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The stories in enchanted objects

In the second of a three-part series of articles on story innovations for our R&D season, BBC’s User Experience Architect Paul Rissen argues that new technologies could be facilitating a new kind of storytelling. You can read the first article here.

In the first part of this series, I discussed some of the interesting ways that new technologies are exploiting the relationship between narrator and audience. This time, I want to concentrate on how these technologies are opening up new avenues of experience in storytelling.

Our interest in innovation in this area, as an industry, stems from uncertainty. As new technologies and new media arrive, those of us who have grown used to the forms of existing media are caught in a dilemma – on one hand, we are eager to embrace the new forms, even proclaim them as saviours; on the other, we want to reject them as attention-sapping, mind-numbing tools of cultural degradation. I believe in a more considered viewpoint.

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out, a culture that has been brought up in the literary world of fragmentation and linearity tends to be unnerved when a more complex, intertwined, immersive and immediate medium begins to invade the cultural sphere. It is not simply that this new medium is better or worse than our literary traditions, but more that it is different. Each medium has its strengths, weaknesses and biases. So instead of responding to technology as ‘the future’ or ‘the death’ of the book, as the debate tends to always be framed, I would prefer us to examine the form of the medium itself, and ask ourselves: how might storytelling be be moulded in these new forms – and what advantages and disadvantages will this have?

I’ll come back to this idea in the final part of the series, but for now I want to concentrate on the more prevalent media effect beginning to take hold – that of the network. James Bridle has written extensively, and very well, about the way the nature of an always-connected story changes the content and possibilities themselves. And we can see services such as Small Demons, or Amazon’s own ‘X-Ray’ function, beginning to hint at the networked, unbounded nature of stories. Kate Eltham, too, in her piece on the networked world, makes very salient points on the possible role of publishers in the future.

But what happens when stories are given free rein, completely outside the textual form? The Internet of Things is an idea which seeks to take advantage of the network effect, and apply it to physical objects. The phrase can often bring up horrible visions of internet fridges, so perhaps a more useful phrase is that of ‘Enchanted Objects‘. That is, objects which have an invisible connection to the internet, and thus can adapt their behaviour to conditions of information on the network, appearing magical to the observer. In my work as an ‘Information Architect’, we commonly focus on the user’s interaction with laptops, mobiles and desktops, but I’d agree with Michael Smethurst that the real excitement could be when we become “Information Architects for things without screens“.

The BBC’s R&D department recently hosted a ‘Playful Internet of Things‘ workshop, examining how toys and broadcast media might mingle to create new ways of telling stories, including the infamous remote control Dalek. These are tentative first steps, of course, and the Dalek stunt was by its very nature a little gimmicky, but the concepts are well worth exploring, I think.

Perhaps the clearest implementation of where this could go, to date, has been the pioneering work of MakieLab – initially concentrating on custom made toys, via the wonders of 3D printing, there are hints that these toys are set to take advantage of their networked nature, and that an API for playing with your toys via the network, may not be far off.

Indeed, in the last week or so, BERG have talked about their Little Printer, designed to be a home-friendly, small interface onto the network becoming the vanguard in their experiments looking into what’s being termed ‘Bot-world’. The world of APIs and smart toys is likely to converge and expand this year, and I’m convinced writers should looking to experiment with these new technologies.

When you break stories free from the page or performance, you open up stories to the real, live world. In a similar way to Perceptive Media’s idea of adapting a story to fit your context, stories that rely on the audience being in a certain place, or at a certain time, are becoming more prevalent, too. Experiments were done with BBC Radio a few years ago, and similar explorations are continuing today with companies such as Amblr.

What then happens to the physical book, if it no longer remains the primary method of storytelling? Perhaps it is reborn, so that the physical object itself begins to be a crucial part of the experience. The work of Alyson Fielding in melding the physical book with Arduino boards, for instance, is an interesting one – her work with the Library of Lost Books, whereby your interaction with the physical object causes the book to respond in surprising ways, shows that the future of the container may not be as hopeless as some fear.

The content of stories can manifest in a physical form too – so rather than the first time experience of storytelling occurring through interaction with physical devices, objects can be used to represent, help interrogate, and provide new critical responses to, works of literature. Tom Armitage‘s Spirits Melted Into Air  (covered on TLP last year) is one such manifestation of this. The movements of actors delivering Shakespeare’s soliloquies are tracked, shapes traced and rendered in physical form. These become works of art themselves, and potentially give new perspectives on stories we already know.

Making the content of a story physical is an interesting direction, but the next step could be to re-integrate these physical pieces with the network, or indeed to give the content itself a networked form. Because ultimately, when stories become networked, through objects or not, and when narrators and audiences meet and meld their roles, what’s needed is data. What we need to do, is begin to tell stories to our computers.

Next time – Telling Stories to your Computer 

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