It Came From Beneath Your TV Screen

As a child of the Jetson Generation, I thought I'd seen it all. I'd braved the blinding flash bulbs of the amazing Polaroid Swinger, sat at the dock of the bay with the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, thrilled to the thermodynamic miracle of Jiffy Pop.

Little wonder, then, that I'd grown a mite techno-jaded in my dotage. That's what comes of growing up in the shadow of Telstar.

Still, nothing had prepared me for the Wheel of Fortune TV Play-Along, Mattel Toys' wondrous whiz-bang. One of the toy industry's first efforts to wed interactive TV technology to broadcast television, the battery-operated device actually allows home viewers to compete with studio contestants on the syndicated nighttime version of the show.

Okay, so you can't really win a car (as I had done during an appearance on the show six years ago). For the time being, it seemed reward enough to see letters called out by TV contestants mysteriously pop up on the screen of the hand-held TV Play-Along console. Little did I dream that I was opening a Pandora's box that would trigger a citywide wild-goose chase fueled by greed, deceit and possible scandal.

It all started one evening a few weeks ago, when I examined the Play-Along console while waiting for that night's episode of Wheel of Fortune to air.

The gadget, a blue plastic box the size of a videocassette, looks innocent enough. The face of the console houses a keyboard, "spin" and "solve" buttons and a small screen similar to those found on digital watches. On the back is an electric eye that's the crux of the operation.

According to the directions on the box, this eye "receives invisible signals from the TV show, telling your game each secret puzzle." Jiffy Pop, be damned--this I had to see. When the 6:30 Wheel of Fortune broadcast came on TV, the console emitted a robotic version of the show's theme song and the words "AIM AT TV" appeared on the Play-Along screen. I evidently scored a direct hit--within seconds of pointing the machine at the TV, the music grew louder and the word "READY" appeared on my game screen.

Several seconds later, after Pat Sajak had introduced the studio contestants, the TV came in for a close-up of the puzzle for that round. Simultaneously, the same blanks appeared on my Play-Along screen. I pushed the "spin" button, a dollar figured appeared, and I chose a letter.

I watched in disbelief as two tiny R's appeared on my puzzle screen. On TV, a contestant called for an F. There was an electronic beep and that letter also materialized on my screen. Frankly flabbergasted, I gasped, "What the F?" Finally recognizing the answer as "GO FOR BROKE," I pushed the solve button and was awarded with an audio fanfare. By the end of the show, I fell back on the sofa in awe. Convinced that I'd just discovered the most spectacular invention in the history of man, this former Wheel of Fortune winner realized he had a job to do. The world must be told!

ALTHOUGH THIS ASTOUNDING gadget first hit the American scene a year and a half ago, it didn't find its way into many homes (including my own) until this past Christmas. By that time, Mattel had stopped manufacturing the TV Play-Along and the game had been relegated to toy store clearance tables, selling for a fraction of its original $80 price tag. (See related story on page 25.)

Still, who cared what it cost? How do you put a price tag on a miracle? Never one to hide my invisible light beam under a basket, I began hyping my new toy so relentlessly that I briefly entertained the notion of billing Mattel for promotional services rendered. Have TV? Will travel! For the next few evenings, my life degenerated into a mad whirl of computer coming-out parties as I desperately roamed the city in search of any available family room where I could introduce my electronic pal. Never mind that Wheel of Fortune didn't happen to be on TV when I made my unannounced arrival at the homes of unsuspecting friends.

Yes, La-Z-Boys and girls, astounding as it seems, this wondrous device even works with videotaped episodes of the show!

Park your carcass on an ottoman and prepare to be amazed! I faced tough audiences. More than a few eyeballs rolled during my introductory spiel about invisible rays. But seeing was believing, and my Wheels-on-wheels mini-tour was ultimately a smashing success. Jaws dropped. Eyebrows arched. And, more significant, well-ordered senses of the universe crumbled. Not surprisingly, more than a few observers cowered in the face of this revolutionary weird science. One friend feared that the unseen "game-show waves" might send a relative's pacemaker out of whack. (On a more frivolous note, another woman wondered whether she could use the mystery rays to roast weenies in front of the TV.) My father, meanwhile, talked of erecting a Plexiglas barrier in front of the television set to protect himself from the insidious signals. I hoped he was joking.

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Dewey Webb