* Originally published by MISC, fall 2014
A storyteller by craft and an experience designer by way of execution, Lance Weiler has introduced an entirely new species to the cinematic form: the co-creator. They are an evolved, active form of the previously passive, catered-to audience. Weiler is adamant about the role they play in not only the resulting experience, but the process of creation as well: “I design with and for them, and consider them as collaborators.”
Through his projects, he’s redefined what it is to experience narrative at its core as a bona-fide participant, immersed in not only the emotional ups-and-downs of the story but also in its physical environment, incorporating tangible objects that cue the story’s direction and meaning. BodyMindChange was a partnership with renowned filmmaker David Cronenberg, bringing the human enhancement implant (personal on-demand device, or POD) of his film eXistenZ and its process to eerie realism. Ready and willing enthusiasts shared their fears on social media, walked themselves through an interactive digital short film, and travelled to Toronto from all corners of the globe to receive their implant. (The most fanatical of them even staged a biological implantation of the device.)
BodyMindChange marks only one example of Weiler’s ability to coax an agenda out of his co-creators. His work represents a revolutionary and wholly authentic form of empathy, jumpstarting Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab and collaborating with United Nations and the US Congress. He speaks with MISC about how he sees experience design as a tool to equate storyteller with audience—ultimately bridging the gap between humans of all different walks of life.
MISC: How do you tap into the human, emotive aspects of people who are experiencing your stories?
I was fascinated with the idea of the Internet of Things and the opportunity to lay stories across the real world. By 2015, they estimate that there’ll be 1.5 trillion sensors in the world. I’m really interested in what those sensors say to us as human beings, how they help us make sense of the world around us, and what data means in terms of finding and telling stories. For example, Lyka’s Adventure is a really cool project that was inspired by my son, and tells a story about a little robot from another planet who has a really big heart. The idea was: How can kids be her companion on this adventure? Her planet had been decimated by climate, and she’s on a hero’s journey. She was kind of a connected toy. I beta-tested it with a fifth grade class in Montreal and Los Angeles. Within ten days, they’d moved Lyka over 2,000 miles in 56 locations.
What was powerful about it was her call to action. We could’ve shot it against a green screen, but the fact that she actually existed in the world made a huge difference to these kids.
When I think about my work, I’m constantly trying to make these significant kinds of stories with telling objects. With BodyMindChange, there were these pods. For Lyka’s Adventure, there was a plush toy. It’s this idea of someone having this agency because there’s a physical connection. I’m fascinated by that bridge between the physical and digital world, because I think that’s where the immersion—and where the opportunities for immersion—exist.
MISC: How did the BodyMindChange project come about?
David Cronenberg’s films pose some probing questions. They challenge ideas. They range in subject matter, but come down to three core themes: Who am I? Who is my creator? And who are we?
I wanted to combine that with a play on the Quantified Self and our obsession with data, and how it relates to our lives. Can I make you feel as though you’re not sure at times what’s real and what’s not? Can I suspend your disbelief as you’re sitting in front of a screen, opening you up to be really personal with something that you think is an artificial intelligence?
It took us by surprise how candid people were with Kay [the artificial intelligence within the interactive digital short film]. We have hundreds of thousands of responses that are incredibly, amazingly personal: from people talking about others dying in their arms, to some talking about being molested, to their dreams and aspirations—opening themselves to this fiction.
We had placed triggers and left gaps in the story for somebody’s own imagination to step in and add something to the experience. In building something like that, you’re really trying to get a point of making—or trying to make—the technology invisible. Can I evoke emotion and empathy in a form that is emerging: something people aren’t used to, having been accustomed to sitting and leaning back and waiting for it to wash over them? People flew in from all over the world to claim their Pod, a piece of plastic that had narrative significance to them because they’d birthed it.
We’re trying to figure out how to convey a story to somebody in a time where everybody’s already telling their own. How can you use these devices to make people almost forget that they are interacting with a device? That’s something I continually try to do across the years, and I’m trying to get closer each time.
MISC: How does your audience figure into your process?
I’ve embraced, in my work, a mixture of story, play, and human-centric design thinking. Like anthropologists within a space, we’ll spend a lot of time with the actual audience, like a 21st century version of a writer’s room.
‘Audience’ is not really the affected term for it. I’ve struggled with it for a really long time within the work, because in some instances I’m always trying to leave room for the audience to participate in some way. The audience is a hive mind. They’re fast, smart, and challenge you in ways that are really quite exquisite. They express themselves in brutally honest ways. I came from a background of writing for film and television, and game design, which had me working in a vacuum.
