Bull Session

The New Technology of Storytelling

August 3, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we discuss 21st century storytelling in light of emerging technology, which has given us a wide variety of media possibilities.Technology and storytelling have always gone hand in hand. For instance, the novel has historical roots going back hundreds, maybe even a thousand years, the technology of paper and writing language underpining its evolution. And the motion picture began in the 1930s as a storytelling medium, although the technology itself was invented 40 years prior. In the 21st century, the media for telling tales, real and fictional, is ever expanding — from video games to chat fiction to virtual reality movies. And with the possibilities of emerging tech like brain-computer interfaces and the IoT, the potential for immersive stories seems vast. How can reality compete? Join us as we discuss.


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Welcome to episode 218 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, listeners.

For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about 21st century storytelling and technology, which has given us a huge variety of media possibilities that are now available from all different channels.

Technology and storytelling have always gone hand in hand. The novel has historical roots going back hundreds, maybe even a thousand years, and that of course, was based on the technology of written language and paper, which made the novel possible.

Huge impact in the 20th century on one of my favorite storytelling media, which is the motion picture, came to be in the 1930s when talkies were all the rage, but the technology actually goes back about four decades before that in the late 1800s, and it took people awhile to figure out what to do with the motion picture medium. Thankfully, for me, at least, by the ’70s, they had definitely figured that out, so there’s some wonderful memories of watching motion pictures and really getting immersed in stories as varied as Star Wars or The Godfather.

You so old, Jon.

I am. So of course, the media have changed over time, and really, now, video gaming and gaming in general is away that people are immersing themselves in a variety of stories and being actors in those stories but really following almost the equivalent of choose-your-own-adventure novels that I read as a kid, albeit a lot more sophisticated and interesting and all-encompassing, but nonetheless, video games are certainly as big a industry as the motion picture and a new video game drop is probably more profitable than a new motion picture, unless you’re talking about maybe a summer Blockbuster. But the video game has really become a storytelling media for a generation, at least, of people.

Now, as we approach a whole new set of connected technologies such as the Internet of things, virtual reality, augmented reality, and of course, mobile, we’re coming across some really interesting ways of creating stories with these new media types, so I wanted to dig into some of those today. We’ll start with, I found very intriguing, the medium of chat fiction, which, as you might expect, is about telling a story via SMS, via the text message, which, in a lot of ways, reminds me of the Zork games of my childhood, 1980s, telling a story, via text.


In this case, it was like The Terminal on a PC. I went into this world of Zork and really very much enjoyed it. I think that teenagers today are enjoying that same kind of narrative interaction, but via their text message. I’m pretty sure this medium is not meant for you and me, Dirk.

Well, it could be. It might not be native to us. I’ve seen ads for it, without understanding it. Sort of based on the research for this show, I’m actually going to check it out. I wish I had read about it a couple of weeks before because I would have already checked it out in time for the show, but it’s a good example of innovating for new forms, innovating for new mediums. I don’t know to what degree it will appeal to me or not, but it’s clever.

Yeah, and I think part of what I wanted to highlight here is we were talking about earlier, the motion picture really took awhile to develop as the company and technologies transformed it from moving pictures, which could be anything extremely dull, to a really well-crafted immersive experience that we can view today.

Even though we’re at sort of the early stages of a lot of these technologies, I think we’re seeing the seeds being planted of what will be the next great storytelling medium. I’m not going to place any bets. Certainly, the novel, I think, will persist, at least for the time being as a great storytelling medium. In the same way, the motion picture will persist as well.

But what is the next great? One possibility is as we see virtual reality headsets start to become popular, you could see, and you know, they’re releasing movies for these VR headsets, you could see this kind of storytelling manner becoming popular, although it just seems so foreign and isolating, the technology, to me, but maybe that’s the 21st century novel. I don’t know.

Dirk, as you’ve seen the VR technology develop, do you think that that’s the way it’s headed or do you think the social awkwardness of the medium’s just dooming it from being a mass medium success?

I think the social awkwardness stuff is going to get worked out as form factors shrink and get to the point of being glasses. I think there will be some clever things done around shared environmental space and sort of a blending of virtual and augmented realities to leverage the best of VR, as well as physical reaction and touching and interacting with another person.

My biggest concern about these technologies and a lot of the newer storytelling media are what I’m going to call the demands on the user. I was thinking about this in a very different context. I had the opportunity just last week to talk with Mo Turkington. Mo, wonderful, wonderful game designer who is the, I think the brain child behind and the designer of some of the games that are called the Warbird Games.

They’re basically, they founded a category, they’re called LARPs, live-action role-playing games, and they’re all telling very feminist stories of women who were in very difficult circumstances. You’re playing this as a group. Each of you is taking on the role as one of these characters, these protagonists, and you’re advocating for your own perspective, which is going at odds with perspectives of other people.

But the long and the short of it is, the experience of playing this game, which sounds amazing, and it would be an incredible experience, is all about getting into some of the hardest emotional stuff and getting into really nasty conflict with other people. I’ll use the word play-acting, but I think it’s serious ways, like you’re really embodying these people.

