Lyka's adventure

Lance Weiler’s must-read story about the future of storytelling

The founder of Columbia University's Digital Storytelling Lab gives us an inside look at his work at the University and how the Lab is designing stories for the 21st Century.
May 13, 2015

Lance Weiler, founder of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab, sees audiences of today’s media, especially interactive modes, as storytellers and technology as a creative partner used to shape the ways in which stories are found and told. In this interview, I got a chance to get his inside story. 

As the founder of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab, and its Director of Experiential Learning and Applied Creativity, you’ve convinced some major powers that work and learning begin with a story. What does that mean to those in the industry who make products for kids? 

My work at Columbia University explores how story, play and design can be harnessed to create collaborative work and learning environments. A key takeaway from our experiments so far is the value of a diversity of perspectives. We often strive to embrace a designing “with” and “for” methodology. This is a fundamental shift for the entertainment industry but the reality is the audience has evolved into storytellers. They are now their own little media companies able to push-button publish for the world to see.

As creation and consumption blend, story and code continue to collide.  At Columbia we are exploring new forms and functions of storytelling. How can stories be used as a discovery method? How can they enable people to connect to the world around them? How can they become a utility that can solve everyday challenges?

Story and Code have different development cycles and require different set of skills. So at Columbia and within my own work I often benefit from assembling a kind of 21st Century Writer’s Room. My core team has expanded to include creative technologists, data researchers and systems designers. What connects the team is a series of stories that we use to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that the core vision and goals are communicated.


What do you teach in the Digital Story Lab? Who are the students? And how do you see it evolving in the next two or three years?

The Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab designs stories for the 21st Century. We build on a diverse range of creative and research practices originating in fields from the arts, humanities and technology. But we never lose sight of the power of a good story. Technology, as a creative partner, has always shaped the ways in which stories are found and told. In the 21st Century, for example, the mass democratization of creative tools—code, data and algorithms—have changed the relationship between creator and audience. The Digital Storytelling Lab, therefore, is a place of speculation, of creativity, and of collaboration between students and faculty from across Columbia University. New stories are told here in new and unexpected ways.

Over the next two to three years we’ll be in expanding the number of prototypes we run, starting a fellowship program and continuing to harness storytelling, play and design as tools to tackle global challenges., the collaborative work and design space that’s part of Columbia, has inspired some incredible projects. Can you describe the experience of the foster care children? 

We view Learn Do Share as an OS (operating system). Its open methods and frameworks establish collaborative environments that harvest the collective intelligence of a group in order to tackle complex challenges.  For the past 16 months the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab has been piloting the Learn Do Share OS.

Over Learn Do Share’s seven-year history we’ve been involved in a number of initiatives for Unicef, the City of Los Angeles, PBS and others. At the core of each of our efforts are storytelling and a desire to evoke empathy and understanding. An example of a recent effort is called My Sky is Falling, which was developed at Columbia with a mix of graduate students and foster youth. Together they designed an immersive experience that mixed storytelling, role playing, sensor technology and data research in an effort to help participants understand the emotional journey of a youth aging out of foster care. Set within a science fiction story, those who step into the experience are transported into a world where they’re placed within a simulation that mirrors the emotional beats of aging out of care. My Sky is Falling expands the notion of storytelling in an effort to evoke empathy and emotion. Over 45 minutes, participants walk in the shoes of someone else as they attempt to make sense of the changing world around them. The experience has since gone on to run at a special UN event and is currently being adapted in four states as a framework to help train future foster parents and social workers so that they can understand the emotional journey of a foster youth.


Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things was one of the Digital Storytelling Lab’s first immersive experiences. How is this story playing out?

Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things is an ambitious year-long effort that partners the Digital Storytelling Lab with the New York Film Festival, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and the Made in NY Media Center. Together storytellers, game developers, makers, creative technologists and experience designers experiment with new forms and functions of storytelling. Through a collaborative process, participants lay the groundwork for a storyworld that plays out globally through a series of connected devices that become significant storytelling artifacts. The mystery unfolds through what amounts to a massive crime scene consisting of inanimate objects that hold stories and clues. As more items are discovered, the narrative advances, bringing the characters Doyle created over 100 years ago to life.

Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things challenges the notion of authorship and ownership. In addition, the project explores the ethical and policy issues surrounding the Internet of Things. An experiential learning and applied creativity based project, Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things feeds into a free online course that mixes theory and practice. Over 10 weeks, participants will engage in lectures, teamwork and project based learning that explores the future of storytelling. The course concludes with a special live experience at Lincoln Center, during the New York Film Festival later this fall.


Lyka’s Adventure is your new project. It’s a series of chapter books, a toy and apps that lead kids on an adventure to find hidden capsules and explore the Earth, teaching steam curriculum along the way. Then you add a cherry on top with on-site Lyka Adventure Labs. It’s the ultimate conversion of real and digital play. Is the type of immersive play we see in Lyka and Sherlock “the future?” Is it going to overshadow plain ol’ digital play?

Immersive experiences are quickly evolving. It’s a unique time in which advancements in technology and rapid commoditization have resulted in faster, cheaper, smaller and more powerful processing. By the end of this year, there will be over a trillion sensors in the world.  The possibilities for stories and play to spill out across our physical environment is exciting and something totally new. There are no rules yet. The grammar for this type of storytelling is shaping itself and the infrastructure to tell them is fragmented at the moment. Often requiring a steep learning curve for participants. But that is changing, and as immersive experience move away from a heavy focus on the tech and more towards an emotional core, things get exciting.  A big focus for me in the work is how humanity can shape technology as opposed to technology shaping humanity. This is very true of Lyka’s Adventure, which is an innovative discovery-based interactive platform that teaches 21st Century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity) while sparking imaginative play. Lyka is a huggable robot on a mission to save her home planet, and she needs the help of kids on Earth! Powered around the world by the imaginations of children, to date Lyka has logged over 30,000 miles visiting schools and museums around the globe, including Australia, where she stars in a new series of books from Penguin Random House. Lyka is traveling to Manhattan (her first visit!) from the Great Barrier Reef on May 30 and will be hosting a special Lyka Adventure Lab at the Children’s Museum of Art.

Through experimentation, one thing has become clear for me: While the story remains the same, it’s the telling that’s rapidly changing. So as I continue to make work,I realize that I’ve become storytelling agnostic. It doesn’t matter to me if there is technology or not. If it’s in a theater, in a living room, or on a mobile device. What matters is that the work is making an emotional connection in some way and that the story is leaving room for those experiencing it to be playful.

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