I love the idea of an ad campaign that, instead of taking over your screen, takes over your life.

It’s been five years since digital anthropologist and Wired magazine correspondent Frank Rose published The Art of Immersion, which explored the impact of emerging digital technologies on storytelling. Fast forward to 2016, and the word “immersive” is used to describe everything from participatory theatrical spectacles, to long-form binge television series on Netflix.

Now, Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab has launched the Digital Dozen, a curated list of the worthiest efforts in digital storytelling, chosen by Rose and colleagues. While examples vary from an app-based advertising campaign to an online community for Bengali activists, “what unites them all is a narrative approach that would not have been possible 25 years ago,” according to organizers. We spoke with Frank Rose to hear more about the project and the state of digital storytelling today.

How did the Digital Dozen get started, and why is now the right time to start recognizing this kind of media?

I’ve been involved with the Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia for a while. It’s the brainchild of Lance Weiler, who’s one of the people at the forefront of creating experimental forms of digital storytelling. We had a brainstorming meeting, and afterwards I emailed Lance with the idea for the Digital Dozen. Based on the great response, we’ve already decided that we’re going to make this an annual thing.

The reason I wanted to do this was because there are lots of examples of awards for different kinds of digital storytelling: there’s the Titanium award at Cannes Lions, there’s the Webbies, there’s awards at the Tribeca Film Festival and Sundance and so forth—but there’s nobody who looks across the board at all these different modes of expression. And the whole thing about digital is that it breaks down boundaries between all of these different disciplines, and between media. So I thought there was really an opportunity to do something that breaks down the silos and looks across the board—at video games, documentaries, journalism, advertising, all of that.

Can you talk about how that works with individual projects?

I was intrigued by the Absolut Vodka campaign [editor’s note: “an iPhone game that turned into a story about a missing woman named Chloe and ultimately into a live theatrical experience”]. I got involved with it myself last fall, when the people who had done it were here at advertising week and they asked me to sit on their panel. I’ve known Felix Barrett from Punchdrunk, who had previously talked about doing some sort of theatrical experience related to marketing.

 

I love the idea of an ad campaign that is not interruptive, so instead of taking over your screen, it takes over your life. And that’s what this did for a couple of weeks for a lot of people in London. I’ve been very engaged by the idea of mixing online experiences with real-world experiences.

I think interruptive advertising is kind of going away. There was a time when, watching TV, you had to accept it since there was no alternative (except, of course, to walk away, which was never measured). But increasingly, people think that if you’re going to give your attention to something, you expect something in return. You expect to be entertained and informed—there’s a quid pro quo. Too much of the advertising industry fails to understand this. You have lots comments like “oh, it’s not selling the product hard enough.” Well that’s exactly the point—if it’s selling the product “hard enough,” it’s not selling the product at all.

Ultimately, are barriers between media going to break down to the point where this kind of storytelling represents a new medium?

I don’t think that all these things are ever going to be the same—there’s always going to be a difference, and there should be a difference, between advertising, documentaries and so forth. But what I wanted to do, and we wanted to do at Columbia in general, is to bring these projects together. They’re all working with the same tools and playing in the same sandbox, and I wanted to make that clear. I think they would benefit from having a lot more cross-pollination. I don’t think games and stories are ever going to be identical, so I don’t think we’re going to eliminate those distinctions, I just think we’re going to blur them.

Is there a benefit for the people involved in these projects to view themselves as part of a larger group?

Implicitly, this happens anyway, the question is how conscious people are of it. People in the art world, for example, are very aware of video games, it’s not like I have to make them aware. But I felt that people tend to be in their own world, which happens naturally. If you’re in advertising you mainly know a lot of people in advertising…

It can be good for the people who are doing it, but my real point was to increase the awareness of these projects among people who are outside this—the intended audience, in other words.

You wrote The Art of Immersion five years ago, when no one was using this phrase “immersive experience” or saying “immersive” much at all, really. How did you decide to use the term?

When the book was done and we were looking for a title, I was reading through it and it suddenly struck me that the one word that was most used, and that many of these people had in common, was immersive, or immersion, which had literally never occurred to me before. It was a word that people like James Cameron used, but it wasn’t on the front page of the New York Times arts section like it is today.

I think the reason people respond to it is that people always want to be immersed in things, and that’s increasingly true. I’ve seen lots of research over the years that suggests that people want to be engaged at a more than superficial level.

It has to do with our media experiences that we’ve had over the last 15 or 20 years—video games, I think, have socialized people to want to take something more than a passive role in media, to be thrust into the experience or into the story. The internet is obviously much less passive than television, so I think all of those things add up over time to change people’s expectations in a way that for a long time people are not aware of, and then it kind of reaches a critical mass. I think that what it all comes down to is that people want to remove the barrier between them and the experience, whether it’s a frame on an artwork, or a proscenium arch in a theater, or a screen on TV or at the movies.

When I first interviewed James Cameron in 2006, he was talking about 3D in a way that he got really geeky, in a technical sense. What the conventional 3D directors referred to as a “screen plane” was this sort of imaginary screen out in front of the real screen, and that was what he wanted to get rid of. He wanted to create this sort of immersive experience where the boundaries between you and the movie were removed or lessened. He’s a much more effective director in 3D than almost everyone else, because most people go for the cheap gimmicks, the sword that comes out of the screen at you and that sort of thing, but he realized that the real power of 3D was to suck you in—that it was depth, not poking at you. That was one of the first uses of the term “immersive” that I became aware of, and I think it really gets at what people are responding to.

What are some other ways that the Digital Dozen is relevant to advertising?

Increasingly, as well as realizing that they need to create an experience that offers people something rather than just tries to sell people something, people are realizing that they need to offer a story, and that that’s the most effective means of changing people’s opinions. I wrote an article about a year ago about immersive marketing in a storytelling context, and what I realized was that a lot of really interesting cognitive psychology and neuroscience research shows that stories are much more effective at changing people’s opinions than so-called advocacy messages, where there’s a political message or advertisement, or that sort of thing.

The reason for this, I think, is that when somebody’s trying to sell you something, you naturally put your guard up, and when somebody’s telling you a story, the reaction is quite different—the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief implies that, at least temporarily, you’re willing to accept the givens of the story and the opinions or biases or whatever of the person who’s telling the story. And the research suggests that that often has a lasting effect.

Where do you see immersive media headed in another five years, by 2020?

That’s a little hard, but I do think that augmented reality and virtual reality are going to be two of the things that really change the equation here. I’m not sure about VR, but I think AR is going to have a huge impact, because of the way that it blends the physical world and the digital—at least theoretically, it’s much more accessible to people.

We were really impressed with the New York Times Magazine experience, but even so, watching it with Google Cardboard, you’re still kind of just watching it. You’re more there than you would be just watching the video, but not a whole lot more. Real VR is going to have a huge impact, but what kind of an impact is still hard for me to say. The fact that you’re completely cut off from everything else while you’re experiencing it makes it very different from other kinds of digital experiences. I think the jury is very much out, but I think it’s a very powerful tool.