Interactive Storytelling and the Future Agency

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I’ve Seen the Future and it will be

It’s been an interesting 10 or so years, in the advertising industry. Over that time we’ve seen the growth of the digital agency world from a niche marketplace, to the monster it has now become. During the first five years, the digital agencies of today were really starting to take hold. Some of them had been around for even longer than that, but as we entered the new millennia, they really started to make inroads. In fact the digital agency grew to such an extent, that all of the traditional agencies wanted to add a digital arm. However, this rarely worked. Traditional agencies made claim that they were ‘integrated’ across both online and offline, whilst they were struggling to shift their mindset to the digital world.

What’s interesting now, is that everything has come full circle. Most traditional agencies now do digital. They may have merged with other companies to do it, but essentially they really do digital as well and sometimes better, that most of the digital agencies out there. Digital agencies are now in the position at looking ‘above the line’, to become more rounded and integrated.

However, it’s not as simple as that. The traditional agencies have proven that it can be a mistake heading into the opposing advertising realm, without a lot of due diligence and planning. The digital agency needs to embrace everything about advertising, to be able to make that move. They need to realize that ‘digital’ now extends out from the Internet, to in-store, to bus stops, to train stations. They need to realize that there is still a place for the TV commercial, whether that is on your TV, or on YouTube. A lot of agencies think they are in this position, but they’re not…yet.

From the traditional agency perspective, they need to start to look at digital as a possible and suitable lead for their work. It’s no good anymore to assume that we start ‘above the line’ and then work on something digital that matches. Each experience needs to be fully compatible and fully (Though I hate the phrase) 360.

So what’s the future for the agency world? In what direction can an agency head, to ensure and embrace the coming years? What are the technologies, platforms and techniques involved to push on ahead?

Let’s take a look at one aspect of our agency world, which is more prevalent in the modern digital marketing arena than that of traditional marketing, that of storytelling. Yes, for those working on above the line campaigns, there is storytelling of course, however with the wide audience and burgeoning technology of today, those online are embracing the storyteller more frequently than those in the ‘real’. 

Interactive Storytelling 

Storytelling has been at the forefront of modern life. Whether it is TV, cinema, books, radio or YouTube, we all have access to consume stories that others have created and indeed, create our own for the Internet audience. More recently, with the progression of technology, we have had the opportunity to interact, to a certain degree, with online storytelling.

Audiences around the world have been given the chance to control what they see, interact with characters via simple choices and even navigate through online apparel sites. Automobile companies are giving us a chance to choose what happens next in their product videos, fragrances are allowing us to view and interact with video content and with celebrity ambassadors and in both cinema and online, we are starting to interact with movies.

Where can we go from here? With the rapid improvement in the gaming world for accessories, such as Kinect for the XBOX, the recent strides that have been made in creating digital ‘avatars’ from scanning the human form and touch screen technology being more commonplace, we are now closer to having a more immersive film and story experience.

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The Internet has given storytelling a new lease of life. The web series has given life to a new breed of film production, social networks have given us the ability to freely interact online with others, whether they are people, or companies and augmented reality has given us the chance to interact with characters and objects. Why not take it to the next level? Remember the old text adventure games, such as ‘The Hobbit’? An array of possibilities per scene, gave the user the feeling of being in control of an adventure, even through basic images and text. Why not make the new breed of film this interactive? Why not create movies and stories, where the viewer can make a choice which direction they want the story to follow? Why not extend that out to a wider audience via social networks and allow the characters in these films to become more ‘real’ to the viewer?

We’re already seeing elements of this in advertising. HUGO BOSS have allowed users to use head-tracking technology, to change what they see, companies like Lexus and Mercedes have given us the opportunity to choose what happens next in their product/car videos and have basic interaction with the characters within.

