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SXSW: Interactive Storytelling, By Everybody
by Alan Melson 12 Mar 2012

Trying to tell complex, visual stories on the Internet has traditionally been a costly process requiring specialized technical skills. Now, a new non-profit endeavor is hoping to make multimedia storytelling easy and available to all.

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Lots of folks have a story to tell. For generations, the only way to really find an audience was to get it published, have your work performed on the stage or (if you were really lucky) make it to radio, film or television.

That changed as the Internet became ubiquitous, and audiences began to develop for unique online content. Yet stories still stayed fairly linear, often being told through online serials, YouTube videos or audio narratives from public radio producers. Telling a story interactively often meant a co-collaboration between one or more writers, designers and a programmer or three who could translate the concept into an online application that was easy for people to use and explore. The technical hurdles inherent in the process made more complex projects difficult to build, and even then, viewing them often required special software or plugins such as Adobe Flash, which won’t work on iPhones and many other tablets and mobile devices.

(From left) Kara Oehler, Jesse Shapins and James Burns are building the Zeega open-web storytelling platform. (via news.harvard.edu)

A new non-profit endeavor is aiming to change that. Zeega is a new project that “enables anyone to create participatory projects that combine original content with photos, videos, text, audio, data feeds and maps via APIs [short for ‘application programming interfaces,’ systems that provide organizations a way to open up their data for others to use] from across the web.” Zeega, funded by grants from the Knight News Challenge and Harvard Library Lab, was started by journalist Kara Oehler along with Jesse Shapins and James Burns, all of whom worked on the ambitious Mapping Main Street project that chronicled life on Main Streets in towns across the United States.

Oehler, explaining Zeega’s origins in a SXSW Interactive session on Sunday, said the Main Street project led the team to ponder how collaborative, interactive projects could be made possible on smaller budgets, with less grueling schedules. The site will be built around the “open web” concept, using HTML5 to allow easier manipulation of multimedia content in a way that will work across all browsers and smart devices, and all within their online editing tool. In other words, creators won’t necessarily need to buy expensive software or require special browser add-ons for their work to be viewable – they can use Zeega’s platform to build the project from start to finish.

Zeega is still in “early alpha,” meaning under construction, but Oehler showed the SXSW audience a sample project created on the Zeega platform, and said new developments are forthcoming. In addition to their primary funders, the founders are also building a community of supporting organizations, including the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), to help the project grow.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for this, Alan. Now geeking out re: another project Kara Oehler worked on, ‘Capitol of Punk.’ It’s an interactive travel guide that sends users on a text walk through Washington, D.C.’s significant music history.

    http://yellowarrow.net/v3/projects.html

    The DMA’s smARTphone Tour does this on a smaller scale, renting out iPod touches to patrons that don’t have access to smartphones.

    http://www.dallasmuseumofart.org/View/smARTphoneTours/index.htm

    Providing access to mobile devices is the next piece of this discourse — so much possibility for street-level interactive.

  • lknecht

    Thanks so much for this, Alan. Now geeking out re: another project Kara Oehler worked on, ‘Capitol of Punk.’ It’s an interactive travel guide that sends users on a text walk through Washington, D.C.’s significant music history.

    http://yellowarrow.net/v3/projects.html

    The DMA’s smARTphone Tour does this on a smaller scale, renting out iPod touches to patrons that don’t have access to smartphones.

    http://www.dallasmuseumofart.org/View/smARTphoneTours/index.htm

    Providing access to mobile devices is the next piece of this discourse — so much possibility for street-level interactive.