Smart organic windows: MIT CROMA

MIT’s CROMA group brings together researchers from media arts, architecture, and chemical engineering. The group “aims at developing technologies and use case scenarios for building responsive, programmable, and energy-smart architectural components.” Their “smart organic window” project proposes the use of electrochromic organic polymers to enable touch- and motion-sensitive brise-soleil techniques.

A basic premise of this work is that a programmable and responsive façade element can not only be aesthetically provocative and improve energy-efficiency of architecture, but also has the potential to alter the ways we relate to buildings and surfaces, opening exciting avenues for new kinds of interaction and experience, and requiring new skills and competencies in the fields of design, architecture, and engineering. (CROMA)

I’m curious to see what kinds of game design and storytelling projects will emerge out of CROMA’s research. A variable-opacity responsive window is pretty amazing, but the radical step is using such a window to articulate a ruleset or open up new vectors for communication…

Transmedia Storytelling 101

Henry Jenkins, head of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT and founding member of the Convergence Culture Consortium, has shared an excellent list of 10 key concepts in the theory and practice of transmedia storytelling. This is a great starting point for learning and teaching about transmedia, and I’ve quoted it in its entirety here (but make sure to visit Henry’s blog anyway; it’s chock-a-block with great resources and insights):

1. Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

2. Transmedia storytelling reflects the economics of media consolidation or what industry observers call “synergy.” Modern media companies are horizontally integrated – that is, they hold interests across a range of what were once distinct media industries. A media conglomerate has an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible. Consider, for example, the comic books published in advance of the release of such films as Batman Begins and Superman Returns by DC ( owned by Warner Brothers, the studio that released these films). These comics provided back-story which enhanced the viewer’s experience of the film even as they also help to publicize the forthcoming release (thus blurring the line between marketing and entertainment). The current configuration of the entertainment industry makes transmedia expansion an economic imperative, yet the most gifted transmedia artists also surf these marketplace pressures to create a more expansive and immersive story than would have been possible otherwise.

3. Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. We are drawn to master what can be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp. This is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story.

4. Extensions may serve a variety of different functions. For example, the BBC used radio dramas to maintain audience interest in Doctor Who during almost a decade during which no new television episodes were produced. The extension may provide insight into the characters and their motivations (as in the case of websites surrounding Dawson’s Creek and Veronica Mars which reproduced the imaginary correspondence or journals of their feature characters), may flesh out aspects of the fictional world (as in the web version of the Daily Planet published each week by DC comics during the run of its 52 series to “report” on the events occurring across its superhero universe), or may bridge between events depicted in a series of sequels (as in the animated series – The Clone Wars – which was aired on the Cartoon Network to bridge over a lapse in time between Star Wars II and III). The extension may add a greater sense of realism to the fiction as a whole (as occurs when fake documents and time lines were produced for the website associated with The Blair Witch Project or in a different sense, the documentary films and cd-roms produced by James Cameron to provide historical context for Titanic).

5. Transmedia storytelling practices may expand the potential market for a property by creating different points of entry for different audience segments. So, for example, Marvel produces comic books which tell the Spider-man story in ways that they think will be particularly attractive to female (a romance comic, Mary Jane Loves Spiderman) or younger readers (coloring book or picture book versions of the classic comicbook stories ). Similarly, the strategy may work to draw viewers who are comfortable in a particular medium to experiment with alternative media platforms (as in the development of a Desperate Housewives game designed to attract older female consumers into gaming).

6. Ideally, each individual episode must be accessible on its own terms even as it makes a unique contribution to the narrative system as a whole. Game designer Neil Young coined the term, “additive comprehension,” to refer to the ways that each new texts adds a new piece of information which forces us to revise our understanding of the fiction as a whole. His example was the addition of an image of an origami unicorn to the director’s cut edition of Bladerunner, an element which raised questions about whether the protagonist might be a replicant. Transmedia producers have found it difficult to achieve the delicate balance between creating stories which make sense to first time viewers and building in elements which enhance the experience of people reading across multiple media.

7. Because transmedia storytelling requires a high degree of coordination across the different media sectors, it has so far worked best either in independent projects where the same artist shapes the story across all of the media involved or in projects where strong collaboration (or co-creation) is encouraged across the different divisions of the same company. Most media franchises, however, are governed not by co-creation (which involves conceiving the property in transmedia terms from the outset) but rather licensing (where the story originates in one media and subsequent media remain subordinate to the original master text.)

8. Transmedia storytelling is the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence. Pierre Levy coined the term, collective intelligence, to refer to new social structures that enable the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society. Participants pool information and tap each others expertise as they work together to solve problems. Levy argues that art in an age of collective intelligence functions as a cultural attractor, drawing together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities. Transmedia narratives also function as textual activators – setting into motion the production, assessment, and archiving information. The ABC television drama, Lost, for example, flashed a dense map in the midst of one second season episode: fans digitized a freeze-frame of the image and put it on the web where together they extrapolated about what it might reveal regarding the Hanso Corporation and its activities on the island. Transmedia storytelling expands what can be known about a particular fictional world while dispersing that information, insuring that no one consumer knows everything and insure that they must talk about the series with others (see, for example, the hundreds of different species featured in Pokemon or Yu-Gi-O). Consumers become hunters and gatherers moving back across the various narratives trying to stitch together a coherent picture from the dispersed information.

