Conceptual Digital storytelling Interactive Media User experience

Experiencing an immersive solo documentary – Door Into The Dark

There are some very interesting experiments going on in the documentary format right now and last week I got the chance to explore some of the latest at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Door Into The Dark pitches itself as a ‘sensory documentary experience for one’ and is a wonderful mix of immersive theatre, spatial exploration, and storytelling. It was made by UK duo Anagram and first presented by Bristol’s Watershed. Wearing a sensory deprivation helmet and headphones you walk, blind, through a door into a landscape where you grasp for a rope and follow it, zigzag-ing through what feels like an enormous cavern . . . until the rope runs out . . . As you timidly grope in the dark, stories of different people who have lost their sight, their way, or their understanding of themselves are revealed using a mix of narration and first-person stories. Deprived of sight, you concentrate more on your other senses and this has the effect of building empathy with those whose stories you are hearing – although, crucially, at no point do you feel like you are ‘in their shoes’. That distinction is important.

Door Into The Dark uses iBeacons to trigger story elements and audio instructions as you wander, (although mine malfunctioned 3/4 of the way through sending me into a loop), it reminded me a lot of Halsey Bergund’s work like Scapes and experimental audio-only mobile games like Papa Sangre, as much as it did of immersive theatre. The clever use of physical props – the ropes, and later, a rather terrifying rock climb – combined with sensory isolation made this something really quite special.

I was fitted with a bio-tracker for My 40 minute journey into the dark as part of Anagram’s evaluation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results. As I mentioned in my write up of If Book Then, the interest in the ‘monitoring of affect’ by authors is going to result in some very interesting new forms of ‘responsive storytelling’ in the next few years.

If you’re interested in privacy and the web (you should be!) then there is also the seven part Do Not Track from a consortia of Canadian and European partners. Packaged as a web series it has light interactivity that applies the main ideas of each episode to your own browsing habits, demonstrating that you, as a viewer, are not watching some abstract concept, but that you are already directly in-/af-fected.


The Harmony Institute has just sent me a visualisation of my heart rate throughout the Door in the Dark experience. And here it is!

[click to enlarge]
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Conceptual Digital storytelling Interactive Media Interviews

On storyworlds, immersive media, narrative and museums – an interview with Mike Jones

Back when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum, Mike Jones worked in the SoundHouse VectorLab (now called Thinkspace) teaching young people and adults, alike, how to tell stories with digital media. After a few years, Mike left to pursue a role at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS), and a deep study of video games.

As I’ve been thinking about cross-media storytelling and the ways in which museum experiences and exhibitions are becoming more ‘theatrical’, I thought it made sense to get Mike’s thoughts on the matter.

F&N – You’ve worked in a museum for a while so you know the scene. It must be of interest, and perhaps mirth, that museums seem to have cottoned on the idea that ‘story’ matters. But it is obviously more complicated than that. What have you been doing since?

Since leaving the museum world I’ve been a bit of a multi-headed hydra working in lots of different ways on different things, and yet at the same time very focused and consistent in what I bring to all these projects. In simple terms, I’ve been writing for Screen-Based Media – screenplays for feature and TV projects, novels, multi-platform and interactive forms. Sometimes they are my own projects, more often it’s script editing, developing or contributing to other peoples’ babies. At the same time I’ve been teaching as a lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School and this is a particularly vibrant and interesting gig as I teach across all disciplines – screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, designers and so on. And with my colleague Karen Pearlman I’m teaching creative development processes for forms and formats outside of the scope of the traditional ‘film school’ – WebTV and Webseries, Online Documentary, Multi-Platform and Transmedia, Interactive Experiences. Its given me a great sort of vantage point to see the lay of the land – to be researching while I’m teaching and applying those discoveries back into my own work.

I’m now working with a newly formed company in the UK called Portal Entertainment that produces Immersive and Interactive Thriller and Horror experiences for touch-screen and mobile devices. Think Interactive Horror Movie on your iPad! My role with them is as Head of story and in effect this means my job is to ensure that the projects we produce have intrinsically strong narratives – engaging, dramatic, transformative, compelling. And we do this in a kind of platform and technology agnostic way.

The stories are not driven by the technology, the technologies are selected and constructed to best serve that story and the role we want to the audience play in that storyworld.

But I confess I get very frustrated with the word ‘story’ as its become the hot buzzword of recent years. On one hand we hold the word up like it’s some holy relic and sacred cow that must be revered, and yet at the same time (and perhaps because of this word-status) we often fail to really interrogate the word and understand what it means. We simply declare that ‘story is king’ without defining what that means or in particular, what it means in the particular context you want to ‘tell a story’.

In my work with Portal – which functions much like a TV series Writers-Table where a number of writers bring ideas forward that are workshopped, discussed, and brutalised into shape as a group – one of the first things we did was attempt to define not just what makes a ‘good story’ for an interactive touch-screen Horror/Thriller experience but also ‘how do we identify a story that is suitable to that format and environment’?

Not all stories should be interactive, not all stories can be cross-platform, so you need a kind of framework to be able to sort out the right stories from the wrong as much as you do the good from the bad.