I should state that I have a vision of what I want to do, and set parameters and leave room for them to contribute to what it is. It’s not as though it’s a choose-your-own-adventure type of narrative. I’m interested in how I can have a sense of the world and create these really interesting ways of interaction. How can the data generate opportunities within a world to make the audience feel like they have agency in it—without me forgoing what I do as a storyteller?
MISC: How would you even define what you do, genre-wise? With your narratives folding out in real time with real people, there is no non-fiction vs. fiction anymore.
It does raise a lot of ethics issues, a lot of digital literacy issues, with youth who are growing up with screens. Media consumption’s very different from what it was when you, or when I, was growing up. If you’ve ever seen a young child near an iPhone or an iPad, you see how intuitively they use it. In part, it’s the UI and the care that’s been given to it, but another part is just the nature of their intuition.
[In traditional fictional storytelling] we have Chekhov’s gun. But when an experience is fragmented to the point where it’ll start on my mobile device, to my television screen, and to the real world around me, what narrative devices can we use? Where are the tells then?
We sit in a time right now where this is unprecedented, historically. We’re in a time where the audience is undergoing an amazing awakening, a time where the technology is rapidly commoditized and democratized; where everybody believes they’re their own media company to build their own experiences and pushing them to the public. It brings forth a lot of responsibility in terms of being a storyteller, and how I create these experiences.
MISC: There’s always been an escapist, passive quality when it comes to storytelling. Now, as an audience, we also have a bigger sense of responsibility.
I think the desire is to be even more connected in the real world. I’ve seen more and more people driven to the idea of being a part of something as a response to how easily connected we are. I see interesting things that are coming out of scarcity models; as though that this only happens once. It’s ephemeral: a moment that needs you to connect to the real world around you.
You see it in terms of immersive theatre, like Sleep No More in New York [an interactive theatre experience]. You’re literally there with these other people, but you’re connected and disconnected at the same time because you’re wearing these masks. You’re a voyeur able to go anywhere you choose, or you could sit in a chair all night if you chose to. It’s a theatre where all the seats are burned. It’s an opportunity to really change the relationship between audience and story. You’re kind of shaping your own path.
What struck me about the experience wasn’t necessarily what happened there. It’s the stories that came after it with the people I went with. It’s the same connection as when you go to an amazing festival or great party where you get separated with other people, and you’d be like what did you do? What did you see? Did that happen to you? You start to embody the story. Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” There’s something really, really powerful about these forms or opportunities.
MISC: I’m glad you brought that up, because I was going to ask you: Powerful as an immersive experience is, what happens when it’s over? What lingers?
The stories that I’ve written throughout my career had a three-act structure: a beginning, middle, and end. But the work that I do now goes on. BodyMindChange will go on for four years, traveling the world [as an exhibit]. That’s a long cycle for a story. Granted, certain stories last thousands of years, but they last in a single form: I’ll re-read a book, watch a movie again. But there’s something really interesting about the challenge of a linear form becoming non-linear—where does it change? When does it start? Where does it end? How can I extend it? How can I make it more relevant and reflective of the time?
As a form, digital provides a level of connectedness. But there’s still a relative awkwardness to how people communicate with it. They’re communicating with 140 characters, or they’re communicating with things like Skype, which is always inherently filled with [interruptions] like hey, can you hear me? We’re stuck in these fragmented interactions that are kind of limited by the infrastructure, by the amount of people on the line at any given time. In some ways, technology gets in the way of deeper group dynamics.
MISC: It’s interesting to think that as the medium and tools evolve, so does our human ability to experience.
As we move forward, we can start to play with levels of artificial intelligence, and levels of cause and effect in terms of how you shape simulations of narratives. You’re seeing things like the Oculus Rift scratching the surface of that.
At Columbia, we did a proof-of-concept project called My Sky is Falling. We brought in a bunch of foster youth who were aging out of the system. These kids go through a really hard time—they had problems with identity theft, their names have been changed. It’s almost like they’re second-class citizens in a way, reminiscent of science fiction. I had my graduate students design a science fiction world; an immersive experience you can go through. MIT gave us some bracelets we could wear while going through this world, and they would measure your emotions through your skin temperature, heart rate, and so on. They realized that everything they felt was what the kids were feeling every day when they aged out of care. The ability for the experience to evoke this level of empathy was remarkable. The UN got word of it, and we’ve since taken it to Congress, bringing it to different states to train social workers and foster care parents.
At the end of that experience, people were bawling. We built the thing for a few hundred dollars. So when you think about the idea of designing an experience, designing for another form—there’s something really powerful there, the hope that they won’t soon forget how you made them feel.