hell from the North. And we'll bury their carcasses in the antebellum South."

Click on a cactus and kill it, and Buckett celebrates by dancing and rolling on the desert floor. Ignore the cacti, and Buckett is pricked to death.

At last, Marc and Paul have their prized character, but suddenly all they see are his failings.

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