So we focus on things like ‘Can the story be told in the First-person or Present-tense?’ and ‘Is there an Active, Meaningful and Motivated role for the audience to play in that story?’. If the story idea possesses these kind of qualities, or naturally lends itself to them, then they are the ideas we pursue and develop further.

At the same time, I get very frustrated with a lot of the baby-out-with-the-bathwater thinking that goes with technology and story thinking; that somehow it’s a ‘Whole New Form of Storytelling’, or that Storytelling on new technologies is somehow ‘All Different, all New’, that the rules don’t apply.

I think what we have to recognise is that technology has never actually changed what a story is. No story-telling technology is near so huge in impact as Radio was to a previously Theatrical and Literary culture. And yet a Radio Play conforms to all the same principles of character, tension, action, catharsis and transformation as a book, play or movie for that matter.

The technology changed what mechanics you had at your disposal to tell that story but it didn’t change what a story was or why people wanted them, what engaged and satisfied them. Just as there’s no precedent for any new media deleting an ‘old’ media (we still have TV, movies and plays in the age of video games and the internet), so to should we avoid gross assumptions of what technology does to the idea of a story. In simple terms, I work across new and old media everyday – from a feature films script to a WebSeries to online and touch-screen interactive, and the skill-set I bring to all of them as a writer and shaper of story experiences is the same – just the canvas changes.

Having said all that, not everything is a ‘story’. That’s the bit that really gets up my nose. A corporate brand logo and their social media adverts are not a bloody ‘story’!

Nor is every museum gallery or exhibition a ‘Story’.’ A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

This is where I wonder about museums and the idea of story telling.

In factual and documentary storytelling (which is obviously analogous to storytelling in the museum context), the topic or subject is never what the story is actually ‘about’. Stories are not about their subjects – subjects are metaphor, subjects are the means to explore bigger ideas.

So, for example, if a museum does an exhibition on fashion, there is a fundamental story-telling problem if the curator believes the exhibition is actually about fashion. If such an exhibition is going to embrace storytelling then it will no longer be about fashion – fashion will simply be a metaphor for something else and the curators and design team better have a very clear understanding of what that ‘something’ is if they want to create an effective story experience.

This obviously isn’t rocket science and I imagine many curators would agree, yet I see very few museum exhibitions that enact this idea – I see a lot of exhibitions that seem to hint at the idea of storytelling, yet ultimately the exhibition is only about the subject. This is the equivalent of a movie that is all plot and no subtext, all dialogue and no transformation of character.

In this context perhaps we might argue that storytelling is only suitable for ‘some’ exhibitions but not all? What do you think? Is story intrinsic to the museum exhibition? or is it a tool that some exhibitions might use? Is it being used well? Is it being used poorly?

F&N – A number of us in museums have been thinking about exhibition design as ‘storytelling with physical space’. At the same time we know that people in the screen industries are attempting storytelling across both multiple screens and other media. Perhaps there is a potential intersection here? What are some of the key lessons from screen-based media’s attempts to ‘branch out’ that have been learned recently? Certainly with all their experience with audio tours and mobile tours, museums might have some good ‘second screen’ ideas to contribute?

I think the idea of Spatial Narrative is a really important idea and also a vibrant one with lots of good precedents. The obvious connection is with 3D video gaming and ideas by scholar Norman Klein whose book ‘From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects‘ deals specifically with the idea of narrative architecture.

My particular take on this is the idea of Player (or in the case of the museum, the Visitor) as Cinematographer; how can the space itself coerce, prompt, dictate or shape the movement and experience of the camera/visitor through the space. Klein calls this ‘gentle repression posing as free-will’. Shopping centres have been doing this to us for decades.

I wrote an article and a video essay specifically on this idea of ‘Player as Cinematographer‘ and I think the implications for the museum space are very acutely connected.

But that does bring us back to where we started with the notion of what a story ‘really’ is – Plot + Narration, point-of-view, dramatic questions, character transformation, catharsis and metaphor. Without these things the spatial coercion and construction may well be shaping your visit but it wont necessarily be the Spatial Narrator of a Story.

F&N – When I wrote about Punchdrunk’s digital efforts I emphasised their idea of a ‘parallel story’ that they were trying with Sleep No More deploying online interactivity to select performances. Parallel in the sense that the online audience experienced an entirely different narrative but using the same set and temporal space as the ‘in theatre’ audience’ with some crossover moments. Is this happening elsewhere?

Parallel and Multi-stranded narratives are an vital part of conceiving and developing multi-platform projects. The idea that an audience on one platform may experience a different set of events, point of view, narration or catharsis to an audience on a different platform, but that all those parallels – be they 2, 3 or more variations – are unified. This brings us to the idea of a ‘Storyworld’ an idea that, like ‘Transmedia’, is a bit of a buzzword, but one which is also a very useful as a conceptual and development tool.

The idea of a Storyworld is not particular to digital multi-platform and is absolutely applicable in traditional television series. It’s the idea of articulating the holistic world in which the stories are set – not just What, Where and When but also defining the Rules and Pressures of that world, the forces in conflict and opposition, the social frameworks and contexts that make that world not just unique but definitively pressurised with narrative potential.

The principle I use is the mantra ‘World First, Then Plot’.

