Interactive digital storytelling explores “that beautiful glue between technology and humans”
By Robyn Paris
Storytelling is as old as mankind. From cave paintings to the fables, myths and legends whispered around campfires, we look to storytelling to illuminate pain, joy, love and sorrow — the emotions that make us human.
At the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) here in Playa Vista, researchers are exploring brand new methods for telling stories through virtual reality, augmented reality, digital technology, graphics and interactive media.
On Nov. 15, the 9th annual International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS) brought more than 75 researchers from around the world to ICT’s Waterfront Drive offices for groundbreaking discussions about interactive fiction, virtual characters and untapped intersections of technology and narrative.
Nine juried art exhibits with revolutionary approaches to interactive digital storytelling featured prominently in the conference, which was free and open to the public.
Tracy Fullerton’s “Walden” recreates the experiences of Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, giving users an opportunity to discover nuggets of wisdom through reflective game play.
Erin Reynolds’ “Nevermind,” takes the player on a trip through a horrible memory in which a vicious crime appears to have been committed. The game and its puzzles become more difficult as stress levels increase, using biofeedback as an interactive trigger.
“Priya’s Mirror,” created in India, is an augmented reality comic book that follows the story of a young woman who is an acid attack survivor — it interfaces with an app on your phone to unlock interactive story elements.
Dr. Andrew Gordon, a research associate professor of computer science at USC and chair of ICIDS, says the art exhibits, which have become an annual conference tradition, “push the boundaries of what’s possible with technology and interactive narrative.”
Many of the artists chosen for the interactive digital exhibit, he says, “are interested in using this medium as a vehicle for a political statement or an emotional expression … something you can’t get with passive media like film or television or print.” The interactive element, Gordon notes, gives audiences an opportunity to take an active role, think deeply and decide what they would do in various situations.
Not only do these interactive storytelling applications take audiences on new adventures, they also attempt to educate and to encourage self-exploration. The Mixed Reality Research Laboratory (MxR), under the umbrella of the ICT has a long history of bushwhacking into the uncharted territories of synthetic human interactions. Think avatars or computer generated humans who speak and respond to you in virtual reality settings like a real person.
A PhD in computer science, Gordon’s work marries hardcore scientific research with a lifelong love of storytelling. He and his team believe that the creativity inherent in storytelling can be examined scientifically.
“We think about stories as a kind of data. When you have 20 million narratives, you can treat it as data — it’s data about how people tell stories,” says Gordon, who is discovering common patterns in anecdotes and analyzing the structural bones inherent to storytelling across cultures. “To understand what’s going on in the world, you’re going to need systems that are able to interpret the data automatically. Computers see patterns in the traffic of storytelling and help interpret that data for us. “
In this vision of the future, computers would sort through the hundreds of articles available at our fingertips, isolate the best and most interesting information on our behalf, and provide us with a summary of the material.
Gordon calls interactive storytelling “that beautiful glue between technology and humans,” adding that stories are the “perfect output for any deep analysis algorithm that you’re going to build to monitor the world around us.”
While Gordon emphasizes that “interactivity is key” for new modes of storytelling, Mixed Reality Research Laboratory creative director David Nelson has a slightly different perspective.
“The more you push into interactivity, the more the story becomes like a game,” says Nelson. “There’s fear of missing out [aka FOMO] when your story has too many interactive choices. You regret that you didn’t choose one storyline over another, taking you out of the experience.”
Nelson predicts that an entirely new method of storytelling will evolve out of this medium, created by and for virtual and augmented reality natives.
“It’s going to be some kid who’s probably about 6 years old now … who will grow up with this AR and VR technology and do something that we are not expecting,” he ponders.
In the meantime — as evidenced by art exhibitions displayed at ICIDS and the training and story modules already in the works in Playa Vista — the future of immersive, interactive storytelling is already upon us.
Visit ict.usc.edu for more information about the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. Find out more about the conference at icids2016.ict.usc.edu.