In the summer of 2001, Steven Speilberg released A.I., a movie about an android in the form of a six year old boy. The robot-boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, imprints on a person who activates him via a seven word code; after that, the robot-boy loves the activator, unconditionally, forever.
The movie cost $100 million to produce but was still a box office success, earning about $235 million. Marketing around the movie was extensive, with many different trailers making their way to television and the Web — and this was before the advent of YouTube. One of those trailers, seen here, ended with the slate seen above. And if you look closely, there’s a message hidden in it.
On the bottom right “S” in “Summer 2001,” you may notice five little hash marks. The “U” has none, but the other letters and numbers each have at least one — 3 on each of the “M”s, two on the “E,” etc. In total, including the blank “U,” we get ten numerals — which, in the U.S., is the number of numerals in a phone number. In this case, it’s (503) 321-5122. Call that number today and you’ll be asked to set up your voicemail box. But if you called that number in 2001, you received a clue:
Welcome my child. Once upon a time there was a forest, that teemed with life, love, sex and violence. Things that humans did naturally. And their robots copied — flawlessly. This forest is vast and surprising. It is full of grass, and trees, and databanks, and drowned apartment buildings, filled with fish. It can be a frightening forest, and some of its paths are dark, and difficult. I was lost there once — a long time ago. Now I try to help others who have gone astray. If you ever feel lost, my child, write me at thevisionary.net. And I will leave you a trail of crumbs…
Visiting thevisionary.net — which is now an ad bespeckled domain holding page — used to yield a creepy result. An audio file would automatically play, admonishing you for not following directions (“Once upon a time, there was a rude and wicked child who came visiting when told to write!”) — and then, your email would pop up. Pre-populated in that email was an apology message pre-addressed to “firstname.lastname@example.org.” If you sent that message to the specified “person” you received a message back about a lady named Jeanine — “you’ve seen her name before,” the message says — and a murder about a guy named Evan.
The observer who was keen enough to pick up the subtle hints leading to the phone number almost certainly has seen Jeanine before. On this movie poster, the name “Jeanine Salla” appears in credits, on the right, as a “Sentient Machine Therapist,” a made-up job not part of our world. Jeanine, as the game players will soon found out, was from the year 2142. And you, the game player, were trying to figure out what happened to Ms. Salla and her counterpart, Evan Chan.
And you weren’t alone. The game attracted thousands of players over its twelve week run in spring/summer 2001. Many players gathered in chat rooms and ultimately at a Yahoo! discussion group. These players, collectively, called themselves the Cloudmakers, a reference to one of the clues in the game. While the game itself no longer exists, and the Cloudmaker’s site pops up a badware warning, those who are interested in reading more about the game still can do so. Via archive.org’s cached version of the Cloudmaker’s site, one can peruse this incredibly comprehensive guide through the AI game.
Double bonus!: Many television shows and movies have fictional phone numbers which occasionally flash on the screen or otherwise appear in hopes of creating a realistic feel within a piece of fiction. Productions by Disney — which includes ABC television — often use the number (877) 504-8423. If you call that number, a recording informs you of this fact (minus the Disney tie-in) and hangs up.
From the Archives: Stupid Google Tricks: A litany of hidden stuff (“Easter eggs”) found in Google.
Related: A voice-controlled R2D2. 46 reviews, 3.5 stars, many citing durability concerns.