I recently was involved in judging an international Storyworld Writing competition for the Immersive Writing Lab project in the UK and this is what we were looking for in the submissions – a Storyworld that had strong potential to spawn numerous plots rather than a discreetly defined plot. Thus it’s the defining and shaping of the Storyworld that must come first before the articulation of a discreet plot. Increasingly writers working in screen media, both traditional and new, are starting to view their central creative IP as not ‘a’ Plot or ‘a’ Character but rather as the Storyworld from which numerous plots and characters across numerous media may spawn.

I wonder if this idea of defining the parameters of a Museum exhibtions’ Storyworld as a set of oppositional forces, rules and pressures, contexts, settings, characters and themes is a useful developing system for museum exhibitions?

F&N – Now, audience. Early ‘transmedia’ stuff seemed to have really low participation rates and reached only the hardcore fans. Has anything changed? Does the ‘second screen’ stuff broaden this or is it a bit like ‘casual games’ vs ‘hardcore games’?

Its certainly true that for all the cool stuff thats been developed for interactive transmedia multi-platform projects, the audiences are small and moreover, the awareness of the work is very low.

Audiences are growing and these experiences are being normalised as mainstream entertainment rather than a fringe for the hardcore ‘early adopters’. But at the same time creators of these kinds of forms are maturing and realising they don’t need everything and the kitchen sink – that the story isn’t ‘better’ just because they’ve got a Facebook page and buttons you can click.

The best projects I’m seeing are those that are very focused, very specific, not offering platforms for platforms sake, but a clearly defined experience. And in this way genre is crucially important. genre speaks to how the audience expects to ‘feel’, and they engage to satisfy those expectations. In a maelstrom of new media scattered-ness and inconsistency and variation, Genre gives you a really solid narrative handle for the audience to hold on to.

What role is there for Genre in the Museum and Gallery space? Do museums have recognisable genres? can they employ or engage with traditional literary or cinematic genres? I might be more inclined to engage with an exhibition if I knew what feeling-state it was going to satisfy before I stepped inside.

F&N – Obviously sandbox video games are the Storyworlds that a lot of us are familiar with. These environments accrete immersion over time – and it strikes me that although museums might wish to emulate these worlds, the ‘average visit length’ (<1 hr) isn't conducive to it happening. Even when I go to Disneyland or a theme-park it is a day long commitment - and perhaps that's why Tasmania's MONA is so successful - the tourist really commits to a multi-hour journey through it. When I left Sydney I'd been thinking about how to turn museum experiences into 'lifelong' journeys. I'd been considering how Days of Our Lives and those daytime soap operas work. They don't require sequential viewing and you can not 'visit' their worlds for years but then immediately feel 'at home' inside them when you do reconnect. How do you think serialised entertainment can contribute to how museums consider their own 'experiences'? Do you think that immersion in Storyworlds can be achieved in the short period of time of an average museum visit?

Time is obviously a big factor in immersion but there is a different ways of thinking about time. It might mean a long duration of a single immersion (ie. in the gallery for a long period of time) or, it might mean short periods of immersion but numerous of them for a cumulative effect. And this speaks to the importance of episodic narrative and the way we are cognitively engaged by episodic structures. Episodic stories have a long history in print and on screen – from Chaucer and Dickens to The Wire and Mad Men. And also on to sandbox video games which are, by nature, ‘episodic’ narrative experiences. They are not designed or intended (or even practical) to experience in one sitting, instead levels, spaces, missions, the natural rise and fall of tension and release through completion of stages makes for a distinctly episodic experience.

What’s important to recognise about the very rich legacy of episodic storytelling is that its not the duration of a single viewing (or visit) that is as important as the cumulative effect of both ‘returnability’ (what compels us to come back) and the gaps between ‘sessions’ that are the conscious and subconscious processing of the relationships we form with events, ideas and characters. In other words immersion happens as much between sessions, viewings and visits as it does in them.

So, to answer the question of can immersion be achieved in a short period of time, I think the answer lies in thinking of time in terms of episodes and episodic patterns. How do episodes link, how can we be compelled from one episode to another and how does the space and time between episodes build the immersion. One way to understand or inform how this is constructed in TV and games, which might applicable to museum spaces, is consider the idea of Closure as a pattern of dramatic questions. An episode poses one or more dramatic questions that the viewer is compelled to find the answer to. In this it’s important to understand that a Dramatic Question is not just any question, rather its a question with something at stake, something at risk, a question that has an ‘or else’. It’s this element that motivates us within an ‘episode’. Dramatic questions become an episodic pattern through closure; when the question is answered, the episode is ended but a new question or extended question, drives the audience forward into the next episode.

Another way to think of this is the ‘But, So…’ sequence;

“X had to do Y but when they did, they realised Z…
So then they had to A before B,
But when they did, they encountered C.
So…. etc etc.”

This opening and closing of dramatic questions is an episodic pattern and it is the heart of long-form and immersive storytelling. And it works not only for hour long TV episodes or 3 hour gaming sessions but also for short form WebTV series as well.

F&N – Extending that idea a bit … now that a lot of people ‘binge watch’ a series on download or DVD/BluRay – doing an entire season in a single sitting, what does this do to sequential narratives? The viewer’s desire to have deep immersion over a binge session trumps a longer spaced out viewing cycle which might have been how the narrative was originally constructed. Does this suggest that we might be finding that media consumers might be tending towards more one-off deep consumption?

