An upcoming Hack on September 10th will bring together storytellers, game designers, makers and hackers in an attempt to build a massive connected crime scene at Lincoln Center later this fall.

Story Thinking: how Sherlock Holmes can help us understand and embrace emergent technologies

lance weiler
Columbia DSL
Published in
7 min readAug 30, 2016

In the fall of 2014 we launched an ambitious collaborative storytelling experiment with an impromptu gathering of storytellers, game designers, makers and hackers. Initially it all started with a simple mashup of two things that ignited our imaginations — “Sherlock Holmes” & “the Internet of Things.” At that point in time a large number of works by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had just entered the public domain. Meanwhile the buzz of IoT, with its promise of everything rapidly connecting to the cloud, had experienced numerous fits and starts. However Google’s acquisition of Nest (a smart thermostat company) for $3.2 billion in cash put IoT front and center in 2014. Overtime Nest would come crashing back to earth as changes in leadership and struggles to evolve within Google continue to prove difficult for both companies. The Internet of Things like many emergent technologies struggles to find meaning within the marketplace. While IoT points to a strange Harry Potterfication of the world where everyday objects take on seemingly magical powers, it is difficult for us to fully understand how the technology can bring true value to our lives.

However the notion that objects could become enchanted thus enabling narrative to spill off screens and into the real-world presents a unique opportunity to explore a 21st Century adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle himself was making sense of new emergent technologies and processes such as ballistics, fingerprints, blood testing and non-contaminated crime scenes as he serialized the trials and tribulations of Holmes and Watson. In fact his fiction introduced and helped popularize numerous techniques that informed the cornerstone of forensics that we depend on today.

What if by examining the works of Sherlock Holmes we could gain a better understanding of the emergent technology that surrounds us today?

Story-driven Innovation

Over the last 2 1/2 years Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things has grown to over 2,000 collaborators in 60+ countries. The project has forked numerous times as participants have built upon its foundation in an effort to create projects, programs and prototypes. From immersive storytelling experiences to escape the room games to VR and AR apps to enchanted objects powered by IoT to educational programs — Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things has helped to establish the space for a massive online/offline collaboration. Since 2015 there have been more than 120 self-organized events around the world.

Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things in Rome
Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things in Barcelona
Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things in Warsaw
Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things in Turin

Released under a Creative Commons International 4.0 sharealike/commercial license, participants are welcome to experiment and explore the possibilities of story-driven innovation. The project leans into the notion of a “fuzzy collaboration” creating a space that encourages those participating to embrace ambiguity as they design, create, build and test a series of prototypes. At its core Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things is about exploring questions and possibilities. How can storytelling and play be harnessed as a tool for change? What does it take to design and build adaptive learning environments that are reflective of the 21st Century? How can you scale global collaborations while leaving room for individual and team contributions? The many layers to the project attempt to embrace a systems thinking approach to explore shifts in the authorship and ownership of stories, the ethical and political issues of emergent technologies as well as the challenges associated with documenting and sharing our collective findings.

Welcome to our Creative Fork of Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things

When we started developing the Sherlock experience for Lincoln Center we thought that we’d craft the story, place the objects/clues and establish the crime scenes. Our initial thought was that participants would take on the role of Sherlock and Watson. What we soon discovered thanks to a series of analog prototypes was that we were completely wrong. Engagement levels and most importantly the FUN factor greatly increased as we relinquished control and let those formerly known as the “audience” become collaborators with us. Together we are all storytellers wrestling with an emergent creative space one in which our collective actions give rise to a new narrative that embraces the collaboration itself.

The paper prototype consists of 4 steps. We’ve scaled it up to a few hundred participants

Throughout the process we have utilized the EDIT framework which builds upon design thinking, narrative design, and game mechanics. We’ve moved through the four stages of EDIT (empathy, define, ideate and test) numerous times. We’ve spent many hours with the “why” of the experience all in an effort to see where what we’re designing/building breaks and where it doesn’t.

By establishing a design question and a series of design principles we’ve been able to create a foundation for our team’s collaboration. Meanwhile a common understanding and shared vision has emerged over time.

Our current design question

How could we harness technology to evoke empathy and emotion, while at the same time enabling an intuitive, invisible and fluid storytelling experience for the audience in order to empower them to become fellow collaborators?

The core design principles

Not only are the core design principles guiding our development process for Lincoln Center, they are helping to inform and shape the collaborative experience surrounding the MOOC itself.

The Trace — The user can see their contributions within the story.

Granting Agency — The user is granted agency to make decisions (as a team and individually) and they can identify how their actions impacted the experience.

Thematic Frame — The user can contribute to the experience because they have a pre-existing understanding of its foundation.

Social Movement / Serendipity Management — Orchestrated micro experiences where unexpected moments foster collaboration between participants.

Six Weeks & Counting

We now find ourselves less than six weeks away from the New York Film Festival and our return to Lincoln Center on Oct 1st and 2nd. As we race to address various logistics Nick, myself and the team in NYC will attempt to pull back the curtain on our prototyping process. The experience that we’ve been building is intended to transform Lincoln Center into a massive connected crime scene. Through a series of meetups we’ve established a community of thinkers & doers who have come in and out of the project over the last year or so. The monthly gatherings continue to be a mix of storytellers, game designers, hackers and makers and together we’re creating adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that are inspired by Doyle’s interest and exploration of emergent technologies.

Over the next 6 weeks we’ll be attempting to document as much of the process as we can leading up and into the event at Lincoln Center. At this point however we’re not exactly sure what form the final experience will take. But that’s the exciting aspect of embracing creative ambiguity you often find that the joy of the process is like a good Holmes story — an intricate mystery that takes a keen sense of observation and a willingness to leave room for the type of mindfulness that a creative process requires.

The following audio file captures some of Nick and I’s thoughts on scoping, the value of hackathons and the challenges of building a collaborative space.

To Be Continued

Next time we’ll look at the evolution of an enchanted storytelling object

Come Join a Global Storytelling Experiment

Over the course of the next 6 weeks teams from around the world will ideate, design and prototype a 21st Century adaption of Sherlock Holmes that embraces a set of core principles. A prototype could be a game, an immersive storytelling experience, an enchanted object powered by IoT, a sherlock AI bot, an AR or VR project, a learning program for youth and/or an experience that makes social impact. The choice is up to you. Everyone is welcome and this year we’re experimenting with an open door policy. What that means is you can drop into the experience at any point within the 6 weeks. To find out more checkout this quickstart guide.

Sherlock Hack in NYC

In NYC or surrounding area on September 10th? Come join us for our next Sherlock Hack with IBM that mixes story, AI and IoT. All skill levels are welcome. To read more click here.

Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things MOOC is a prototype from the Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab and the Columbia University School of Professional Studies. We’re pleased to be partnering with the Film Society of Lincoln Center on this exciting year-long program. For more info please visit



lance weiler
Columbia DSL

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