Which Beacon Storytelling Approach Is Best for You?

As we’ve been creating Asunder, we’ve been delighted to discover other site-specific sound installations. All are unique, but if we look at them from a content framework, we see that they use one of four broad content strategies, each with distinct pros and cons.


1. Fiction narratives

Custom fiction narratives provide the highest level of site-specificity and offer writers almost no limitations. While open endedness offers the most freedom, it also makes these stories the most challenging to create. If you are considering doing a fiction project, enlist talented writers who are prolific, fearless, and flexible at generating non-linear narratives. Close collaboration between writers and the project team will be a necessity. Expect many iterations and rounds of revisions.

Some writers begin by taking an existing work and adapting it to be location specific. Others will prefer using the locations as the starting point for their inspiration. Either way, keep your writers on track by continually asking them—”How does the narrative enhance this location?” And conversely, “How does this location enhance the narrative?” Our Writing Guide and story patterns can help writers develop custom fiction narratives for Beacons.

If you speak Dutch (or even if you don’t), check out this clever fiction project. It's called Vondel Lekt and features a cast gossipy statues dispersed in Amsterdam’s popular Noord Park.

Klasien van de Zandschulp's Vondel   Lekt

Klasien van de Zandschulp's Vondel Lekt


2. Curated Themes

Curated themes are less site specific than custom fiction narratives, but they have the advantage of repurposing pre-existing work. The bedrock of a curated theme is a unifying concept. The challenge is to find a concept that enhances and is enhanced by the location. Once the concept is in place, the next steps are research, and then permissions gathering.

Creating a curated themes requires more collecting and combining than writing. However, if you opt to include original content, commissioning themed writing is fairly straightforward, since you can provide freelancers with well-defined and narrow parameters.

Another advantage curated themes have over fiction narratives is that the nodes can be more independent. The theme provides the continuity, so there is less of a need for story nodes to be tightly interconnected or interdependent.


3. Soundscapes

Soundscapes can be narrative or pure audio. What both types have in common is that they have listeners to travel through a dense field of nodes. This approach asks the audience to explore a defined area rather than finding, stopping at, and then traveling to multiple locations.

Our advice: choose an already popular destination—as Blue Brain did for their Central Park Listen to the Light. This way, you won’t need to lure your audience from spot to spot.

Successful soundscapes “crossfade” between nodes. In other words, as the listener travels, the closest node gets louder while receding nodes get quieter. This free-form navigation allows listeners to choreograph their own unique sequence and to interact with the soundscape via movement alone. Consequently, soundscapes have the potential to be the most ambient and seamless Beacon experiences.


4. Hidden Narratives

Hidden (or historical) narratives require the most amount of up-front research. Our cities are teeming with interesting real-life stories, the trick is seek them out.

The magic of hidden narratives is in their discovery—both for the producer and the consumer. It is incredibly satisfying to see and understand something new about a familiar place. Ghost Creeks is a wonderful example of this. This upcoming installation will mark the paths of the forgotten surface waterways that ebbed and flowed in San Francisco, "before development forced their paths into culverts, tunnels, and sewers." While this is not a beacon project, it's easy to imaging how narrative could be integrated into this visualization. 

Historical narratives also have the amazing potential to weave multiple points of view into a single story, promote dialogue, and even spur civic action. Our advice: Include subject specialists as well as everyday people. Dig up and re-contextualize documents and artifacts. Bring historical figures to life with dramatizations, sound design, or augmented reality. Get the audience involved by having them submit photos or stories.

Concept sketch for Emily Schlickman's Ghost Creeks

Concept sketch for Emily Schlickman's Ghost Creeks

Civil Bikes is a guided bike tour in Atlanta that focuses on key locations of the Civil Rights era. Again, not a Beacon project, but could easily be. Virtual Story of Resistance is yet another Beacon project by our friend Klasien van de Zandschulp which beautifully combines audio narration with augmented reality to transport the audience to an act of anti-Nazi resistance by the 'De Vonk' in 1942.

Nedra Deadwyler of Civi Bikes

Nedra Deadwyler of Civi Bikes


Which Is Right for You?

As you embark on your own Beacon project, we hope that this closer look at content categories will guide you and help you consider the various options. 

Is a Linear Plot Necessary for Good Storytelling?

We humans are obsessed with order and time. We mark our lives out in milestones: our first steps, our first kiss, our first love. This progression from A to B to C gives our lives meaning and the passage of time marks our progress through it.

Perhaps this is why the hero’s journey is our most popular storytelling form. Much has been written about the hero’s journey, from better writers than me (see Dan Harmon's wonderful guide), but suffice it to say that it is a highly codified form of the plot structure taught in high school that includes an exposition, a narrative hook, some rising action, a climax, and the denouement.