The ‘binge-viewing’ is an interesting phenomena. And there are certainly some writers of long-form series that are adamant that this is not the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to view the series – that the immersion requires the ‘gap’ between episodes.

I don’t really have a hard answer on this other than to refer to what I mentioned earlier; that immersion can come either in duration or episodic pattern (or both). A viewer can become immersed by spending a huge amount of time in a single stretch (bingeing) or they can become immersed through an episodic experience. Both work. And yet there’s nothing new about binging. Pride and Prejudice is a long episodic book but Im sure there are many people who’ve read it almost in one sitting and we wouldn’t say they were less immersed than those who read a chapter a night or even that they had a lesser experience.

In terms of long-form TV series the increasingly normalised mainstream way to consume is actually not so much binge viewing as it is 1-2 episodes per night each night. Which is a step away from the episode per week broadcast mode and obviously facilitated by on-demand technologies, but is still very much in line with the ‘gap time’ between episodes that fulfils the cognitive processing that immersion relies upon.

What I think is important to engage with in the ideas of episodic narrative experiences is that the principles apply not just within mediums but across mediums. So the same thing that compels me to come back for a new episode might also be the same thing that compels me across platforms (or from a gallery space to an online experience). The idea that the gallery represents one ‘episode’ that poses certain dramatic questions which are answered by exhibition’s end but which trigger new dramatic questions, the answers to which I have ‘get’ on a different platform.

This is an idea I would suggests drives many good multi-platform and transmedia projects – recognising that Transmedia Storytelling is Episodic Storytelling – questions posed on one platform compel us to answers on a different platform.

In this way we can actively motivate the audience between platforms rather than simply expect them to go there of their own volition. I think the mistake many multi-platform projects make (and many museum projects too) is to assume the audience are motivated, assume they are already interested and so they neglect to light a fire under their arse, they forget to give the audience really good, motivated, compelling reasons to engage.

Catch up with Mike on Twitter (@mikejonestv) or read his copious articles at

Digital storytelling Interviews Mobile

China Heart – mobile locative storytelling: interview with Tara Morelos, Annette Shun-Wah & Jennifer Wilson

On January 30 the Powerhouse Museum becomes the start point for a locative mobile story/game called China Heart. This exciting free project runs all through Chinese New Year celebrations until February 13.

China Heart is being produced by dLux Media Arts, developed by The Project Factory, and the narrative has been written by Annette Shun-Wah who Australian readers will know from her diverse media work, especially TV.

Four Powerhouse objects star in the game and form key elements in the storyline. Min-Jung Kim, our Asian Decorative Arts & Design curator worked with Annette to explore opportunities with the Museum’s collection.

Many staff in the Digital teams at the Powerhouse have tried the two predecessors to China Heart from dLux (Ghost Gardens 2008 & Razorhurst 2009) and we’ve been really fortunate to be involved this time around. There are some interesting differences in this third title in terms of BYO technology, a reasonably platform agnostic approach, and a more scaffolded start point (by using the Museum). I’m very interested in how general visitors to the Museum as well as those coming especially for China Heart will respond. Everyone involved will be intrigued to see how many players/readers complete the full China Heart journey and get engaged by the story and presentation.

I asked Tara Morelos (Director of dLux Media Arts), Annette Shun-Wah (author), and Jennifer Wilson (Director of The Project Factory) a series of questions about the project and how it has unfolded.

Tell us about the predecessors to China Heart and the role dLux has been playing in creating opportunities for artists to work with location-based games and storytelling.

TARA MORELOS (TM): From as early as 2004 we began working to incorporate mobile technologies into contemporary art practice. We commissioned works by leading Australian artists and filmmakers for mobile phones and delivered a blended program of exhibitions, forums and workshops to build a framework for the ongoing development of a creative mobile screen culture.

With the proliferation of handheld media devices such as smart phones and GPS systems an entirely new spectrum of creative opportunities has opened up for artists.

In 2008 we worked with artists Anita Fontaine and Mike Pelletier to present Ghost Garden for Sydney Festival 2008, a romantic animated fantasy delivered by location in short video episodes throughout the Botanical Gardens. This was wildly successful from a visitor point of view and most definitely a first step that delivered great learning.

In 2009 we were approached by Richard Fox after his experiences with Ghost Garden. He had produced a prototype for a GPS based game called Razorhurst.

Players were taken on a mission to collect and deliver sly grog while dodging location based attacks by notorious 1920s & 30s Razorgangs. We assisted Richard in developing the game/story elements with the addition of video re enactments and narrative voice overs during lulls in gameplay to create a more deliberate blend of fact and fiction enhancing the immersive experience while educating.

We ran Razorhurst for a month long intensive season and another week as part of the History Council‘s official NSW History Week 2009.

Both Ghost Garden and Razorhurst were delivered on pre-loaded HP TravelMates lent to players for the duration of the game.

What differences does China Heart have to the two previous dLux productions?

TM: From our previous experiences we had learnt that while the game element is a key, it’s the combination of a compelling fictional story situated in historical fact which really captured the audiences. Ghost Garden was simply a story and we found participants also wanted to know real information about history of the gardens and plants.