There’s a real possibility that the future of storytelling is heading in this direction. We’ll soon be able to be immersed in movies, truly bridging the gap between those films and gaming. We’ll be able to influence decisions made by the characters, communicate with versions of those characters outside of the film itself and even have our own virtual avatar within the film. We’ll be able to transfer and continue the story via TV, Cinema, Internet, Mobile and even extending that out to live events and ‘scenes’.

The Parallax Universe

To extend the creativity of storytelling, one of the storyteller’s new weapons, is parallax scrolling along with Parallax animation. For the most part, web designers are using this to create what are essentially brochure and magazine websites. The user can simply scroll, while the website itself takes you through a journey, both vertically and horizontally. Not only does it make the user experience easier for scanning information, but also it can look quite beautiful, both on desktop and on mobile devices.

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For the storyteller, parallax scrolling can be used as a method to provide a richer experience for consumers. I remember back in 2009, the DVD of ‘Watchmen: The motion comic’ was released. Essentially this was the full graphic novel, but additional frames were added to give the original an animated effect. This wasn’t to make it a cartoon, as such, but it gave the viewer a more descriptive view than static comic cells. To create this effect, the motion graphics team used layered versions of the comic cells, to split them apart and create the movement.

Essentially, it’s these layers that we are now using to create parallax scrolling based websites and experiences. This means, for the graphic novelist and storyteller, they have a clear way in, to really engage people digitally, rather than just relying on the consumer to download a static e-book, for example. One of the benefits of using this technology, is that the writer can give their readers the opportunity to interact, perhaps chapter by chapter, perhaps even to main events within the story. The scrolling can be paused to give the reader a chance to make decisions for the characters and to a certain extent, direct the stories themselves. Bringing their stories into an interactive environment also gives the storyteller a way of sustaining their work and it gives the reader a way of seeing the story from multiple angles and experiencing multiple endings.

These benefits don’t have to be seen just from a novelist, or writer based point of view. Digital agencies can start to give their client’s a more focused storytelling environment, which can extend and enhance campaigns, whether they are website, or film centric. For those of us entrenched in the digital world, we’re always been asked to bring out the story, by our clients. Even in it’s simplest form, parallax scrolling could be one of the potential solutions to that request.

We’re already seeing this, with companies like Landrover and Volkswagen embracing the technology and digital comics like ‘Never Mind the bullets’ testing the format. However, we’ve only scratched the surface so far and as a screenwriter, I can see a real chance to kick-start interactive storytelling, through this media.

In summary, this technology can be part of the push for more interactive storytelling and can help drag the storytellers themselves, further into the digital world, whilst still comfortable in the world outside. For storytellers as a whole, this is not the only outlet for creativity of course. With today’s broad access to filmmaking in the digital space and the interactive gaming environment, there’s a real chance that the work will be used for both pleasure and product. 

Immersive Film and Gaming

Let’s take a look at how the storyteller can use other new technologies, to widen their audience and move into something a little more immersive.

Interactive movies are becoming more popular, especially in the advertising world. This includes both online and also offline applications, such as trials for interactive cinema. How does this affect storytelling, both on and off-screen?

How do we now write for the potential multiple story arcs and how do we start to embrace real interactivity for marketing clients? How do hardware elements such as MS Kinect and web cams change the way we look at interaction? Remember, interactive storytelling in this case is not limited to the digital world.

With the drive in story telling and technology, we can now see a clear view of how we can push towards a more immersive experience. This doesn’t have to stop at film and games; in fact they become the same thing. Isn’t it a possibility that we can now start really getting people to interact with products? What’s stopping us from creating full web series or stories based on a product, or product set?

With the connectivity of mobile, online, social and indeed above the line, there is no reason not to use all of these in partnership to create something fully immersive. The possibility for games, movies and campaigns to become interactive through any medium, is something that we should be looking at.

