Storytelling Gets an Upgrade: Reach Out and Touch It
Last April, Apple Inc. released a product that jaded technogeeks derided as “a big iPod Touch,” but consumers saw as a brilliant new way to experience the web and multimedia.
Fourteen months and 25 million units sold later (nearly 5 million sold in the last quarter alone), the iPad has single-handedly defined a new consumer electronics product category. More than 90,000 applications designed for the iPad are now available from Apple’s iTunes App Store. Dozens of competing tablet products will soon emerge on the market, presumably with their own app stores.
Productivity apps, games, social network tools… these tablet apps are as diverse as the people who download them. But when Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the iPad last January, I saw the potential for storytelling crack wide open into a frontier filled with innovation, promise, and profit.
I’m a writer of “transmedia” novels, screenplays, educational experiences, and online marketing campaigns — which is a fancy way of saying I design cohesive narratives that unfold across multiple media using many distribution platforms. An example of my work: Personal Effects: Dark Art, a novel I co-wrote with game designer and transmedia storytelling pioneer Jordan Weisman, featured mysterious items (such as photos, IDs, and business cards) that accompanied the book. These items, and the narrative itself, directed readers to online-exclusive plot twists. The novel is presently in development as a Starz TV series, with Gore Verbinski executive producing.
The creative potential I envisioned for tablet-based storytelling last April is now coming to pass. We’ve already seen incredible applications of the iPad for nonfiction — the inspired and innovative $5 app Our Choice by Al Gore (based on his 2009 book of the same name) is one example that showcases the possibilities for documentary-style narrative. In case you missed it, here’s a video of the product in action:
I’m convinced the “text meets multimedia” techniques seen in that video, and more, can also be used to tell resonant, memorable fiction stories. Using the technologies and creative philosophies I’ll soon present in this series of posts, I believe progressive creators and publishers can explore entirely new ways to tell and sell stories of any genre — including original and licensed intellectual properties — by making the reader an active participant in the unfolding narrative.
Understand that what I propose is wildly different from the ebooks you’ll presently find in the Kindle marketplace, or “enhanced ebooks” that integrate multimedia such as video clips into the reading experience (such as Alan Dean Foster’s excellent Predators I Have Known and others). Also understand that I enjoy those electronically-delivered stories. Like the print novel, these formats will be consumed by many people for many decades to come.
This simple and largely predictable A-to-B “porting” of content from print novels to ebooks provides a present-day gold rush for publishers. However, it largely ignores the arsenal of built-in technologies of the iPad and other tablets — the very features that differentiate them from other media consumption devices. By ignoring these features, publishers are missing the most disruptive and innovative storytelling opportunity since the debut of the motion picture.
By using the proven technologies integrated in the iPad and other tablets — features such as intuitive touch-based gestures, a motion-sensitive accelerometer, robust graphics and audio, and internet connectivity — folks like me can do far more than merely enhance a text-based narrative. We can create a new breed of narrative. Not a novel, not a movie, not a game — what I propose is all of these things and more: a presentation designed to immerse readers by using physical interaction as a meaningful part of the narrative.
Here are a few examples of how the iPad’s built-in features can be elegantly wedded with a story.
In the example images above, a sci-fi thriller could begin by requiring the reader to place his palm upon the device. This would activate a spiffy animation that thematically introduces the reader to the fictional world and launches the narrative. The act of touching the screen is psychologically important; it builds the first of many physical “connections” between reader and content.
Say you’re reading a near-future thriller in which a private detective receives a mysterious envelope. You flip the virtual page on your iPad, and behold the detective’s actual desk… and the actual envelope described in the story. What happens next? Your participation and investigation moves things forward.
Using the iPad’s built-in motion sensor accelerometer, readers could “shake” the device at specific prompts during the narrative to engage with, and further, the story. In the multi-image example below, the reader uses the device’s built-in “shake” feature to coax out a series of photos from the envelope, as he would do in real life… and as in real life, those photos fluidly scatter onto the detective’s desk in real time.
Based on the text-based story the reader has read so far, he knows one of these photos is of the tale’s mysterious villain. But the story’s hero doesn’t know who it could be. It’s the reader’s job to find out.
“Shaking” out a set of photos is one thing. But examining them requires physical interaction with the screen and story. Using the intuitive built-in touchscreen gestures of the iPad, a reader can simply touch an on-screen element (such as the photos seen here) and easily move it from one location of the screen to another.
This interactive technique could be used in numerous ways, including:
- Arranging /assembling jigsaw puzzle pieces
- Assembling “shredded” secret documents
- Sifting through a pile of keys to locate the appropriate key for a “locked” story section
- And more
Like the iPhone and the iPod Touch, the iPad also supports a touch-based gesture called “pinching,” which permits users to increase or decrease the magnification of on-screen elements. In our example here, the reader believes he’s successfully identified the photo of the villain; this is based on in-text clues he’s read and a quick examination of the other photos.
To confirm this, and to further the investigation in our futuristic detective story, the reader zooms in on the photo using the intuitive tactile “pinch” gesture. Perhaps a computerized “scan” of the photo (presented at particular moments in the narrative) will yield the confirmation our story’s detective’s hunch needs and unlock more information necessary to move the story along…
Unlike traditional novel or film experiences — in which all narration, foreshadowing, and plot payoffs are plainly visible and delivered linearly — this breed of story uses immersive, physical techniques to resonantly deliver plot twists in nonlinear ways. Readers discover plot information just as a story’s hero would and are rewarded for their curiosity.
This is just the beginning of our story: in my next post, we’ll take the next step and bring in even more innovative technology-enabled narrative techniques.
So, until next time!
J.C. Hutchins is an award-winning freelance writer best known for using multimedia narratives, emerging fiction trends, and participatory storytelling techniques to entertain online audiences. He is a published novelist, represented screenwriter, and experienced transmedia storyteller. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s Weekend Edition and by the BBC. Learn more about his work at JCHutchins.net.
Photo Credits: Tablet images courtesy of J.C. Hutchins. Portrait by J.R. Blackwell.
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