Jeff Watson

Million Story Building

If a building could speak, what would it say? How would it “feel” about the comings and goings of the people who use it every day? Would it be affected by their moods and desires? What kind of relationship would it have with its occupants if it could communicate with them somehow, and how would they respond? Perhaps most importantly, would such a feeling-and-talking building even be desirable? In attempting to answer these whimsical questions, the Mobile and Environmental Media Lab (MEML) at the University of Southern California conceived of Million Story Building, an experimental design project exploring how location-specific mobile technology can add playful, imaginative and practical new layers to the relationship between a structure and its inhabitants.


Using the newly-constructed School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) Building as a test bed, the MEML team has designed a location-sensitive iPhone application (see screenshots below) that enables students and faculty to engage with their workplace in a variety of exciting new ways, from scanning Quick Response (QR) code glyphs mounted next to posters in the hallways in order to access and tag video clips from a central database, to leaving virtual messages for others to read in an Augmented Reality view of the building’s central courtyard.

Functions such as these, working together with networks of sensors, interactive plasma screens and web-based social media profiles, made it possible for iPhone-carrying building occupants to learn about SCA history, discover events and activities, share stories and updates of their own, enrich the school’s media archive, and participate in an Alternate Reality Game.

Furthermore, and crucially, users could come to expect increasingly customized communications, behaviors and interaction opportunities as a profile concerning their preferences, habits and interests was generated based on their usage of the system. The end result was a prototype for a personalized and self-renewing “ambient story” experience co-constructed by the collaboration between the occupants of a building and the building itself.

Background Notes

At its heart, Million Story Building is an effort to mobilize a range of storytelling and interaction tactics such that the occupants of the SCA building can experience a deeper and richer connection with their workspace and co-workers. Such an effort is not unique in the history of design; indeed, the practice of embedding story and play in physical space is almost as old as civilization itself – one recalls the Catholic Via dolorosa (Stations of the Cross), the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage of Shikoku or the transit to the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan.

More recently, what Jill Walker-Rettberg calls “distributed narratives” have manifested themselves in public and institutional space through sticker art, coordinated graffiti campaigns, flash mobs and other interventions. Million Story Building emerges at the nexus of these practices and the new potentialities unleashed by the recent blossoming of mobile and ubiquitous computational technologies.


Will Carter, Marientina Gotsis, Andreas Kratky, Peter Preuss, Jen Stein, Jeff Watson, Hidefumi Yasuda, and Scott Fisher

iPhone App Demo Video