Storytelling and tech at Power to the Pixel

Harriet Horobin-Worley reports from Power to the Pixel, a cross-media forum that runs in partnership with the London Film Festival.

Devoted to exploring the new frontiers of storytelling in all its forms — film, art, books, apps, virtual reality — the conference at PTTP often features inspiring and thought-provoking talks and projects. This year felt particularly relevant to some of the themes and opportunities that we’re dealing with as publishers.

Crowd mentality

Many of the talks touched on the possibilities that digital opens up for collaborative storytelling, for blurring the line between author and audience, making entertainment an inherently social act. Hugues Sweeney shared the NFB’s crowdsourced projects like A Journal of Insomnia and Megaphone, which evolved through user testing and draw their meaning from many different voices and places.

Lance Weiler and Nick Fortugno’s live prototype of a Sherlock Holmes ‘immersive storytelling’ experience started by asking the audience to write down information about significant objects on notecards. A selection of these objects were then placed on a ‘crime scene’ and the audience watched as five ‘detectives’ broadcast the crime scene via periscope. The audience then gave them information over periscope about the objects, and from this information the detectives wove a narrative — full of appropriately wacky plot points.

The assumption is that by taking ideas from the cloud (or the 200+ members of the audience) brand new tropes and themes would arise. New, and presumably better, stories would be told that an individual could never have thought of, and each contributor would have an active investment in the story rather than a passive involvement.

The theories behind this prototype are interesting and it feels nicely Barthesian. They reflect a huge challenge to the general publishing industry of how to balance the tension between these new ways of working — openness, rapid prototyping, collaborative work — and the traditional business and rights models. We experimented a little at Penguin Random House with these ideas in the YourFry project, which involved collaborating with partners and individuals and giving open access to content.

Interstitial interest

Paula Zucotti — an ethnographer, industrial designer, trend forecaster and a Penguin author — highlighted that the very idea of ‘cross media’ or ‘transmedia’ storytelling might seem somewhat redundant to users, who are already seamlessly transitioning between devices and formats. In the dark ages there were two types of media and two categories of objects. ‘Lean back’ — TV — and ‘lean forward’ — PCs. Now, of course, we’ve got the internet on our television and television on the internet. We stream books and magazines and gifs and social networks all through one window.

Zucotti’s observation of people working on laptops and mobile phones in Starbucks showed a young man who sat at a table to do his work, and moved to a sofa to watch TV, using the same device. Other users were working on one screen, and distracting themselves with social media on another device. These are deceptively simple examples of a radical change in user behaviour. The producer no longer has control over how the user experiences their content, it’s up to the user to choose which ‘seat’ they pick.

This could have interesting implications for books and readers and how publishers can make their content available. How can we persuade users to continue choosing our books in the ‘lean back’ space, with audio, ebooks and physical books, even video content, and how can we infiltrate the ‘lean forward’ experience with short form, mobile-ready content.

The new reality

Virtual reality was the focus of a discussion panel at the conference — and cropped up in many of the presentations. Ingrid Kopp from the Tribeca Film Institute made the astute point that VR is the first ‘innovative’ storytelling platform that has almost universally amazed and delighted those that have tried it. As soon as you put on a headset, you just get it. It’s not just a shiny new gimmick, it’s something that has real mass-market potential.

One of the audience members asked a question that critiqued the isolated nature of VR experience. There have been many negative comparisons drawn between VR and the humans in Wall-E. However, Saschka Unseld from Oculus Story Studio made the point that we shouldn’t be scared of these ‘solitary’ or ‘isolated’ experiences — a book is read in private, it’s an intimate moment of communion with one’s self and the words that is magical, and perhaps VR could be a similar transcendental experience.

In an essay for Aeon magazine, Craig Mod goes in-depth on ebook design and the shortfall between digital reading and the physical magic of opening a physical book and having a living bookshelf. Perhaps VR (or AR, or IoT) could provide some way of bridging this gap, bringing books to digital — perhaps in a similar way that Netflix has brought the ‘lean back’ magic of watching movies in your living room to VR, by recreating watching movies in your living room.

Set against the hand-wringing going on about the rise/fall of ebooks/print books (delete according to preference), the conference taught us that it’s better to concentrate on how the physical and digital interacts and the multitude of creative publishing opportunities that presents.

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