Columbia DSL
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Columbia DSL

Immersive Production — an experiential lab course at Columbia University School of the Arts

Where There’s Smoke (2019) by Lance Weiler is an immersive experience exploring memories, life, and loss. Located at 359 Canal Stree the 1400sq ft installation marked the first offsite installation to ever take place t at the Tribeca Film Festival.

This fall I’ll be teaching Digital Storytelling III: Immersive Production at Columbia University School of the Arts. The course is a mix of theory and practice. Teams of students work to design, build and deploy a digital storytelling experience which is staged for the public at the end of the semester. The course combines project work, mentors, emerging technologies and collaborative methods to create a dynamic hands-on immersive environment that mixes story and code.

In the past students have collaborated with the School of Social Work’s Safe Lab to create a (De)Escalation Room that harnessed storytelling, play, performance, and emergent technology to help youth learn methods for de-escalating violence.

In 2018, the class designed an immersive dinner party hosted by an AI. The students built upon the Columbia DSL’s Frankenstein AI prototype which is a multi-year design research initiative focused on machine/human interaction and conversational interfaces.

This year we’ll turn our focus to the theme of “Liquid Futures: envisioning a world with water for all.” Over the course of the semester we’ll be collaborating with the Columbia Water Center and their Aquanauts program.

Throughout the fall, the class will work as a team to design and produce an immersive experience. At the end of the semester, the work will be staged for an audience during our final class. This course is similar in nature to the labs that I’ve helped to develop and/or mentor within for organizations such as Sundance, Tribeca, IFP and others.

Finally, the class offers an amazing opportunity to collaborate with leading industry practitioners working in film, TV, theatre, gaming and emergent technology. Throughout the semester a number of special guests will work with the class to help develop an immersive experience powered by the Internet of Things and sensor-based technologies.

A programmable space

This year we’ll be collaborating with Wildrence, a performance space that hosts site-specific shows such as immersive theatre, escape rooms, and participatory installations. Wildrence is a tech-enabled space that harnesses the Internet of Things to create enchanting experiences.

Wildrence is a programmable space for immersive experiences that harnesses the Internet of Things.

What is the Internet of Things?

Here’s a piece by the New York Times — *Please keep in mind this piece is focused on smart home applications of IoT. In class, we’ll be applying the technology within an immersive storytelling experience.

Syllabus (subject to change)

The following is a living breathing document that will change over the course of the semester.

Week 1
Welcome, Intros & Goals
- Playtest
- Lecture: An introduction to Story Thinking
- Exercise: World Cafe — surfacing the collective intelligence of a group
- Check out: Reflection and next steps

Week 2
- Check-in
- Lecture: Worldbuilding — balancing storytelling and interactivity
- Playtest
- Check out: Reflection and next steps
- Story I/O collaboration opportunity

Week 3
- Check-in
- Guest Lecture: Liquid Futures by members of the Columbia Water Center
- RFP (request for proposals) is shared and explained
- Prototyping exercise
- Check out: Reflection and next steps

Week 4
- Check-in
- Lecture: The Art & Craft of Finding the Core
- Class starts the design process
- Teams form
- Design Constraint #1
- Check out: Reflection and next steps

Week 5
- Check-in
- Lecture: Designing for an Aesthetic
- Fireside chat with the founders of Wildrence
- Teams work with our guests
- Design Constraint #2
- Check out: Reflection and next steps
- Meetup Opportunity at Lincoln Center

Week 6
- Check-in
- Case Study: Pulling back the curtain on an immersive production
- Class discussion team roles and responsibilities
- Review current class prototype
- Design Constraint #2
- Teams iterate their prototype
- Check out: Reflection and next steps

Week 7
- Check-in
- Lecture: Bridging the analog and digital divide
- Exercise: Building experiences that work for One & Many
- Playtest: the class presents their work for a small group of working practitioners
- Our guests work with the class to improve the prototypes
- Check out: Reflection and next steps

Week 8
- Check-in
- Lecture: MDA
- Prototyping Cafe — teams continue prototyping
- Check out: next steps

Weeks 9–13
- Check-in
- Mentors/Guest Speakers based on class needs
- The class continues to prototype and test their digital storytelling experience that they’ll stage at the end of the semester
- Check out: Reflection and next steps

Week 14
- Class setups up the experience
- Guests arrive and are briefed
- Immersive experience is staged at Wildrence on Canal Street
- Guest feedback
- Open discussion on next steps and possibilities
- Check out: Final Reflections

Learning Goals

In this course students will:

Gain an understanding of team-based emergent media production through lecture content, mentoring, and hands-on experience in the creation of a significant digital storytelling work.

Practice critiquing digital storyworlds through regular peer review during the design, implementation and deployment of team-based works.

Develop deeper design research and thinking methods through ideation
processes in the creation of their specific piece.

Practice digital production processes that exercise iterative testing loops, minimal viable product creation, and agile methodologies.

Learn emergent business models and skills in order to prepare them to be adaptive leaders and team players within a constantly shifting digital media landscape.

How the course works
1. Students work as a team
2. An RFP (request for proposals) is presented to the team
3. The RFP details a theme, location and time of a live event that will be staged at the end of the semester.
4. The class works together and with mentor/guest speakers to design, build and deploy a digital storytelling experience

Mentors/Guest Speakers
The course has mentors/guest speakers who are accessible to the students
throughout the semester who cover the following subject areas…

Experience Design
Creative technology
Internet of Things
UX strategy & design
Service design/product development
Data Science

  • All skill levels are welcome and the course is open to students across the university.
  • Students who seek to earn credit may register for independent study.
  • Please note that this class is limited to 12 students and a full syllabus will be provided in advance of class.

The course provides
- An introduction to immersive storytelling through a group project that will live beyond the classroom
- An opportunity to collaborate with experts working at the forefront of storytelling, game design, immersive theatre and social impact
- An opportunity to test work outside the classroom at events such as Story I/O (a special fall gathering taking place at Lenfest) and at a series of events this coming fall at Lincoln Center

For those receiving grades, they will be based on the following…
50% collaboration and teamwork
30% based on the final project
20% based on documentation

Office hours are available upon request. They can be scheduled on Monday’s before or after class.

Mondays 6 pm — 9 pm

Saturday, September 21st
Story I/O 10 am to 6 pm (Lenfest Center for the Arts) *optional opportunity

First Wednesday of each month
Columbia DSL meetups at the Film Society of Lincoln Center *optional opportunity

Monday, December 9th
Run prototype of immersive experience that the class creates for a small group of participants at Wildrence on Canal Street.

Class will make use of the following…

Courseworks — course-related communication
Medium — for documenting our prototyping
Google Drive — for teamwork

Recommended Readings + Experiences

There are no required readings for Digital Storytelling III. Instead, we recommend that you read something from the following.

For inspiration make sure to check out the Columbia DSL’s Digital Dozen gallery

For more info visit

The following episode of the American Theatre Wing’s Emmy nominated series “Working in the Theatre” features the work of Columbia DSL and our Frankenstein AI prototype. Of particular note is the Dinner with Frankenstein AI section. Last years Immersive Production class prototyped dinner parties with AI.



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lance weiler

lance weiler


Storyteller working with Code - Founding member & Director of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab - curates @creativemachines