We learnt that multiple entry points were desirable allowing participants to enjoy the experience according to their level of interest. Serious gamers are after specific game elements such as hidden clues, blind alleys, true discoveries, limitations and challenges (eg time based). Gentle explorers want the discovery and excitement of following the game route, without necessarily the competitive or challenging elements. Razorhurst was closer to a serious game and a large part of its appeal, however we definitely encountered players who wanted an interactive walking tour with gangsters!

China Heart attempts to incorporated this knowledge with the right blend of fact and fiction.

With Razorhurst in particular we were being let down by old devices and their limited GPS capabilities within a built up area. Increasingly as smartphones have come on the market supplied with better GPS capability, location services have become popular and easier to deliver. The mobile network itself adds to the accuracy of GPS in built up areas through ‘triangulating’ the handset location based on signal strength from cell towers (A-GPS).

We have taken the next logical step and partnered with The Project Factory, an award winning cross platform production company to build the China Heart mobile app, website and mobile site.

Quite significantly, in developing the content dlux has begun from scratch assembling the creative team: writer, director, designer, cast and crew and commissioned Annette Shun Wah to write the story which underpins the content development.

Working with the Project Factory we have begun development on a platform which will allow organisations to tell a story set around a location navigable by walking with the mobile phone – in other words, mobile locative stories. China Heart is essentially a prototype to demonstrate how these stories work and what they can offer.

Where do you think this sort of location-based storytelling has the most potential?

TM: Most definitely within the cultural sector.

Mobile locative stories can create new audiences for institutions and make available their digitally-archived collections to the wider public. This platform allows the public access a diverse range of material from objects within a museum or gallery collection to social history within the urban or natural environment. Combining GPS navigation with a historic map interface, archival photos and web links, video reenactments, ambient sound and voiceovers triggered by player’s location creates an extraordinary mobile learning environment for all ages.

And, you can combine a forest’s worth of printed material into the palm of many hands for unlimited use. This is definitely a mode of information delivery that will represent significant cost savings for the sector longer term and fits in well with the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision.

We began China Heart in partnership with The Powerhouse Museum to explore this potential for ’excavating the archive’.

What is the premise of China Heart?

ANNETTE SHUN-WAH (AS-W): China Heart is a fictional love story and a mystery that reveals some of factual stories of Chinese Australia – particularly in relation to marriage and family. In the story, a young Chinese-Australian woman named Lian receives a mysterious gift at her engagement party. The gift unsettles her, and ignites tension between her and her mother, over a troubled relationship that Lian had with her late father. In trying to understand the significance of the objects in her gift, Lian travels around Chinatown, and discovers other people’s stories about marriage and family. These help her understand and resolve her own difficulties with being an “astronaut’s daughter”. What is an “astronaut’s daughter”? In this case – probably not what you think.

How did the research and writing of China Heart differ from your work in other mediums?

AS-W: The appeal of this project is that I had previously completed quite a bit of research into Chinese-Australian history for my various published books and short stories. This gave me a very good foundation for developing the China Heart project.

The writing, however, required some very different approaches. The project includes drama, information modules, oral histories and game playing. So it required writing in many different forms. The common thread, however, is that I wanted to keep the visitor interested, involved, and entertained long enough to discover some of the many secrets and little-told stories of Sydney’s Chinatown.

How did you find incorporating museum objects into the story? was this a natural fit or was it trickier than expected?

AS-W: The objects from the Powerhouse Museum inspired the story. I could have chosen to tell a murder mystery, and underworld tale, or a ghost story, for example, but these are commonly used forms for digital storytelling and game playing.

The objects from the Powerhouse inspired a very different narrative path – one that allowed me to tell more personal, emotional stories.

Much documented Chinese-Australian history focuses on the experiences of men, because many of the early Chinese arrivals were men. But I think it’s time women’s experiences shared some of the limelight – the stories of wives, daughters and debutantes! They expose a very different side of the migration story, and provide insights into family and culture.

Did you consider interactivity into the storyline as you were writing it?

AS-W: Game playing and interactivity are very new approaches for me. I’m used to telling the story – revealing it, as in a drama script or a documentary narration – rather than sharing it, or encouraging the audience to engage actively. So this has been quite a learning experience for me.

Certainly I imagined the visitor to come along on the physical journey with our characters, and to discover site-specific information. I wanted the audience to experience Chinatown in a different and memorable way, even though they may already be familiar with the area.

I wanted to replicate an experience I had many years ago in Perth, in a live installation piece called The Angel Project, that used sites all around the CBD to suggest the presence of angels. I will never see Perth the same way again! [Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project debuted at the Perth Festival in 2000 and has subsequently been performed in cities all over the world. Here is coverage of its run in New York in 2003 from The Gothamist.]

China Heart is designed so that the visitor will have this strange but very enjoyable feeling as he or she undertakes the journey. The visitor feels like they’re on a secret mission, to help solve a mystery, and will engage differently with a city they may indeed know very well. Adding some real world installation and performance gives another dimension to the experience.

And for those who like game playing or problem solving, we threw in some cryptic clues for fun. These reveal additional information, as well as enabling free entry to the final location, where the story reaches its emotional climax.

