Contextual Storytelling, Part 2: Storytelling for a Screens, Things and Places World

Editor’s note: This post is the  second in a series of ongoing articles that will highlight “Contextual Storytelling: Best Practices for the Internet of Things,” an innovative, new directed research course taught by Comm Lead instructors Andrea Zeller and John du Pre Gauntt. During the course, a small team of students will develop a framework and best practices for storytelling that is optimized for multiple devices, contexts and locations. The first two posts in this series focus on the history and current state of contextual storytelling. Later posts will cover the processes and challenges that students encounter during the course.

Automobile tires first spoke in 2007. That year, every new car sold in the US shipped with a tire pressure sensor that radioed its status to the car’s central computer. So long as tire pressure stayed within manufacturing guidelines, the tire and the computer had a fairly boring conversation. However, by model year 2017, it’s likely that if the tire thinks it’s time for attention, it will ask the driver if she wants make an appointment with the closest Les Schwab or Jiffy Lube. If the driver accepts, the tire will ask the car to shoot an email or text over to their reservation system to guarantee a spot. Being a thoughtful model, the car will fetch a map with directions because it’ll be the first time she’s driven to that particular service provider.

The Internet of Things circa 2014 feels a lot like the Internet of 1998-2000. It’s straightforward to create a fantasy like the one just described by extrapolating today’s technology a little into the future. Silicon Valley is fully revved up to sell such a fantasy. Everyone knows there’s something there.

Pieces in Motion

But the future doesn’t march smoothly to the upper right corner. More often, the future lurches. Right at the point that communicators “get” how to interact with people through computer, tablet and smartphone screens, Cisco publishes estimates of 50 billion connected devices in just a few years. Google buys a thermostat company for billions. Facebook snatches a virtual reality start up for a ridiculous price.

Game Board

Game Board (Image: ©

This is happening while incumbents scramble to surf imminent, hard-core change. Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, the world’s largest manufacturer, recently told investors that GE collects five terabytes of usage data each day from various products, services and other activities around the world. Pretty impressive until you compare it to Facebook’s Big Data daily diet, which is over 100 times bigger than GE.

Communications for a World of Trillions

Given the current mix of hype and reality regarding the Internet of Things and its potential impact on how we interact with brands and technology, what are the options for ambitious Comm Lead students? They’re a lot better than you think. People who can master communication for a contextually aware technical environment are well-positioned to seize major opportunities. The authors of the book Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology write that data and content have escaped into the ambient environment to interact any number of ways on any number of devices.

Moreover, those conversations increasingly will be experienced across screens, things and locations. In this world, computation isn’t so much of a tool we use, as it is an environment we live in. Thus, experience design (functions and content) for devices with screens like PCs, tablets and smartphones must expand to include experience design for smart objects, smart buildings, smart clothing and smart cities.

Cloud Imagination (Image: ©

Cloud Imagination (Image: ©

There will be high demand for people who can orchestrate the winning combination of content, interfaces and applications that toggle natively between screens, things and locations to deliver the right experience at the right time to the right person. The job of the communications designer will be to abstract away as much of complexity as practical for the end user to participate meaningfully in a contextually aware and intelligent environment.

So We’re Back to Storytelling …

Andrea Zeller and I will work with a team of eight Comm Lead students over the fall quarter to plant some of the first stakes in the ground to develop potential best practices for storytelling for a screens, things and places world. Even as our students begin to learn how sensor fusion of accelerometer and gyroscopic data by the iPhone 5S’ M7 processor enables a clutch of fitness apps to function, most if not all of our communications theory remains applicable. What user behaviors do we need to ignite so they experience the value of this or that product? What information does the user need to interact meaningfully with products? When do they need it and how? What changes and what doesn’t change when we try to focus persuasion and influence in an always-on, always-accessible physical environment?

Over the course of the quarter, we plan to publish a few short pieces drawn from the research experience in the class. Don’t look for a lot of answers because this is a rolling beta project. Instead, we’ll need to ask you readers a lot of questions about what you think.

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