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Perhaps it’s time for film to take the next step into fully interactive and even virtual territories.  We’ve seen this in film for a number of years. Movies like ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ and novels by the likes of William Gibson and W.T. Quick, have given us a teasing look into what these virtual worlds within ‘cyberspace’ could be like. TV shows, like ‘Caprica’ have given us a view of how we could interact with others through our own avatars, in a virtual world. The fact of the matter is most, if not all of the technology, is now available for this next step.

This can all come together with an immersive platform. We can start to give real interaction to people, both online and in the non-digital world. Let’s take a look at some of the more practical elements first. Interaction has always been there, whether it be face-to-face, through social networks, or through games it doesn’t really matter, it’s all around us. Essentially it’s nothing new to any of us. An immersive platform would be a facilitator, a connecting bridge between all of the touch points.

We are Detective

So, let’s take an example platform, so that we can trace the path of immersion, if you like. We start of course, with a story. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument and entertainment, it’s a detective story. We have our hero, the experienced and clever detective, who has a difficult case to solve. We introduce the viewer to our lead and his conundrum, through a piece of video on our platform. We realize by the end of the piece, that they need help in solving the mystery and we can be the ones to help them.

How could we help? Well the first thing a good detective would do is look at the evidence and look for clues. We’ve been given the details of the key players; so let’s take a look at what we have. We have the video and its contents. We have the names of the players. We have access to the local newspaper (Fictional and attached to the platform). Now aside from any local news, where else would we look? Well, where would we go on the Internet? What sites and services would we use? We search on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and we find clues, we find accounts used by the victims, by the villains, by the suspects and we pick up detail that helps us give direction to the story.

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We head back to our platform with a new wealth of knowledge and choose our path, based on what we’ve found. Have we found enough? We don’t know right now and nor would our hero. We watch the next piece of film, moving us along the story. But… There’s always a ‘but’, right? We need to go, we can’t stay at home on our desktop, but we want to continue the experience. The platform allows us to take it with us. We use our mobile devices and we continue to work on our evidence and in fact on our story. It’s our story too now, as we’re making decisions along the way.

The Mobile World

We’re lucky at the moment with today’s technology, because we are becoming more and more mobile. From mobile phones to tablets, we have the opportunity to embrace our online lives outside of our desktop environment. This means that we can now converse whilst on the move, with a richer interface and experience.

Any interaction we have with a movie, or game could be extended to the mobile world, augmenting the stories through AR applications, or extensions.

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A good example would be to use an AR piece, as an extension of our immersive experience. We could be given a co-ordinance in our local area, where we go to find some information. Once there, we could trigger the AR piece, to show us the next piece of data we need. This could be through heads-up style display, or even in the form of an AR game. For an advertising agency, this is a prime opportunity for engagement. The location could be a client store, or something similar. Perhaps something that the consumer will see, or interact with.

The AR piece can be triggered with a simple photo application within the game, or even a QR code, to get the user moving to the next stage. AR experiences have grown a lot over the past few years and we’ve seen stars like Robert Downey Jr. get involved with a piece for Esquire magazine and Rihanna for NIVEA. Over the next year or so, we’re about to see the next stage for augmented reality.

Google have taken a big step in this direction with their ‘project glass’, as it’s now known. During 2013 we’ll be able to buy the Google glasses that will enable us to view a real heads-up display of maps and other data. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t look to integrate this into the experience and indeed, there are already many clones announced that will hopefully give the product a wider usage.

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The final step for our experience is in this strange ‘real world’ that we just entered. Yes, for those with a blinkered view of online life, we should allow real interaction. Part of the immersive experience could led by events, perhaps for the finale of a game, the last scene of a film. The consumers could meet and even sit down in an interactive theater to watch it all play out. In Korean several interactive theaters are being tested. We’re not talking about a Disney 4D, where the audience are sprayed with water, for example – Lord knows what they’d do if they produced a 4D Star Wars film! Doesn’t bear thinking about, really. But I digress – What we are talking about is having the audience participate in the movies with mobile devices, to make decisions in the films. Perfect for the immersive platform.

