Shape of Story

Movie-goers with varied expectations gathered at The Hollywood Theatre earlier this month for Shape of Story, an interactive screening to spark conversation. Visual and interaction designers were curious as the event was among Design Week Portland’s extensive programming. Journalists, multimedia storytellers, and documentary filmmakers were interested in a new and experimental form of interactive narrative. Others came just to watch short films on the polarizing issue of gun rights and gun control. In the end, all in attendance were moved by the power of storytelling and engaged by a moderated discussion.

The audience members at Shape of Story used a smartphone-enabled web application to “tag” moments of emotional impact while watching seven short films. A visualization of their aggregated marks was shown after each short while they submitted comments to contextualize their reactions. The shape of each story and a curated selection of comments were displayed on the big screen during the discussion held after the screening. The crowd feedback helped structure the conversation. With the aid of a facilitator, Shape of Story can transform a traditional movie theater into a dynamic space for dialogue and debate, resulting in a memorable and informative collective experience.


The prevalence of mobile technology in public life is opening up new opportunities to explore storytelling within physical group experiences. Events that bring people together to watch the same screen or stage–scenarios ranging from corporate meetings to concerts, conferences, film, and theater–provide a clear opportunity for mobile interaction and social game play.

In the same vein as previous Second Story lab projects such as TEDxPortland After-Party 2011, Constellation and Real Fast Draw, Shape of Story is another example of how we are “empowering audiences to connect and share” in our “always-on world.”

As a former multimedia editor and a judge of numerous multimedia and photojournalism competitions, I’ve often imagined a tool that was capable of providing insight into the key ingredients of effective and impactful storytelling. What are the rhythms to narrative that emotionally connect with viewers? Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute, who writes and edits stories for a living, once told me that his secret to reviewing work was to write his story while reading. He takes note of his feelings moment to moment as he experiences a narrative. By broadening this approach to capture the responses of multiple people in a shared setting where their feedback can be displayed, you can start to visualize the shape of a story as defined by its audience. This feedback can then be used to facilitate dialogue among the respondents and the creators of the media they’re responding to.


We considered a number of technological challenges that were obvious from the beginning, and we adapted and improvised our approach to maximize the potential for engagement.

Challenge: Engaging with a device is disruptive to the overall experience of consuming the narrative.

We limited the level of engagement during the screening to a simple gesture: a tap. We asked the audience to tap the screen whenever the films moved them, bookmarking moments of emotional resonance. An on-screen color shift served as visual feedback to confirm the mark.

Immediately after each short, we displayed its shape of story on the big screen. The film was visualized as a timeline, with diamond symbols identifying the moments marked by the audience. The size of each diamond reflected the number of taps registered during the corresponding part of the film; a large diamond indicated many taps, a smaller one indicated few, and each tap contributed was visualized so every audience member’s voice was heard. To help identify and provide context to these moments of emotional engagement, the diamonds were accompanied by a corresponding thumbnail and transcript excerpt from the film.

Challenge: tapping a simple mark doesn’t give enough information or context.

After each short film, audience members were able to use the mobile app to anonymously comment on what they’d seen. They had three minutes before the next film started to submit their thoughts. A two-person team moderated the contributions, which were displayed on the big screen alongside each story shape after all seven shorts had been screened. These comments from the audience initiated an engaging conversation facilitated by Dave Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.

Early in our process, we considered giving audience members the ability to comment on specific marks as well as offer a positive or negative value on a sliding scale. We eventually scoped out both features for technical and user experience challenges given our compressed development timeline. Providing rich contextual information to the tapped moments would be valuable and could lead to an extremely interesting visualization. We’d like to explore this feature for future iterations of the web application.

Challenge: the audience will forget or not be motivated to engage with their device.

Engaging with your mobile device is integrated into the experience and not as an add-on feature. Viewing long-form narrative films would definitely be possible with this technology, but designing the experience to accommodate thoughtful and deliberate moments of engagement would be required. Screening seven short films for the app’s debut allowed us to build in moments of purposeful engagement to the design of the evening.


The evening was not all about technology, however. We recognize that, as the adage goes, content is king, and we didn’t hold back on confronting a contentious issue head-on. With professor Wes Pope of University of Oregon’s Multimedia Journalism master’s program, we curated a diverse selection of shorts for the screening, all on the topic of gun ownership, gun rights, and gun control. Three powerful short films came directly from Wes’s master’s program course. Filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald of Spin Film contributed an excerpt from his upcoming documentary, Oregon / Divide. Kim Rees from Periscopic walked us through a screencast of U.S. Gun Deaths, their data-rich interactive visualization. We heard an extremely moving radio story by Amanda Peacher from Oregon Public Broadcasting entitled How Gun Violence Has Shaped Three Lives. I also had the privilege of co-producing an interview with The Oregonian’s Jamie Francis on his portrait series Oregonians Talk Guns.

The diversity of content and multimedia approaches empowered us to present many sides of the gun debate. For the event at The Hollywood Theatre, Shape of Story aspired to advance meaningful conversations. By identifying shifts in audience sentiment and offering every viewer the opportunity to participate in thoughtful discourse, the technology has the potential to reframe dialogue about controversial issues to encourage productive discussion.

— Andrew DeVigal, Director, Content Strategy

Video edit by Andrew DeVigal. Cinematography by Kate Szrom, Summer Hatfield, Katelyn Black and Wes Pope.


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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