How did you address the location-centric story elements in the narrative? Did you have to visit each location and consider how the reader/player might ‘feel’ and ‘see’ in each location? How did you deal with the story ‘pacing’ between locations? How important are the locations and the journeys between them to the story itself?

AS-W: I spent quite a bit of time wandering aimlessly around, backtracking, trying different routes, and photographing minute details that may, or may not, at some stage be useful to the story. Anyone watching me would have thought me slightly mad! The difficulty I had is that some of the important historical landmarks – such as the Belmore Markets and the Trocadero Dance Palace – no longer exist. But then with the assistance of video and archival photos, we could summon up the ghosts of those venues in or near the right locations. These specific locations – the factual elements of the journey – are very important indeed.

Other sections of the story don’t relate to a specific location. For example – I wanted to recall the era when many “astronauts’ wives” – women whose husbands commuted to Asia to work – gathered regularly at yum cha. So any number of Chinese restaurants would have been suitable as the GPS hotspot. We chose one that was along the route – in line with the narrative sequence. We also discovered a fun photo booth arcade along the way, and added this as a counterpoint to the historical locations. The story, after all, is very much set in the present day.

Of course a locative game will always suffer the constraints of geography. Some additional elements of story and history were eliminated because they would have been too far to walk to. Some useful locations were in a cluster, others were quite a distance away. To smooth this out would have required the addition of locations and associated stories that may have detracted from the narrative, and I made the decision to allow the story to rule. The cluster of locations happens quite early in the journey, so my hope is that by then, the visitor will be hooked on the experience and won’t mind walking a little further between the next locations. And the journey gets more interesting further along with the addition of installations and performance so it’s worth it!

Personally I think that this sort of storytelling is going to be a big part of what e-books become, rather than being the way that ‘games’ head. How aligned do you feel China Heart is to traditionally storytelling versus, say, ‘mobile gaming’?

AS-W: The beauty of China Heart is that it is so multi-layered, it will appeal to those simply looking for a good story as well as those looking for clues to solve. And if you like both, then it will be a doubly rich experience.

I think if you set out to make a terrific mobile game, then the story would follow the requirements of the game. It’s absolutely possible with a fictional narrative, but I think it would be a less satisfying experience.

Traditional storytelling is certainly the basis for China Heart, using a fictional narrative based on factual experiences. This gives the whole exercise some authentic emotion and context. I attempted to reveal some truths about family, relationships and the migrant experience. The gaming element adds a little fun and is challenging, and makes it more social if the journey is being undertaken by more than one person.

You’ve worked a lot with TV and film. How do you think these older mediums will gain from cross-media integration with location-based storytelling?

AS-W: Look, I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in this field – I simply had a story that I wanted to tell, and by telling it in this way, a whole range of possibilities opened up. I haven’t even begun to exploit many of them, so I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. But I do think that China Heart delivers an experience that is tactile, revelatory, intimate and affecting, through the use of a personal mobile device and by physically requiring the visitor to make the journey. Being interactive – requiring the visitor to make the effort and to truly engage with everything around them – makes the experience more memorable.

Good TV and film will work no matter where or how you watch it. But let’s face it, much of what is produced is hardly compelling. Integrating these forms with other media on a mobile platform will certainly inject a new lease of life. I believe the important principle is that the content must suit the form, and vice versa. Simply shoehorning an old-form idea into a new platform will not do it justice. The best location based projects will be the ones that could not be executed any other way.

What challenges are there from a development perspective in creating these sorts of location-based games?

JENNIFER WILSON (JW): The challenges are a mixture between allowing the story to play out in a linear way if the user travels on the proposed path, but also allowing people to experience it in a non-linear way. Location based games need to allow for both these paths. Additionally, not all participants will have the App or be at the location, so we need allow for an experience that can take place at a different location altogether; at their desk and on different devices. All of this adds to the complexity.

China Heart is being billed as a cross-platform application with mobile web and also an AppStore version. What was the reasoning behind this choice?

JW: We needed to allow for non-iPhone users to access the app locally – meaning we needed to provide a mobile web option for non-iPhone users. We also felt that there was such rich content, that we needed to allow this to be explored on a larger screen. That meant a web site. And in these situations where there is no ability to use location data, we needed to develop a different way of people exploring the locations via a map.

Tara has talked about the Project Factory developing a ‘platform’ for these sorts of location-based games to be more easily made. How do you see this evolving? Is this akin to what HP’s mScape was trying to do?

JW: we really like the idea of a ‘platform’ that would allow locative stories to be created by people simply, easily and quickly. This would allow someone to select an area of a map (the boundaries), select the target locations for the story elements (locations), then add in the content they want for each location (the content). If we can also allow them to create some design wrappers and a name, as well as maybe even allow this to be compiled as an application – then we really do have a platform. We haven’t been able to completely build that for this, but we’ve used China Heart to show how locative games might work like this in the near future.

[Seb – I’ve really enjoyed Hidden Park with my children which takes the same story and interactive sequences but allows you to customise the locations of these events within your own park]

What has The Project Factory learned from other projects about introducing new users and audiences to these sorts of new forms of entertainment and storytelling? I’m interested in how these emergent forms become more mainstream and normalised.