I came away thinking, I’d love to try that, and I can’t imagine doing that regularly. It’s … The demanding nature of it, from a physical perspective of bringing your body into it, from an emotional perspective of exploring these really interesting things is tough. When I think of VR, I think in very similar lines and circumstances.

If I read a novel, reading a novel, certainly from my mind’s perspective, is taxing, I would say. It’s tiring, not unpleasant, but you’re working your little mind out. Video games and the traditional concept, I mean, your thumbs might be working quite a bit and you might be getting a similar sort of mind work as reading a novel, but it’s somewhat limited. It’s not delving into exploring the emotional boundaries of yourself. It’s not delving into physically, kinetically bringing your entire body into it. It’s not delving into different types of interpersonal, whether it be physical, emotional, mental interactions with one or many people.

To me, it’s a totally different thing. I don’t know, maybe I’m old. Maybe the 22 year old out there’s like, “Oh, yeah. I’ll be doing that all night, every day,” but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels … I mean, look, going back to when I was young, like going to a rave or something, I wouldn’t want to do that every night. I would do that on the weekend, a night or two, it was frickin’ awesome, but then I need to take like, get ready for the next time again. I don’t want to be doing that all the time.

Reading novels, watching movies, I mean, that’s something that can kind of routinely be part of my life every day. Some of these newer, more demanding forms of entertainment, I don’t see that being the case even when I was 22.

Yeah, that’s an interesting take on it. I think there’s definitely the possibility of these immersive stories being taxing in ways that we’re just not ready for, emotionally, in the same way we’re used to processing a novel or a movie. There’s some other technologies that I think are worth noting, not because they’re not storytelling media right today, but they have the potential to be. I think connected environments are going to provide a powerful palette for whoever can figure out how to tell a story that way.

What I mean by that is, as we start connecting our workspaces, portions of our home, we’re going to have all kinds of connected devices that, in theory, could be accessed by the artist, the storyteller. I can imagine an Internet of things, haunted house story connected to my Amazon Echo and Internet of things, connective lighting, and all those things around Halloween time that would probably scare the crap out of me, but I could see how you could use all those elements from horrible sounds of squeaky floors being projected throughout your house or screams or lights coming on at weird hours.

I think by creating the possibility for manipulating the spaces that we reside in and making those digitized in some way opens up a pretty interesting area in addition to virtual reality that could, to your point, be very emotionally fraught if you’re not ready for that.

But this idea of connected environments as storytelling palette, what’s your take on that, Dirk? It seems like that would be both highly engaging and highly intrusive.

High intrusive, indeed. What does that look like? I mean, more and more people are working from home. I mean, you’re at home and you’re working, you’re focused. You certainly don’t want these interesting, surprising stories to be interrupting that and blowing up your day, so there need to be some kind of boundaries. Okay, so there’s some motions turning it on, turning it off, fine. If I’m turning it on, I think, I don’t know if this is statistically true, but I’ll say it, most people don’t live alone. They share their space with one or more people in some configuration, and so what does turning it on mean? Does that mean that now this entire environment is going to be energized in this way that impacts all of the people in it? What is the relationship from my bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen and how it’s … We’re nowhere near solving the workflows around that for different people sharing spaces.

I kind of shrug. I’m like, yeah, it sounds cool. There’s a big palette there. There’s a lot that can be done, but I mean, there’s very simple blocking and tackling things about it that we’re nowhere near solving to the point where it’s like the seamless, interesting, integrated part of our lives, even though the technology, frankly, is rather simple at the end of the day, that kind of simple technology isn’t something that gets solved well to this point, anyway.

Yeah, that’s always a tricky part of this process. I mean, a few weeks ago, we discussed the advances of the brain-computer interface, so Facebook’s division looking into ways that you can use your mind to type whatever your status is into Facebook, kind of scary, but you could think of that as another frontier, the brain-computer interface.

If we remember that technology has always gone hand in hand with storytelling, so you look at these different technologies whether it’s virtual reality or the chat fiction or my ludicrous idea of an IoT story or the brain-computer interface, and just know that that’s a creative palette there. There are so many media being introduced at the same time right now, I’m sure many will fall away, but it is a curious thing because by the time we work out how to tell these stories using these new media, I’m sure there’ll be something, a more compelling media ready for us to play with.

Regardless, I’m excited about these. Although, at the end of the day, I don’t know if I’m going to be an author for chat fiction or virtual reality or just an observer. Either way, I find it exciting.

Yeah, I hope the experimenting continues and progresses, but it’s just like with virtual reality. I’m not a customer yet. It’s still too clunky, too clumsy. It’s not there. I need it to be there for it to be relevant to me. At this point of my life, there’s plenty of things that are well designed and well tuned to fit into how I live and what I desire. The newer emerging technologies of entertainment have an awfully long way to go, for me at least.

Very true. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we were mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T.

Of course, the whole show’s brought to you be Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk.

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.

That’s it for episode 218 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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