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Where do we go from here?

So what’s the future for engagement and interaction? Many years ago, we experimented with virtual reality and how we could become ‘part’ of an experience, in a virtual environment.  This was pretty much brushed to the wayside, as the technology just wasn’t good enough to fulfill people’s ideals. However, things have moved on and there’s a good possibility that full interactive and virtual experience are on the way.

Universities have now started 3D avatar modeling of people. How have they taken influence from movies and how will this change story telling across all media in the future? It’s always an interesting thing to consider. The futures portrayed in the movies are becoming closer and closer. Well some of it. I still look out of the window Christmas morning, hoping to see my new flying car. No luck there, yet.

The fact is, there are a multitude of technologies waiting to be exploited by us, so why not use them whether they’re on or offline. We should be looking toward connecting the consumer to everything, to the client, to each other and to the stories that we can tell.

The future agency will be more of an overall facilitator, rather than just a marketing and advertising outlet. They will become more fully ingrained in the client’s world and be a source of knowledge and inspiration to those who hire them.

Let’s take our earlier example to run with and imagine that we’re a company. Let’s imagine that our company has the idea of a future immersive gaming and film platform. Where would we begin? We would begin with research. Research across the world of film and gaming, which incidentally, are two of the richest businesses in the world. Research would be completed for each and every element, from genre popularity to sales. The outcome of the research would be the determination of which direction the new platform would head and if the platform was indeed viable.

Once we’ve established that we’re correct in assuming that the platform is something that is viable, we would take a look at the technology involved and the platforms used. Where do people interact and consume? What do they do, when they’re there? The reason these questions need to be asked, is that the future of interaction and entertainment may well be something much more ‘involved’ on our new platform than just playing an interactive game, as an example. People will be able to interact with product, they will be able to interact with other people, and they will be able to consume information, all whilst interacting with the game and movie itself.

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Consumer interaction is now wide spread across many platforms, as we know. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have definitely changed the way that we interact with each other, but we also have to consider where we interact. Realistically our interactions spread across many platforms, from verbal communication to mobile and those social networks. Why not create a platform, so that consumers can interact across all of those? Some games are already doing this to a certain degree; games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty give the user the ability to interact with each other during the game play. This goes further, though. We would look at creating a platform that was portable. Something that the consumer could use via desktop, mobile, in live situations and even virtually. We’ve discussed this already, so we won’t dwell on the detail, however who better placed to build and implement these phases, than the future agency?

To be, or not to be…Open Source

The next phase in to establish the hardware and OS needed. With the hardware, we’re going to be looking at multiple devices, but with the option to use only one, or a combination, if need be. Would we want to create a physical product? Would we want to give the consumer the ability to own a piece of kit that would give them all of the functionality in one unit, or would we look to provide a platform that products could use? Would we want to create a proprietary product?

One of the most successful companies in this arena is Apple. However, Apple had something that most new companies don’t, which is the long time experience of creating product and the software that it runs. They come from a design and build background, from creating machines with parts in a garage, using software or an OS that already existed. That changed when they wanted the OS to do more, so they wrote their own, to match their products. With console gaming, each company creates their own hardware to run the games on and then relies on gaming manufacturers to write their games for that console. Each console is limited then, by the development of those games. In addition, the proprietary console is limited in its usage across other platforms. Microsoft have had some success with XBOX Live, where gamers can interact on the internet and MS promised the additional ability to carry those games, or at least part of them, to mobile devices. Unfortunately, we haven’t really seen this happen. Both Microsoft and Nintendo have extended gaming out to the physical world with Kinect and Wii respectively, but we’re all waiting for the next stage of interaction.

For a number of years, there has been a big push for open source. This could be the deciding factor in how our immersive platform would exist. A platform that is designed in such a way, that it can be hosted in one place, but allow manufacturers to get involved to create their own products for use in the new environment. It could allow storytellers, filmmakers and game developers alike, to create their own worlds for the consumer to interact with. For these storytellers, it could provide an outlet, not only for their work to be viewed, but to be fully engaged with and extended. It would give them the opportunity for their work to really ‘live’.