JW: The mobile has become the prime device for connection and increasingly for consuming content. One of the things that mobile offers is that magic ability to have location add a new layer to the information and linking narrative to location is one of the things that it is perfect for. We know that allowing users to discover stories in new ways is important. We also know that community is one of the strongest ways of discovering content and that using community is key to expanding awareness of these services.

For new projects such as China Heart, we also need to make sure that the application captures the attention of the user quickly, and explains the outline of the plot. We do this through having videos start to provide the backstory. The second thing is, we need to make the navigation and use of the app straightforward and not requiring any form of explicit instructions. If there is any obstruction to play, such as confusing rules, difficult to understand user interfaces or long explanations needed to know what to do – then this interrupts the game play and service. We need to make the services simple, easy but also enjoyable.

China Heart is available for free for the public to play, with the location-based story beginning in the Powerhouse Museum foyer, from January 30 to February 13.

And if you’d like to help and volunteer to be a mobile concierge during the run of China Heart then dLux has a call out for volunteers.

If you happen to be overseas or outside of Sydney, you’ll still be able to experience the media and storyline of China Heart through the App or online version.

Stay tuned for the go live.

Digital storytelling Geotagging & mapping open content

Sharing with SepiaTown – historical images re-mapped

Early in the year when I visited Josh Greenberg and the digital team at the New York Public Library, I was told about SepiaTown.

One of quite a few ‘Then & Now’ web projects (see also History Pin), SepiaTown puts historic images back on the (Google) map, also using Google Street View to connect the photography of yore with those of today.

We figured that we’d give SepiaTown a full collection of the geotagged images of Sydney from the sets we’d uploaded to our repository in the Commons on Flickr, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we uploaded a datafile and waited.

We knew that quite a few of the geotags on these images were ‘approximations’, and that to properly do Then & Now, you also need to know the direction in which the photographer was facing. And we also knew that neither the metadata in Flickr or on our own system was enough.

So you can imagine our surprise when Jon Protas at SepiaTown popped into our inbox advising us –

We quickly discovered when we first dug into your collection’s geo-locations that many of them were mapped in a fairly general way, and fell short of our quality control levels. We spent the summer spot-checking each one and correcting the locations for almost all of the images you provided, and we are now confident that the vast majority of the images are now mapped within a 20 yard radius of the exact camera location (and are facing the right direction).

Some were quite tricky, but fortunately, site designer Eric Lehnartz, who is also our main uploader (and a bit of a geo-locating savant), was able to deduce even the more obscure and rural locations.

Wow. They’re improved, fixed, tweaked!

Not only that, SepiaTown are sending the corrected dataset back for ingestion into both our collection management system and thus also into Flickr.

Big thanks to Jon & Eric!

Here’s a few to try from the Powerhouse set (follow the link then click the Then/Now option):

Blaxland’s Tree
Sussex St, North from Market St
Erskine St, West from Kent St
The Spit, Middle Harbour

Check out their blog for other highlights. They have some fantastic images mapped in there.

Digital storytelling Interactive Media open content

Exploring Sydney streets – a composite video experiment with the Commons

As we’ve been getting a lot of feedback on these here’s another of Jean-Francois Lanzarone’s video montages composed from detail in our glass plate negatives uploaded to the Commons on Flickr. This is the first one he has finished made up of multiple source images.

Again, this is a simple digital storytelling with consumer-grade video software (iPhoto and iMovie), and Creative Commons-sourced music. These don’t take a long time to make either.

More will go up on our Photo of the Day blog in the new ‘videos‘ section. I will only highlight them when new techniques are used rather than re-post each one from now on.

[Oh, and yes Jean-Francois will be choosing some backing other than piano music for the next ones!]

AV Related Digital storytelling Digitisation

Exploring ‘The Bandstand, Hyde Park’ – another video experiment with the Commons on Flickr

On the back of the great feedback on the last video, Jean-Francois Lanzarone has made a whole lot of new little video explorations and here’s one that gets incredible detail out of again, a single image.

The original image is available in the Commons and in our online catalogue as well.

These little 90 second videos are a very simple but effective way of ‘digital storytelling’ – something museums should be quite good at, being as they are, repositories of stories. The technology at work here is nothing more than a very high resolution original scan and a copy of the consumer-grade iMovie – something which, for us, is important to emphasise.

Good ideas trump expensive technology every time.

Digital storytelling Web 2.0

Learning from journalists and the media sector

Over the past while I’ve been talking a lot about museums becoming media organisations on the web. This is occurring at the same time as the differences between museums, libraries, galleries and archives blurring. Like media, museums are coming to terms with the need to encourage active participation and co-creation between our visitors (cf. readers/viewers), content researchers (cf. journalists), across all our delivery platforms including exhibitions (cf. tv/print) and the web.

Jeff Jarvis in the Guardian writes an article titled The pro-am approach to news gathering neatly summarises some of the issues that emerge when co-cretion is enabled discussing motivations, drivers and problems.

Third: community brings cost. Jay Rosen of New York University runs an ongoing experiment in networked journalism at The community there has reported a story on crowdsourcing for Wired magazine and is now reporting on the Presidential race for Rosen found an ongoing coordination cost: volunteers need to be assigned, enabled, moderated, managed, edited, curated.

