The 2012 StoryWorld Conference kicked off in Los Angeles earlier today with a keynote from Scott Trowbridge, the vice president for creative with Walt Disney’s Imagineers Research & Development team.
The Imagineers are the people who create immersive experiences for the Disney company. Started in 1952 as Walt Disney’s private think tank, the research group employs 1,500 people from 130 different disciplines, including sculptors, painters, and scientist. They have five missions:
- Tell great stories: They are tasked with finding new ways to tell stories through live, interactive experiences, film, television, games, publications, and any new platform they can develop.
- Bring great characters to light: The old storytelling axiom is “People doing things.” The imagineers try to create rich characters in whatever medium they are working.
- Make great places: For many of us, we think of Disney’s places as theme parks. However, the places now extend throughout cyberspace as well.
- Find new ways of engaging: The Disney experience is predicated upon people creating their own stories, which means engaging with people in ways that draw them into the world.
- Understand changing audiences: The Imagineers are tasked with understanding how audiences are migrating from passive to interactive, participatory organizations.
The Imagineers are not as interested in synergy, which Trowbridge described as referencing a story in another medium as a means to get you to experience something, not as a means to tell you something. (“We do this (synergy),” he said. “We’re going to keep doing it. You’re welcome.”) Instead, they are engaged in a rotating series of tests to understand how to create and building big story worlds than both expand traditional stories and engage audiences.
He gave a few examples of the beta testing they are doing:
The Legend of Fortuna
The Imagineers recruited people who came to the theme park to participate in an interactive fiction story that took place throughout a group’s visit.
- The people didn’t know what they were getting into when they signed up. They only knew there would a story that unfolded throughout the day.
- They were followed with hidden cameras.
The event consisted of:
- Live actors giving the visitors clues, backstories, and plot points
- The group had to solve mysteries and puzzles to unlock the story; this involved
- Scavenger hunts
- Puzzle solving
- Guest-to-guest interaction
- Flash mobs
- Special effects and generated “cut scenes”
This was one of the more successful beta tests as they got to see how and what people would do when they were given tasks within a vacation environment.
The problem is scale. These events are done one-to-one, which means the team is working to create a story one family at a time. This is an impossible scale given the number of visitors who show up.
The Starlight Detective Agency
The next idea the Imagineers tested was using social media to engage people who aren’t on the trip to interact with people who are.
Families signed up to participate before they arrived. They used Facebook to recruit a detective team. When the family arrived at the park, they were asked to complete missions (e.g. take a picture, collect this) and share it with the detective team, which was supposed to help solve a mystery.
The problem is that emergent narratives branch off so quickly it’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all of the elements that are unfolding.
The Story Engine
The group has developed a computer that creates story scenarios that can be auto-generated based upon feedback from the performers. (Visitors can’t be a variable because guests can’t make wrong choices, as one of the Imagineers on the video presentation said.)
The engine works in this way:
- A scenario is sent to a performed based upon a set of parameters designed by the computer
- The performer interacts with the guests, and an outocme is generated
- The performer inputs that back into the computer, and a new scenario is generated for the next performer
They have playtests The Story Engine with other Imagineers and so far it works…mostly, Trowbridge said.
The last thing Trowbeidge discussed was on open grant process the Imagineers just launched that will allow anyone to submit grant proposals to his group. Those will be vetted, and they will choose the ones that most interest the Imagineers to help produce.