Henry Cooke is the Producer of The Inspection Chamber, and he tells us about the project.
Can you sum up The Inspection Chamber in a sentence?
It’s an interactive science fiction comedy story for Amazon Alexa and (coming soon to) Google Home in the vein of Douglas Adams, Franz Kafka and Portal, where you play a part in the action using your own voice. We’re calling it ‘conversational radio’ until we come up with something better!
How did you approach the creative process?
Since we’re trying to work out how to do interactive storytelling in a new technology, it was important that our production partner, Rosina Sound, worked in tight collaboration with the technical team from BBC R&D - we figured out the limits and strengths of the technology together. Through a series of workshops, we worked out a creative premise that would work well given what we could achieve technically on voice platforms and the kinds of interaction patterns we needed to use. The team has folks in it with experience in game design, immersive theatre, sound design and digital storytelling - along with more traditional software development and radio production skills - and it was this pool of talent that allowed us to find a story and development process which would work for the project.
How is this different to what you normally do?
We’ve never done anything like this before! In R&D, we’ve been doing research and building prototypes for voice platforms, but not at this level of ambition and polish. We’ve also done experiments in interactive storytelling before, but not for voice platforms. We chose this project to push us, creatively and technically.
Rosina Sound’s team have loads of accomplished radio production talent, but a lot of that is in traditional radio - building an interactive audio piece is very different from editing a linear radio programme. Luckily, the Rosina Sound team also has experience in making audio for games, which heavily informed our audio production and editing process.
How was it built?
We ended up building our own tools to make The Inspection Chamber, since none of the existing conversation design tools really did what we needed them to do - especially because we’re trying to build a complex, relatively long-running story (long-running compared to most Alexa skills, which usually only contain a handful of relatively terse and straightforward commands and responses). We built two tools - a graphical story editor, which allows us to lay out the story and interaction points with the user and map out the connections between them...
...and a story server, which takes the map from the editor and makes it available on Alexa & Home, keeping track of where users are in the story and deciding what people hear next after a voice interaction. We went through a few iterations of the script with Rosina Sound, testing it by doing table reads with a member of the team playing the part of the user and building a couple of alpha versions in software. Rosina Sound then produced the audio, taking actors into the studio and editing and sound designing the piece. Audio files were delivered to us, which matched the sections of story in our map, and the whole thing is served up by our story server.
What is the potential for storytelling on voice devices?
It’s hard to tell right now, that’s one of the reasons we’re making this pilot! We know that people like listening to non-interactive radio on these devices - we’re already seeing figures that show people using them as players for BBC catchup audio and podcasts, and we know that people find talking to a machine compelling and useful. We also know that people like interacting with a story - immersive theatre and games show us this. What we don’t know is if these two things come together in the kinds of contexts in which people use voice devices - we hope they do! If so, it opens up a whole range of creative possibilities for the BBC and other content makers.
What would you change if you were to do it again?
Good question. I think the project went really well, in terms of what we managed to achieve and the goals we set ourselves. Maybe we’d break it down into a few shorter ‘episodes’ if we had time, and it’d be interesting to try to get more data that directly related to the user - their local weather, or taste in TV shows - and try to work that into the piece. As a first attempt at a decent interactive audio piece for voice devices though, I think it’s pretty good - and hopefully paves the way for more experiments!
Henry Cooke - Producer
Barbara Zambrini - Producer
Antony Onumonu - Developer
Tom Howe - Developer
Andrew Wood - User Experience
Joanne Moore - User Experience
Nicky Birch - Executive Producer
Tim Wright - Writer
Joby Waldman - Director
Ben & Max Ringham - Sound Design
Amelia Bullmore as Kaye
Tom Bennett as Josef
Laurel Lefkow as DAVE