There is also the cost to misbehaving citizens, the dyspeptic commenters who can ruin a conversation online and tarnish a brand. This, explained Robin Hamman from the BBC, is one reason why the corporation is moving away from constantly trying to bring the world to its site to contribute content and interact. Now it will also organise the conversation happening elsewhere, in blogs or in Flickr photos or YouTube videos. That’s one step toward what I think will be the next paradigm of online discussion, something more curatorial, built around quality and reputation more than quantity.

Fourth: the role of the journalist changes. Journalists need to become moderators and enablers . . .

There are obvious parallels here with the experience of museums and many of us are actively thinking about how we can train staff in the skills necessary not only in production, but most importantly, in the process of facilitating, enabling, and managing co-creation.

(hat tip to Tony at ABC Digital Futures)

AV Related Digital storytelling Interactive Media Powerhouse Museum websites

True Design – Powerhouse Museum’s latest digital storytelling productions

We are very lucky to have within our museum a pair of media production labs – SoundHouse VectorLab – where the public can do short, low cost courses in video and music production. A spinoff of these facilities is a series of digital storytelling projects. Usually these projects are run in regional and rural communities and with at-risk youth as a means of engaging and stimulating (and diverting) creative energies.

However this time the museum has worked with a different audience – professional designers. As part of Sydney Design 07 and with our design portal, Design Hub, the museum has released a series of digital stories written and produced by practicing designers. A series of short, two minute video pieces were written and produced in an intensive two day workshop in small teams run in the SoundHouse VectorLab and organised by Nicole Bearman (Design Hub editor), and Helen Whitty (from the Education and Public Programmes department). True to digital storytelling methodologies, ultimately these stories are about the process more than the final output – skill sharing, collaborative narratives, cross-disciplinary communication.

This project offered participants the opportunity to contemplate their design practice through a new medium and to present for the viewer a significant insight into design processes, inspirations and working life. It also gave them the opportunity to collaborate and network with industry peers who they might not otherwise get the opportunity to work with, such as curators, editors and writers.

Take a look.

They are screening in the galleries in high definition during Sydney Design, and will also be later syndicated to other media.

(update – there is an interview with Peter Mahony in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section today. It is not yet online but once it is I will link it)

Conceptual Digital storytelling Interactive Media

Prometeus – the Media Revolution

Here’s another take on ‘the media revolution’. Prometeus reminds me of a more uptopian view of the fantastical EPIC2014‘s Googlezon dystopia of a few years ago. In Prometeus, Google buys Microsoft instead of Amazon while Amazon buys Yahoo.

Possibly even more interesting than the future thinking ideas contained in these viral narrowcasts is their increasing graphical sophistication and their enormous reach. Motion graphics are becoming the printed manifesto of old.

(Prometeus link originally via Ross Dawson)

Digital storytelling Museum blogging Social networking Web 2.0 Young people & museums

What museums might learn from how news organisations are trying to engage communities

This week’s essential reading comes in the form of the Center for Citizen Media’s report titled Frontiers of Innovation in Community Engagement: News Organizations Forge New Relationships with Communities.

The report is written for those who are yet to become interested in the new opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 and contains plenty of global case studies and some very practical recommendations for those heading down this path.

Replace ‘news organisations’ with ‘museums’ and there are some terrific and practical insights into new ways of engaging audiences and in so doing embedding the museum experience in the everyday life of communities (and vice versa).

If you have attended any of my talks and presentations you will know I am fond of talking about museums as potential media organisations, and as platforms for multi-directional publishing and engaging communities. From the report, here are the four reasons as to “why news organisations should bother experimenting with user communities” –

– Regaining a place at the center of the civic conversation
– Enhancing institutional memory
– Reducing bunker mentality
– New stories, new ways

Sound familiar?

Here are there recommendations for anyone looking at rebuilding their online presence along the lines of increased community engagement.

Take risks.

In the Internet Age, it’s easy — and relatively inexpensive — to try new ideas. The cost of failure is low for any individual experiment.

Don’t merely tolerate risk-taking in the newsroom and on the business side of the operation. Embrace it, and the fact that failure is part of risk-taking.


Approach community building with confidence, teamwork, and appropriate expectations.

• Confidence: Building an online community requires a different tone and approach than a traditional news site: personality, humor, and authenticity are key.
• Teamwork: Community sites have a better chance of success if staffers throughout the newsroom and the organization use them rather than being the province of a small “community team” that has little or no contact with the newsroom.
• Expand your team beyond your staff, and even beyond your site. For example, reward local bloggers who link to your site just as much as you reward readers who contribute to your site directly. Consider growing the “ecosystem” of local sites that link to yours as part of your mission.
• Expectations of Contributors: Don’t expect nonjournalists to feel comfortable taking on the role of journalist. While some contributors may be eager to write a “story,” others will want to share lived experiences. Finding ways to accommodate, encourage, and learn from contributors is key to success.
• Expectations About Growth: Communities are organic. They grow through the web-equivalent of word of mouth. Expect a significant period of time – as much as six months, maybe much more – before a community gains a life of its own. (If things aren’t working a year after you start, however, it’s definitely time to reconsider your approach.)