9. A transmedia text does not simply disperse information: it provides a set of roles and goals which readers can assume as they enact aspects of the story through their everyday life. We might see this performative dimension at play with the release of action figures which encourage children to construct their own stories about the fictional characters or costumes and role playing games which invite us to immerse ourselves in the world of the fiction. In the case of Star Wars, the Boba Fett action figure generated consumer interest in a character who had otherwise played a small role in the series, creating pressure for giving that character a larger plot function in future stories.

10. The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material. (Henry Jenkins)

See also: Transmedia Entertainment webcast from the Futures of Entertainment Conference.

C3: 10 Key Concepts

Sam Ford has helpfully put together a list of ten key concepts that have been articulated in various forms on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium‘s blog, complete with links to the relevant posts, articles and off-site resources. Here’s the list:

1.) Immersive Story Worlds. This is a concept that I developed in conjunction with my thesis work on looking at the current state and the future of the soap opera industry. The idea was to outline a category that explains narratives which are serial by nature, which have multiple creators, a sense of long-term continuity, a character backlog, contemporary ties to a deep history, and a sense of permanence. I included portions of my thesis outlining this concept–and how it relates to the Marvel and DC Comic Universes, the world of pro wrestling, and daytime serial dramas–here and here.

2.) Transmedia Storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is meant to indicate texts in which the story develops through multiple media platforms and in which new content in another platform is not simply a redistribution of the same content that has already appeared elsewhere. We have a whole category of posts about the topic here.

3.) Cross-Platform Distribution. As opposed to transmedia storytelling, cross-platform distribution is simply the reappearance of content from one platform in another, such as making broadcast television shows available in VOD, cable shows available on YouTube, etc. We also have a whole category of posts on this topic available here.

4.) Quotability. In relation to online video, I have written several times about the importance of incorporating a way for viewers to be able to clip or quote content from copyrighted material, in trying to understand the features of YouTube which make it most compelling. In other words, content owners who distribute their content in short or long-form without any user ability to pick their own clips are just providing cross-platform distribution, not anything that allows viewer autonomy other than an increasing number of platforms to view content on. See posts here, here, and here.

5.) Grabability. In conjunction with my writing about quotability, the other feature of YouTube that has attracted viewers to the spread of copyrighted material has to do with the functionality of the site that allows viewers to take the video and embed it in their blogs or other places. In other words, content can only be spreadable if it is allowed to be. Again, this is not meant as a value judgment, as broadcasting content on new media channels certainly has its value, but it does not involve that component of interactivity that has empowered the YouTube community. For more, look here, here, and here.

6.) Pop Cosmopolitanism. Henry Jenkins’ concept of pop cosmopolitanism, in short, looks at how people are experiencing other parts of the world through popular culture and also how they are sharing and connecting to their sense of home through pop culture as well. We have several posts about this concept from the site. For more, look here.

7.) Fans of Fans. This concept, as articulated here, focuses not on companies which like their fan community but rather means fandom surrounding particular fans, visible members of the fan community. When I wrote on this concept, I focused particularly on names who become well-known in discussion boards and develop their own fan followings, fans at live sporting events or pro wrestling shows who become famous in their own right for their performances, and fan fiction writers or fan television reviewers who gain their own followings.

8.) The Branding Barrel. This concept, which I wrote about last August, focuses on the metaphor for “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” looking at what happens to brands at the end of their life. I focus on yard sales, but another great piece of academic work on this topic is Karen Tranberg Hansen’s Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia.

9.) Fan Proselytizing. I did not originate this phrase, but I have used it often in my research for C3 in the past year, as a way to look at viral marketing or fans as grassroots intermediaries. In short, fans “spread the word” about a brand quite actively, and this involves both trying to recruit new fans and “preaching to the choir,” bolstering the interest of less active fans. For more from my blog posts on the concept, look here, here, and here.

10.) Transgenerational Storytelling. In my writing about soap operas in particular, I have focused on how the target demographics of the modern television world have interfered with texts which are best served by drawing a transgenerational fan base. In particular, soap operas are best at transgenerational storytelling, utilizing characters and encouraging viewership from all age groups. For more, look here, here, here, and here. (C3 Blog)


This summer we began work on the third of three autonomous entities we’ve been developing with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and Renew Media. It’s an “unmanned surface vehicle,” or water robot, made for protests on or near aqueous points of interest . Of course, it’s too dangerous for people to do such protests, so we need robots. (edgy_product)