Simple Plot Structure Refresher

In the movie Star Wars, the exposition is where we meet Luke Skywalker and see his idyllic life upon Tatooine. The narrative hook happens when Luke accidentally triggers a message meant for Obi-wan Kenobi. The rising action (most of the movie) is Luke’s training, adventure, and plans to stop a weapon of mass destruction. The climax is when Luke and the rebels stage a raid on the Death Star. The denouement is when Luke destroys the Death Star and gets a medal. The End.

Because of their inherent linear nature, traditional forms of media (books, radio, film, etc.) are well suited for the hero’s journey structure. Unlike their linear predecessors however, new media technologies (web, video games, etc.) offer audiences the ability to choose. This relatively new element of choice, allows writers to explore a myriad of non-linear storytelling possibilities.

Today writers can play with constructing multiple converging and diverging storylines. Does Han shoot first? Do we have Luke side with Darth Vader and crush the rebels? Does he leave the fight entirely and go back to nerf-herding? By publishing in a digital media, we can let the audiences choose the path the hero takes—and that path may not always be a fruitful one.

As a writer myself, I’ve struggled with the suggestion that technology should alter a storytelling structure that’s been with us since the Ancient Greeks. How can we possibly improve on a form that has given us the glories of Oedipus, Robin Hood, Luke Skywalker, and even Jesus Christ? It’s a daunting prospect. But just as state-of-the-art technologies create new avenues to explore in science and industry, they have opened up new forms of artistic expression as well. Can new forms of non-linear storytelling be as compelling as the hero’s journey? Experimentation is the only way to find out.

When we began adapting some of these new technologies for Asunder, interesting new storytelling patterns began to emerge, especially after we added the concepts of fixed space and dispersed time with the notion of choice. Join us, won’t you, as we explore these patterns on this blog.

Hear Us Here – Amsterdam to Austin

Interesting development today. Out of the blue, we received an email from a Dutch interaction designer who has just launched a GPS- and beacon-based project in Amsterdam called HearUsHere.

First off, she has an extraordinary name—Klasien van de Zandschulp. She contacted us to ask to join our SXSW panel. Second, who would have thought to ask to join a pre-existing SXSW panel?! It's an audacious idea—steal it! (Turns out SXSW allows panels to add speakers well into December.) Third, her public location-based project shares Asunder’s ethos—spaces, expressive tech, collaboration! Lastly, her project recently launched, so I’m sure she can teach us a ton about what works and what to avoid.

Klasien’s app focuses on sound—field recordings, soundscapes, and spoken word. I like the way that HearUsHere fades sounds in and out based on proximity.

HearUsHere uses GPS/beacon coordinates to place sounds and an adjustable radius towards every sounds to change volume when you are within the radius of the sound. Sounds can overlap when they are close to each other. This way you can compose your own audio experience of the city, you create 'fade in' and 'cross fades' yourself by changing location.

I’m also impressed by the UI. By locating the user on a map and letting them simply “start” the experience and navigate the space, they have created an interface that is effective and unobtrusive. Your phone remains in your pocket and out of sight—praise the Lord!

Another great thing about HearUsHere is that its code is open source. We considered doing with Asunder and might still do...

Perhaps what is most exciting to me about Klasien’s email is that it validates of a pet theory of mine. My theory is that when you pursue personal projects (“passion projects,” if you will) and put them out in the world (aka, the Internet), unexpected and interesting things happen. The people you would love to meet find you. The opportunities you chased come knocking at your door. It’s quite exhilarating! And addictive...

Oscar Wilde wrote, “to be intelligible is to be found out.” To pursue passion projects is also to be found out. Mikal Hart expresses this serendipity better than anyone else I’ve heard. I highly recommend his amazing Creative Mornings presentation.

Asunder at SXSW 2015

Asunder at SXSWi 2015.jpg

This week we were thrilled to find out that we'll presenting at SXSW Interactive 2015. Our panel is tentatively titled "Doing It in Public: BLEs and Modern Storytelling," and we'll be discussing all that we've learned from making Asunder. If you are attending the conference, please stop by!

Panel Summary

Bluetooth Low Energy devices are poised to become the next big trend in the Internet of Things. Sadly, the use cases for BLEs read like a dystopian sci-fi novel. We deserve better.

F*ck coupons! Why can't BLE's offer interesting, interactive, and location-specific content instead? BLEs are dirt cheap and can already talk to most smartphones. Just two of many reasons why BLE-based platforms have such amazing potential. We've been exploring them for storytelling and are keen to help you do so too.

In this SXSW panel session, we'll be discussing our approach to creating the narrative geo-spatial platform, Asunder.

Questions the panel will answer:

  • How do you create compelling placemaking experiences using BLEs?
  • What are some content opportunities and challenges for creating site-specific storytelling experiences?
  • What are some design principles for the UI/UX for these experiences?
  • How do you create BLE experiences that are not creepy or annoying?
  • How do you combine the elements of narrative, screen-based interactions, and social interactions into a single seamless experience?

We want you to leave our session inspired! Let's create more BLE platforms and proliferate media-rich, immersive, location-specific storytelling in every community!