Agencies today look across all of these aspects. If you look at product design, agencies such as Frog have been designing for years and in fact have really started moving into advertising. On the flip-side, R/GA have moved from film, to advertising and have also had some success in product development (Nike+ for example), so much so that they’re looking at focusing on this direction for one of their new offices.

Agencies don’t just design and create advertising; they design, nurture, mature and build experiences, so the future agency will be perfectly placed to progress our fictional company’s project forward, from the strategy and research stage that they implemented and completed, through to build decisions and development. 

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Products and their Placement

After the idea, the study and the build, comes the marketing. We’ve been discussing the different methods, technologies and storytelling that we can start enlisting for marketing and advertising, so let’s put them into practice. Our company is looking to produce an immersive platform, so let’s make the advertising experience immersive as well, but let’s not start with how we drive people to the platform. Let’s start within the content itself.

For any writer, there are basic principals for engaging the viewer. These can be a simple as placing ‘events’ during a story that excite the reader and make sure that they don’t drift from the story that the writer is trying to tell. We use interesting characterization to make the reader feel that they can relate, we choose interesting topics, so the reader’s interest can be piqued. We also give each of our characters a personality and with that comes the need for interaction and the need for ‘things’, essentially props. Props are something usually associated with film, but in the written form they are used in the same way. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a book, watching a film or engaging in a client’s new interactive piece, there will be an array of props used.

Product placement is something that’s been used frequently in the film and TV world, as well as at events and shop doorways, but it hasn’t really been exploited in a more immersive environment. Most agencies will help their client drive people to their products, so that they can sell, but rarely is anything engaging enough for it to have any sort of longevity.

Let’s take a leaf out of the screenwriter’s book. We could be talking about a TV series, or a series of films, either one is fine. What we get from these writers is the ability to simply look ahead. They don’t write for one episode, they write for a series. They don’t write short-term interest characters, they write characters with growth, complexity and personality. They write in such a way, that for every episode that ends, another is waiting for the excited viewer to watch.

It can be the same for the consumer. Why should the consumer be limited to online and offline experience that lead them to a product and stop there? We can start engaging the user around the product. We can start writing for that product, incorporate it and even interact with it through our immersive platform. Let’s try to give something to the consumer that helps them relate to the client and get them engaged, without forcing them to ‘Buy Now’, or ‘Find out more’. Let’s immerse them in a platform where they can see practical application of a product or service, whilst they’re entertained and involved.

This could give the future agency the opportunity to help clients to really connect with the consumer base, further than through social media and let’s not forget, we’re talking about an immersive platform, which gives the consumer a chance to actually interact and even choose a route for the story. 

I’ve seen the Future and it works

We’ve looked at one example here, of how we can start to embrace technology and storytelling to create a future agency, providing full service and longevity to clients, through immersive experiences. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking down this gaming and film path and even down the path of advertising. Any immersive and eventually any virtual interactive platform would be able to be used for multiple applications. These applications could be everything from the online to the product based and things like 3D printing will enable faster product development. The future agency will be able to be there all the way through the process and deliver at every point.

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The future agency can become more than just a service to help advertise a product. With an immersive platform, we could be learning languages, receiving medical training, psychology, rehabilitation and courtroom experience, all of these could use this idea as a base and it is just an idea.

These 12 or so pages aren’t necessarily going to change the way we look at the world, or indeed change it, but it’s a viable idea, right? The technology is already there, the storytellers are there and we could start heading towards our future, by giving both our clients and the consumers more. The future agency’s time is now.

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About Eamon Wyse - Award Winning Screenwriter/Producer and Production Director @writefilmdesign

Award Winning Screenwriter/Producer and Production Director @writefilmdesign

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