Startled Cat immersed in stories

Immersive virtual environments are helping to transform storytelling. The new technique – immersive, collaborative storytelling – can be used to expose people to the reality of living life a different way, for education and for community story telling.

One company doing just that is Toronto-based Startled Cat.

Jena Ball

“Startled Cat is a studio for immersive storytelling,” said Jena Ball, one of the founding partners of Startled Cat. She is also known as Jenaia Morane in Second Life. “We use a wide range of media to tell our stories with a goal of creating ‘ah hah!’ moments and lasting change.”

Although Startled Cat does much of its work in immersive environments such as Second Life and OpenSim, immersive storytelling dates back before there were virtual worlds.

“I don’t know if you remember, but there was a series of books influenced by computers called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’” said Martin Keltz, another one of the founding partners of Startled Cat and former president of Scholastic Productions. He is also known as Marty Snowpaw in Second Life. “You’d be reading the book, and there would be branches.”

The story would be limited to what the original author could come up with, however, he said, and there was a limit to how much the reader could affect the narrative.

“You made the story more personalized based on the choices you made,” he said. “But in the adventure – just like in a video game – the choices are all pre-scripted and defined into the game.”

In collaborative storytelling, however, the readers – or the virtual audience – are actually able to contribute back, and affect the story.

Martin Keltz

“What we’re doing with Startled Cat is creating an opportunity for there to be co-created, collaborative stories that grow organically – almost like yeast,” Keltz said. “The participation of the person who was there contributes to it and changes it for the next person.”

As a result, the stories can grow to be more than the original creators had planned, more complex, or diverge into unexpected directions.

“And they’re never-ending,” added Ball.

The best known example of their work is the AIDS Quilt in Second Life, now expanding into the OpenSim-based Jokaydia Grid.

By creating a virtual quilt instead of a physical one, contributors aren’t limited by geography.

“Something like HIV/AIDS, or malaria, or any of these big-picture issues are global,” said Ball. “They’re a massive global concern and there are thousands of pieces – thousands of stories to tell.”

The contributions are also not limited by physical materials. A traditional quilt square is made of cloth, but a single square on the AIDS Quilt is its own room, which can be filled with photographs, videos, 3D representations of physical objects, and other virtual materials.

Startled Cat's 3D AIDS Quilt in Second Life. Step on a square to teleport into a virtual room. (Image courtesy Startled Cat.)

However, the AIDS Quilt in Second Life does have age limitations – it is not accessible to children. The expansion into Jokaydia Grid addresses this problem.

“One of our big concerns is that younger people are even more at risk than adults for contracting HIV because they don’t have the knowledge to make good choices,” said Ball. “We’ve got elementary and junior high school kids that are most at risk – and they can’t come to Second Life.”

The project was funded by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institute of Health, which is doing an AIDS education program for middle and high schools in the United States.

“That’s when we started thinking about Jokaydia,” Ball said.

Startled Cat considered setting up their own OpenSim grid, but decided that they didn’t need. And Jokaydia Grid is specifically designed for educators and students, and is run as a child-safe educational grid.

Since Startled Cat built the quilt infrastructure themselves, they were able to export it to the OpenSim environment. However, the rooms that were contributed by others were not carried over. Instead, they are being built from scratch by a new generation of contributors.

“We want all the internal pieces to be done by the kids,” Ball said. “What we’re in the process of doing now is holding quilting bees with the kids, because they have to learn how to build all the different pieces.”

Each contributor gets their own empty room, and can fill it with 150 prims – primitive 3D objects such as cubes or spheres which can be shaped and textured in creative ways.

Startled Cat has two regions on Jokaydia Grid dedicated to the project, one for the quilt itself, and another for a virtual classroom where the contributors can learn how to build.

Educating through storytelling

Another example of how Startled Cat uses immersive story telling is the Uncle D Story Quest, which takes place in Second Life.

“You’re creating a character – Uncle D – and inviting people to interact with him,” said Keltz.

Through interactions with Uncle D, Startled Cat hopes to change visitors’ attitudes towards AIDS suffers and change behaviors as well.

“There’s a lot of opportunities with virtual worlds to be able to teach skills more effectively,” he said. “And this character tool is something that is going to teach those skills.”

Ball is now working on the next part of the Uncle D Story Quest, in which his nephew grows up and inherits his uncle’s money and takes on his mission.

Altogether, more than 180 universities have taken their students through Startled Cat’s AIDS education programs in Second Life, Ball said.

Virtual worlds are often dismissed as game playing environments. Even worlds built for children, such as Club Penguin, are organized around entertainment values, said Keltz.

This doesn’t have to be the case, he added. For example, scientists and educators worked with Scholastic on the Magic School Bus, an educational program in which learning and story are meshed together.

According to Keltz, immersive worlds offers similar opportunities to thread learning into an entertaining environment.

“There are opportunities for developing virtual worlds beyond what we see in Club Penguin and Webkinz,” he said.

The next twelve months will see an explosion in 3D content, virtual worlds and avatars, he predicted – but not necessarily just in Second Life and OpenSim.

“We’re kind of agnostic about what the platform is,” he said. For example, there will be new 3D content accessible through the browser, he said. “We’re going to see a lot of things we haven’t seen before.”

Connecting communities

But immersive storytelling is more than just the content. Immersive platforms can help create communities, and build bridges between disparate groups. For example, they can be used to bridge the age gap.

“One of the things that happens in a virtual worlds is that we’re all ageless,” said Keltz. “The way in which two people connect with each other and come to understand each other becomes purely an exchange of emotional touch points rather than having a reaction to someone because they’re walking around with a bib on because they dribble.”

Immersive worlds can also do more than connect people across barriers of age or disease, added Ball.

“We have this wonderful friend who’s a Vietnam veteran and psychologist and he’s come up with the veteran-civilian dialog,” she said. “It has a virtual piece and a real-life piece.”

The tricky part, she said, is merging the two communities — the off-line group and the on-line — so that they become supportive of one another, she added.

Beyond education

Though Startled Cat’s educational projects get the most attention, the company also does corporate work.

Most of it is under non-disclosure agreements, however, said Keltz. “We’ve done work around aging populations and how virtual worlds can be used for brain health and brain fitness.”

Other projects are in the financial services industry.

“We’ve done banking work,” said Keltz, “prototyping branches and roleplaying, things that may have to do with what banking needs to look like in the future.”

Miriam Pia and Anastasia Trombly contributed to this report.

Maria Korolov