Adventures in Multi-Dimensional Storytelling

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Despite our hectic schedule here at Ostmodern we still make time to put together an R&D team of willing volunteers to push the boundaries of our knowledge, create new ideas and find ways to achieve them.

Recently we’ve been looking at visual storytelling. In the digital realm this generally means the creation of multimedia digital articles which rely on bold use of type, video, imagery, data visualisation, and sometimes 360 or VR, to bring a story to life.

Some of our favourite visual storytelling examples Some of our favourite visual storytelling examples by The Guardian, UNHCR, & The New York Times

In our experience we see all sorts of opportunities for engaging audiences with this approach. It’s especially interesting to us as UI designers because in many ways the interface begins to become part of the content itself rather than purely a mechanism to deliver it.

The backstory

Over many years of working with Broadcasters, Content producers, Current Affairs and Sports organisations, we constantly see this need to tell stories that complement and enhance mainstay video content. Whether it’s enriching a drama with character profiles or providing a sports site with post event analysis, video content has long been supported and enriched by deeper stories and data. The challenge that we often see here is being able to react quickly given the logistics required to design and build microsites, articles or other destinations for these stories.

Creating extra content at the time of production The type of content, producers are creating at the same time as long form programmes

As a result, we’ve been talking with clients for a while about the need to produce supporting stories and data as part of their content production cycle. Now we’re starting to see this happen more and more; stories and data which would usually perform a supporting role are being thought of as part and parcel of the full digital experience. This means we can get more content or assets to play with and create enhanced experiences.

Key content types The key content types we needed to address to make our story viable

So, you have some lovely 360 images, some video interviews, some gems from the cutting room floor, some stats or a 3D model. We began to ask, how can we put clients in a position where using this content becomes more of a possibility, more of an attainable goal?

Creating the foundations of our story

As a team we’ve had a lot of exposure to content producers but we aren’t about creating content. Our job is to provide the tools that allow our clients to maximise the engagement with their content, so with this project we wanted to identify different mechanisms that they can use to create and tell these visual stories easily and quickly.

We’ve already designed and built our own CMS (content management system) called Skylark to address challenges in managing and creating video products that we’ve seen over the years. Here’s some sales blurb about it:

Skylark is the core backbone framework to a range of world leading VOD products for clients as diverse as BBC, News Corp and the BFI.

Skylark’s also good at editorialising content. In fact, it can also manage many different types of content other than just video. So we started to think, we have all this content, stored in the same place, with relationships tying the content together e.g. “Big Drama-episode 1”, and “Behind the scenes of Big Drama”, and “Big Drama cast interviews”, and so on. Surely we can use this to create something much more immersive? To unfold experiences, to tell stories.

We decided that we had to create our own multimedia story designed to test as many different types of editorial content as possible, from animations using image and text to enhancing content in Virtual Reality. From this we aimed to produce visual storytelling tools and interactions that could be reused to make all sorts of different experiences. Ideally we wanted clients to be able to manage these experiences easily as an integrated part of their existing sites and apps, populated with content and assets stored and managed in the same place. This is where Skylark comes in. Are you still with me? Here’s a diagram that may help.

Publishing to multiple platforms from Skylark Publishing to multiple platforms from Skylark

New features and new ideas

Ultimately our exploration of visual storytelling falls into three major areas. First of all the Skylark team created a way of linking different media with linear editorial, and in turn using the editorial to trigger the display of different media files. The end result is that you can write a story and trigger any number of different media files throughout that story. Here’s what an editor or producer would see in Skylark when creating a story.

Linking media in the Skylark CMS Linking media in the Skylark CMS

Secondly, the design and creation of our own visual story to showcase our abilities and stress test the use of 360 images, video, data visualisation and interactions. To tie it all together we wrote our own editorial which ended up being centred around the fictional character of “Benjamin Trouvé” and his world class skiing exploits. This may seem slightly random, but we felt it was also important to test a few broad concepts that may often appear in visual stories. This allowed us to see how a personal profile might work, the ability to explore a place and its history (in this case mountains) and the ability to surface sports stats at appropriate points in the story.

Desktop article screen by screen The desktop article screen by screen

The third main element is VR. We wished to use the same the same stories and content from our CMS to trigger events in a 360 environment. We also tested the reuse of content from traditional 2D articles in VR. We created 3D models to be used as part of a traditional 2D article that you can interact with and explore on a screen. However. If you have a Cardboard or a Daydream (VR headsets) handy you should be able to seamlessly drop into a full VR version of the same story. We spent some time working out how to make this transition from 2D to 3D worlds as easy as possible, and in the final chapter of our story you will be able to explore the mountain range and trigger 360 videos of the blistering high speed descent in VR.

Experience a downhill run in VR Experience a downhill run in VR

The moral of the story

And what thanks do we get for our efforts? Well, for a start we now have a fully functioning new component in our CMS which allows us to publish stories. The output of this CMS gives producers the ability to create a simple article or can take the form of a fully rounded visual story. This can be done with ease and speed and as part of a CMS which can also control an entire product or branded experience (or website and apps, whichever you prefer).

The mobile article screen by screen The mobile article screen by screen

We also now understand how to trigger events to create much richer digital experiences with animations, bespoke navigation and how to use the same system to create complimentary VR experience. Our technical knowledge has increased massively. Both the UX and technical teams have learned and experimented with new skills, especially in the realm of VR.

Making mountains Creating 3D models for our adventures in VR

Ultimately, as a designer at heart I’m interested in how our work will impact audiences. We now understand the challenges involved in navigating, providing users with orientation and methods of interacting with these complex visual experiences in a simple way. We’ve learned what is appropriate to produce as a VR experience which complements and enhances a story and how to create consistency across all these moving parts.

We hope to produce a more detailed expose of our work over the coming months, so stay tuned for more adventures.

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