Telling Interactive and Animation Design Stories

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When it comes to constructing stories that encourage audiences to play, Emily Gobeille and Theodore Watson, principals of Design I/O, a Cambridge, MA-based creative studio specializing in digital design, are at the top of their game. Gobeille and Watson have an enthusiasm for storytelling, from “Terrarium,” an interactive ecosystem that uses participants’ voices to fuel and sustain the environment and living things within it, to “Puppet Parade,” an animation design installation that allowed children to perform alongside large-scale puppets by enabling them to “step into the environment and interact with the puppets directly, petting them or creating food for them to eat.” “We tell stories through a combination of design and interaction,” Gobeille says. “We are passionate about creating dynamic stories, where people are not just observers, but can become part of the story. Stories are also the foundation on which many of our projects are created. We start with a story and then figure out the best way to tell it.”

(Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from a larger article in Print’s October 2013 Storytelling issue. The full article can be found there.)

And while technology can aid in this process, sometimes an interactive format is not ideal. According to Gobeille and Watson, the trick is knowing which medium to use in each unique circumstance. “Some stories are well-suited to being told digitally; however, it is important not to try and force a story into a technological approach that it isn’t suited for,” Gobeille says. “In our view, it is always better to design the medium and interaction around the content of the story, so that a digital, technological approach contributes something meaningful to the experience.”

“Rise and Fall”

“Rise and Fall” allows audiences to navigate an interactive world by rotating the covers of Boards Magazine. Right side up, the journey is light and skyward; upside down, the world falls into darkness.

Two projects that flourished in the interactive and animation design format were “Funky Forest” and “Rise and Fall,” which also happen to be the designers’ favorites. Like “Terrarium,” “Funky Forest” is based around an interactive ecosystem. Instead of using sound-activated elements, however, children at the Cinekid festival in Amsterdam, and later at the Singapore Art Museum, were able to grow trees using their bodies. Once the trees were created, participants could then redirect water from the digital waterfall to allow the trees to thrive in the environment. “Rise and Fall” was a project for the March 2010 issue of Boards Magazine in which Gobeille and Watson developed an interactive story for the front and back covers. The tale of “Rise and Fall” is revealed to viewers through story nodes created by holding the cover right side up (rise) or upside down (fall) in front of a web camera. Turning the magazine slightly changes the perspective in which the viewer sees the story world.

“These are two projects that were immensely satisfying to bring to life, and they are also two projects that we don’t feel like we are finished with and are looking forward to revisiting and taking even further,” Gobeille says. “Both projects involved a balanced combination of designed and programmatic elements, and there was a real back and forth between the two of us during the development process.” Watson’s experiences with each project were also positive. “‘Rise and Fall’ was interesting as we were trying to figure out how to tell a story from two perspectives—positive or negative—and ‘Funky Forest’ was just such an audacious idea that at the time felt like a complete impossibility,” he says. “Seeing children playing with it the first day it was installed at the Cinekid festival was one of the most rewarding experiences we have ever had.”

Kids flocked to the “Funky Forest” exhibit, which  empowered them to create trees using their bodies.

Kids flocked to the “Funky Forest” exhibit, whichempowered them to create trees using their bodies.

Play is an important aspect in getting the audience interested in the project, and Gobeille and Watson work hard to ensure people enjoy the interactive adventure. “In a sense, a key part of an interactive experience is to hand over control to the audience,” Watson says. “So it makes sense that they play a part in the storytelling and the outcome of the experience. Technology also allows us to develop tools for people to tell their own stories.” Gobeille agrees that putting the storytelling components in the hands of the audience is a great method for increasing overall engagement. “When we worked together on ‘Funky Forest,’ we came up with an immersive, interactive environment that encouraged people to tell their own stories though experimentation and open play. Technology allows people to jump into the story, become immersed in it and play a part in the story that unfolds around them,” she says, noting that each project is designed to help facilitate this sort of connection. “We design our projects to engage people with varying levels of interaction. There are those that provide direct and immediate feedback, and then we layer more subtle interactions that reward exploration and longer feedback loops where people can discover deeper connections between things. The immediate reaction pulls people in, and the more subtle interaction sustains interest and allows the audience to make a deeper connection with the experience.”

Avoiding the Same Old Story

Although the Design I/O principals consistently “have too many ideas and not enough time to make them,” their biggest challenge is finding the best way to bring a particular interactive or animation design project to life. “We often struggle to find the most appropriate and intuitive way to tell a story and ask ourselves the question, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’” Watson says. “We want to make sure our approach doesn’t hinder the experience and that it matches the type of story we are trying to tell.”

The inspiration for “Skataviz” came from a friend who had completed a project that Design I/O first thought was this prototype, but turned out to be something else.

The inspiration
for “Skataviz” came from a friend who had completed a project that Design I/O first thought was this prototype, but turned out to be something else.

This challenge can often extend into finding the best way to engage the audience at their level. While starring in a digital puppet show is sure to wow children, adults may be less impressed. Likewise, “Faces,” an outdoor installation for San Francisco Art Commission’s “Lights on Market St.” initiative that captured and sketched people’s portraits before projecting them larger-than-life onto the side of a building, is much more fascinating for adults. “We find that different ages respond differently, and we target interaction that is appropriate for the age group,” Watson says. “Often, the environment, scale and space has a big impact on engagement, and we spend a good amount of time adjusting parameters until the experience has the right feel. Sometimes changing the timing of something by one-tenth of a second can make a huge difference in how people engage with the work.”

Occasionally, however, there are technological difficulties to consider. In one of their most recent projects, “Skataviz,” which allows skateboarders to record their movements by attaching an iPhone or iPod Touch to the board and see their runs and tricks visually displayed on screen, Gobeille and Watson were limited by the capabilities of the equipment. “The ‘Skataviz’ project came about in a funny moment of inspiration. We saw a friend’s project online that we thought was ‘Skataviz’ but after watching the video discovered it was something completely different,” Watson says of the project’s inception. “This triggered the idea for the project, and we decided to see if we could make what we thought it was. The biggest challenge with the project has been dealing with the pitfalls of iPod sensors. Some sensors are really accurate and others require us to add some intelligent guessing to the data that is being output.”

Much like “Funky Forest,”  “Puppet Parade” encourages kids to interact with life-size puppets using their hands and arms.

Much like “Funky Forest,”“Puppet Parade” encourages kids to interact with life-size puppets using their hands and arms.

Despite the hurdles that accompany many digital projects, the Design I/O team continues to push the boundaries of the medium, striving to develop pieces people have never seen before. “[Our projects] seem to be a mix of big ideas that we can’t get out of our heads and have been thinking about for ages and quick projects that come from seeing something while we are outside or at a bar and then go straight to the studio to make a prototype,” Gobeille says. Watson also explains that a major source of inspiration comes from collaboration. “We are constantly pushing each other out of our comfort zones, which results in something that is far beyond what either of us could have imagined,” he says. “Often the ideas that pop into our heads feel impossible. These are the ideas that we have the most fun trying to turn into a reality.”

And both designers continue to be excited by the future of interactive design and the role storytelling will play. “When we first started, interactive design mediums were intriguing to people almost regardless of content,” Watson says. “Now as it becomes more mainstream, with interactive walls and floors commonplace, what will differentiate them is the quality of the stories being told and the marriage of interaction and storytelling.” Gobeille also finds that narrative-oriented designs have a distinct form of longevity. “Storytelling is what grounds an interactive experience,” she says. “It sets the context for the experience the audience is about to engage in; it encourages curiosity and discovery and also allows the experience to live on, creating a never-ending story.”