Telling stories with objects

Photo: Wuxia the Fox, an augmented book & app

Bringing together the real and the virtual can make a project more impactful, while also providing a new alternative to monetize digital projects.

Creating in the digital world often means observing intangible things, where interfaces and screens are required to connect audiences with content that was especially designed for them. In fact, one of the main criticisms we hear is that digital books will never replace their paper counterparts, their feel, their smell. Or, that relationships on social media are not authentic, since no one is physically there; etc.

And yet, digital technology also allows for alliances between the virtual and the tangible. There are many instances where actual, physical objects are used to add more impact to a story. The most obvious examples are those interactive tools that can take many forms, some of them quite elaborate.

One such example, called Livre in Room, aims at fostering a joy of reading through an inventive use of holograms and actors.

In this reading “cabin”, the reader is able to grab an actual book and digitize it. Then, a holographic actor appears and starts to read a passage from that very book the person is holding.

Here, the sensory contact is an emotion enhancer, a phenomenon that can be taken even further. Even more incredible is Field Trip to Mars, where one can “move” on Martian soil by sitting in a bus that turns into a mobile virtual reality room.

Moving beyond those exceptional, in situ experiences – which I’ve already discussed in a previous article –, I will now talk about other types of tangible objects, perhaps more modest, but certainly just as interesting.

When object leads to project

If promoting a digital work is a complex process, selling it can be even harder. Nowadays, it has become pretty obvious that, to many consumers, paying for a physical object makes more sense than spending money on an app or some immaterial, virtual product.

Why not bring those two concepts together, then? That is, combining the pleasure of holding an actual object with a digital component? That’s the idea behind a project like Les Super-Héros Détestent les Artichauts, an interactive book published by Benjamin Lacombe and Sébastien Perez that serves as a digital extension of its equivalent in print.

In order to access this world filled with popular superheroes, one can purchase a collectible plastic figurine that represents one of the characters in the story, namely a Lewis Carol-inspired super rabbit.

Printed under said figurine is a code that gives access to the interactive book, which can be obtained on the app store of a mobile device.

Of course, it’s always possible to buy the e-book. But that would mean missing out on the unique, almost affectionate bond one could establish with the small figurine…

Also, the impact would obviously be more significant if Les Super-Héros Aiment les Artichaut was more popular than it actually is. That’s partly the reasoning used by Nintendo with its Amiibo figurines that represent its famous video game characters. Said figurines don’t allow access to the entire content, but rather to bonus content, additional levels and more.

In the two examples above, the object is not essential to the experience. There are other ways to enjoy or purchase the work. Still, using the object as an intermediary brings a tangible, real-world component to the digital experience. There is an actual physical element to the creative and purchasing process. As mentioned earlier, many people consider web content to be of lesser value than real products because of its immaterial nature – and thus they feel it should be free.

Before moving on to another type of project, I want to discuss the imminent possibility of using a wide array of connected objects as “passports” for a new kind of storytelling. Today, these objects mostly come in the shape of activity bracelets. However, as more and more open environments are developed, new opportunities will present themselves. Already, we are witnessing new experiences such as The Inspection Chamber, an interactive work of fiction from the BBC available through domestic assistant hubs Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

The assistant makes it possible to have a conversation with several of the characters, as a story about artificial intelligence unfolds. While there is certainly room for improvement (the possibilities remain somewhat limited), one can easily imagine what lies ahead in terms of voiced narratives.

The object as an emotion generator

In the above projects, the object was used as a key. We are now going to see how it can find itself at the very heart of an experience, as is the case with Separate Silences, a virtual reality project in which the user becomes a character in a coma lying on a hospital bed. In order for the story to unfold, the user must actually lie on a real bed. If there is a breeze in the film, the user will be fanned by one of the assistants, etc.

Such a synergy between a virtual world and actual, physical sensations obviously takes the immersive experience to a whole new level. Still, I said I wouldn’t spend too much time on complicated stuff. So, let’s move on to simpler things, yet with a huge potential reach.

One of my favourite examples is called La Pluie à Midi, published by Éditions Volumiques. It’s a beautiful project aimed at children that combines a book and an app. Here, we’re not talking about the typical use of augmented reality on the pages of a book, but rather the concrete interaction between the screen of a digital tablet and various objects cut out in a book.

By placing little pieces of cardboard on the screen, a child can affect and modify the aquatic environment depicted on the image, in addition to the more usual touch screen features to read said book. No “hierarchy” here: the real and the digital actually interact on an equal footing.

The object at the heart of the creative process

I would like to end this article by moving from the point of view of the audience to that of the creators. Seldom do we see an object become the central focus in the actual creation of the content. And yet, one must admit it’s quite an appealing and promising concept, as the Blabdroid project has demonstrated. While it remains at the experimental stage, it certainly brings us to consider the creative process from a whole new perspective.

Blabdroid features small, adorable robots that approach strangers and ask them very personal questions – things we wouldn’t think of revealing to another person. And yet, what could stop us from confiding to a robot who, by its very nature, couldn’t judge or criticize us?

The experience led to the production of an intimate documentary in which all the footage was filmed by the robots. Here, we are way beyond the notion of screenplays being written by an artificial intelligence. What we are witnessing is a fascinating alliance between human sensibility and digital accessibility.

All these examples where tangible objects are used in the creation of digital experiences are clear demonstrations that we remain equally attracted to sensations both real and virtual. Of course, not every project will necessarily lend itself to such an approach. Still, if an object can manage to find an important place in one’s life, and even redefine business models, why not take advantage of it?

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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