Web Storytelling Heads Back Offline With 'Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things'

Web Storytelling Heads Back Offline With 'Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things'
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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Lance Weiler makes interesting stuff.

If you follow the seam where entertainment and tech intersect than you've probably heard of Weiler. At the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 he experimented with location based storytelling with an experience called Pandemic. I was lucky enough to be there and participate: it was pretty damn cool.

While feature film plans based on Pandemic didn't come together, Weiler has been leading a do-it-yourself tech and entertainment charge. First came the WorkBook Project, a website and event series that aimed at getting creative folks to approach emerging technologies and platforms with a DIY ethic.

That has since morphed into Learn Do Share, which is based out of Columbia University. There Weiler holds the title of Director of Experiential Learning & Applied Creativity and is building up the University's Digital Storytelling Lab. Under the auspices of Columbia he is continuing his approach of prototyping narrative experiences that blend traditional techniques with the latest in technology.

The current experiment is called Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things. The high level pitch is that teams of makers answer a request for prototypes and then come together and plug internet enabled devices into connected crime scenes to create original Holmesian style mysteries with a 21st century twist.

If that sounds a little jargon-rich and left your head swimming don't worry. My initial encounter with the idea did the same to me. Luckily I had Weiler himself to explain the concepts behind this prototype, and while the tech jargon can feel a little like "leetspeak" at the outset all of those terms make perfect sense once you've been initiated.

So let's initiate you, Detective.

At the core of this IOT enabled Sherlock is a game, which plays out like a devious version of the literary minded party favorite exquisite corpse. Corpse is apt, because the first step is for a group to tape out the outline of a body.

Multiple groups do this at once. Then the groups come together and--like strangers on a train--they swap murders. Well, bodies in this case. The second group comes in and puts down a series of objects--or in the really stripped down version post-it notes with the names of objects on them--around the outline.

Then the first group comes back and--Sherlock style--devises the story of how all the pieces come together to describe the murder. It's a mystery game where the identity of the killer isn't known at the outset, and the goal isn't to solve the mystery so much as it is to come up with the coolest explanation of the crime scene.

When you think about it, that's the whole appeal of Sherlock Holmes in a nutshell: the wildly improbable but absolutely possible explanations. That's the fun for writers cracking a Holmes tale, and that fun is just as capable of being shared amongst a group.

So how do the IOT enabled gadgets fit in? Well that's where things get interesting. And International.

Different groups around the world are experimenting with how Internet connected devices could be used in the crime scenes. Like a rotary phone that can be triggered by proximity beacons tagged to other objects on the "game board." It is even possible for groups in one location to play with those halfway around the world thanks to these connected objects.

Like Holmes--or his nemesis Moriarty, for that matter--Weiler is a systems thinker. There are layers to this project.

On one hand Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things is a collaborative storytelling game. On the other it is an exploration of how the devices that make up our increasingly connected world can be used to do that most human of things: tell stories.

Then there is another level beyond that: a model for what a massively online/offline collaboration could look like. Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things got its start at the Film Department at the School of the Arts and is running under the auspices of the Columbia University School of Continuing Education (SCE). Which is itself a collaboration that mirrors the online/offline dynamic.

As the line between the real world and the digital continues to blur methods of navigating that divide are going to become more important. What better way is there to lay a foundation for those kinds of negotiations than through play?

Perhaps the most important thing Weiler is doing with this prototype, thanks to the use of optional layers of complexity, is lowering the barrier of entry for participation. Centering the experiment in party-game style mechanics anyone with an imagination--which is about 98% of the population at last check--can take part. That's a lot better than your usual hack-a-thon situation which requires technical skills.

For those that do have programming skills the "Internet of Things" part of the title offers up all kinds of challenges. The Internet has grown into the way that we deliver narrative experiences to each other over the past few decades. Yet for the most part those experiences are still packed into containers we recognize as stories: novels, games, television episodes.

The work here, which Weiler has developed long with game designer Nick Fortugno (co-founder of Playmatics), is part of a movement which seeks to break stories out of those molds and weave them into our everyday reality.

The curious can take part in the next big prototype session this weekend--October 24th & 25th--in the Global Challenge which is taking place in cities around the globe.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.

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