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Letting the stars decide

A veteran of the space business is taking a totally random approach to the challenge of turning the popular fascination with the stars into a profit-making venture. Jeff Manber's new venture, called Yuzoz, will take in readings from solar activity, cosmic rays and other space phenomena and convert them into rolls of the dice for decision-making, slot machines and anything else under the sun that can be randomized.

Manber hopes that Yuzoz (which is itself a randomly generated name) will capitalize on the space connection more profitably than his best-known previous venture, MirCorp, which unsuccessfully sought to make Russia's Mir space station into a platform for entertainment ventures.

Back in 2000, when Manber was MirCorp's president and chief executive officer, he came close to putting together a deal for a space-related reality-TV show called "Destination Mir," but that effort fizzled out when the Russians decided to ditch Mir instead. Even after that, Manber worked on a project to put pop star Lance Bass on the international space station for a TV extravaganza, only to see those plans fall apart.

"They all fell apart because it depended on Russian hardware, it depended on government space programs, it depended on policy. Space is very, very expensive - and yet, the attraction of space remains," Manber told me Wednesday.

He said those frustrations sent him in a different direction - a direction that wouldn't rely on multimillion-dollar manned space programs.

"How do you tap that potential for getting people excited about space?" he said. "Yuzoz fits the bill very nicely."

Manber said the idea came to him a couple of years ago, when a Russian cosmonaut happened to say to him, "People don't appreciate how random space is."

The idea sounds pretty simple: Take the random variations seen in the Northern Lights, solar flares and other natural space phenomena, turn them into a string of digital data, and process that to produce "branded" random numbers for distribution over the Internet.

The numbers could be used to generate lottery picks, or letter combinations for far-out names (like Yuzoz), spacey ringtones for cell phones, or color fluctuations for light shows, museum displays and architectural lighting schemes. Manber is even talking about using Yuzoz-branded data in Vegas slot machines.

"We want people to embrace the idea that, you know, sometimes you have to live random," he said.

Of course, there are plenty of perfectly good random number generators out there. In fact, it takes some pretty sophisticated programming just to turn the satellite data into truly random numbers (and Manber has the sheafs of certification documentation from Technical Systems Testing to prove it). So why would anyone fuss with Yuzoz?

"It's like saying, 'Do you drink tap water or bottled water?'" he answered. "We expect that very, very soon, Yuzoz will mean live, open, transparent connection to space, and we know people want to feel that connection."

For Manber, branded randomness is what it's all about. "The cool thing is, we've thought to brand it by using the magic of outer space," he said.

He acknowledged that Yuzoz isn't a technically challenging project, or even an outer-space project, per se. Rather, he said, "It's a space-themed entertainment project."

The project isn't quite ready for prime time: Its patent application is still pending, and its Web site is still in stealth mode. But advance reports about Yuzoz are already starting to slip out, and after all these years of getting publicity for space ventures that didn't pan out, Manber wants give Yuzoz has a good launch. "Finally, I'm in a business where publicity helps," he joked.

Manber said the Yuzoz Generator-1 should be ready for unveiling in the next few weeks, and he hopes that will become a click magnet for advertising. "We are very confident that we will build a community of people who find space cool," he said.

Then there's the "brick-and-mortar" strategy - which involves incorporating Yuzoz randomness in choose-a-star schemes, architectural light shows, gaming software and other consumer products. Over the longer term, Manber has plans to build a "Yuzoz Space-Com Center" as a tourist destination in Iceland, and to launch nanosatellites to produce scientific data about space weather (as well as the next generation of randomly generated numbers).

These sound like grand ambitions for what's essentially a high-tech Magic 8-Ball, but Manber is betting that the connection to outer space and real science will make the difference.

"If you see 'Yuzoz,' you'll know it's that company that has that live connection to space," he said. "We think we're the first of a new generation of space companies."