A HACK AND A HACKER
Jonathan Barnes’s Ultimate Taxi sports a topflight sound system, a disco ball, laser beams and a fog machine. And just when passengers think they’ve seen it all, their Pink Floyd-crooning driver reaches over to the front passenger seat of his “nightclub on wheels” and reveals the quintessential ’90s accessory: a laptop attached to digital camera and cellular modem. A few clicks later, his fares are staring at their digitized faces on the screen. The next day they can view their mugs on Barnes’s Web site: http://www.ultimatetaxi.com.
“I built the car to take me on an adventure,” says the 38-year-old Aspen, Colo., hack, who has logged more than 350,000 miles in the ’78 Checker since he bought it in 1985. Early amenities included a telescope (to show fares “the moons of Jupiter”) and a small television. These days the multi-tasking Barnes steers with his left hand and works his synthesizer, saxophone and computer keyboard with his right, as Web surfers bombard him with e-mail comments and jokes to share with passengers. Among the celebrity visitors who have forked over a premium $20 per person for 20 minutes of mobile sensory overload are Pierce Brosnan, Jerry Seinfeld and Lee Iacocca.
“I drive very slowly, because safety is my main concern,” says Barnes, who claims he’s never had an accident and maintains that he always pulls over to the side of the road to answer e-mail. Still, he quips, multimedia cabbies “need to be on a first-name basis with all the police in town. And have an insurance company that has never exactly ridden in your car.”
Once upon a time you could hardly tell the good guys from the bad guys on computer games. But then came 3-D graphics, stereo sound and full-motion video, putting recognizable actors like David Duchovny, Martin Landau and Jeff Goldblum just a mouse click away.
In addition to drawing in customers, the familiar faces reduce keyboard anxiety among the technology-challenged. That’s one reason why the CD-ROM version of Fox’s X-Files will feature Duchovny and costar Gillian Anderson. “We want to immerse the players in a world they are very familiar with,” says Jon Richmond, president of Fox Interactive.
Some projects featuring celebrities are aimed at kids. Martin Landau plays Geppetto in Pinocchio for IBM, due next month. Goldblum headlines the kiddy-chiller Goosebumps (DreamWorks), expected in September. Stars like Christopher Walken, who plays a detective on the trail of Ripper (Take2Interactive), earn big bucks for little work—in Walken’s case, $150,000 for two days. “A CD-ROM … is no different than doing a voice-over,” says Mike Fenton, a casting agent for Wing Commander IV (Origin) which features Mark Hamill.
But interactivity offers stars a benefit beyond easy money. “You’re asking the audience to be part of the cast, a cowriter, a codirector even,” says Hamill. “For me, it’s been like discovering a whole new fruit down in the South Seas, and it’s delicious.”