Narrative Summit 3: “Stories That Change” – Digital Narrative Alliance Conference June 20, San Francisco

Leading digital storytelling experts to present narrative strategies for business, media and social change.

San Francisco, CA, May 24, 2017 –(– The Digital Narrative Alliance(tm) today announced its 2017 Narrative Summit conference “Stories That Change,” to be held on June 20 at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco. The event agenda brings together storytelling experts from filmmaking, academia, non-p
rofit organizations and global corporate brands.
“We are thrilled to host Aaron Loeb, an accomplished playwright and game designer, Louie Psihoyos, an Academy-award winning documentary filmmaker, Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Architect, Writer, Educator, and WorldNarrative Summit 3: Builder, and other inspiring industry experts – all on the same stage,” said Dave Toole, Founder and Chairman of DNA. “These practitioners are leaders in their respective fields of storytelling and their combined expertise will provide a unique learning opportunity.” Joining Loeb, Psihoyos and Pendleton-Jullian are “Silicon Valley’s Favorite Adman” Tom Bedecarre, Producer of “An Inconvenient Truth” Scott Burns, Adjunct Professor and veteran business executive Richard Okumoto, Producer of “Stories of the Uninvited” Barry Johnson, renowned dream researcher Dr. Kate Niederhoffer. Event attendees will partake in an interactive improv workshop led by Ricci Victorio, and expert discussions on the experiential aspect of storytelling.The Summit is the 3rd such event produced by the Digital Narrative Alliance and prior events have been referred to as the most selective collection of digital storytelling experts in the Bay Area. Attendees from major leading tech, media and educational organizations are expected to join the discussion on narrative strategy, digital storytelling and methods for implementing change through evolving channels for distracted audiences. As individuals and as organization, we are the story we tell and those who listen recognize the authenticity of our story and how it fits our actions. Past speakers at DNA events include John Hagel, co-chairman for the Deloitte Center for the Edge Innovation, Bill Pruitt, Producer of “The Amazing Race,” “The Apprentice” and “Deadliest Catch” and Jonah Sachs, author of “Winning the Story Wars,” amongst others.”This conference is particularly important as storytelling is the glue that binds society, communities, movements, brands and markets,” said Sourabh Kothari, Director of Narrative Development at DNA. “New narrative models and digital channels challenge storytelling as we know it, and we need experts to help us evolve and cross-pollinate different communication strategies. Our goal is to collect and share such expertise to generate increased interest from business, venture capital and social activists seeking to drive real-world changes through storytelling.”Registration includes admission to all sessions. Breakfast, Lunch, and refreshments during breaks will be provided. Corporate packages are available for a limited number of sponsors.For registration and additional information go to
About the Digital Narrative Alliance
The Digital Narrative Alliance is a collaboration of master storytellers and organizational leaders. DNA members share experience and insights through online and physical gatherings, as well as participating in collaborative and for-profit projects. We create events, research programs and executive experiences that explore narrative’s power to inspire companies, non-profits, and government, as well as individuals who want to change their world. We help leaders understand and use media purposefully.
Media Contact
Mitch Ratcliffe,
Managing Partner, DNA
+1 (253) 229-1948
Florian Brody

Managing Partner, DNA
+1 (408) 728-8681

Embodied AI Characters for Emergent Narrative


How AI and augmented reality will issue forth a new genre of interactive character design

by Jeffrey Ventrella, DNA Contributor

Imagine yourself five years from now. Apple has come out with a new version of its augmented reality glasses. You have just purchased a pair. Stepping into a café, you order an espresso and sit down to open the shiny new box. After trying on the glasses – and with a bit of fumbling – you manage to get through the mile-long Apple terms and conditions without touching your computer. Instead, you scroll down to the bottom of the form by gesturing in the air with your index finger, making sure not to poke the eye of the person sitting across from you. You tap the air to indicate “Yes – I have read the terms and conditions”…which of course is a lie. Finally, just for kicks, you start running a cool-sounding app:  something about “an ongoing narrative with virtual characters”. Now you are ready go for a walk. You finish your espresso and head out into the street, wearing your new glasses.

Once on the street, you immediately notice a couple of animated characters – emitting an eerie glow and slightly out of place – just outside of the café. They are deep in conversation. They are speaking in a strange accent. You stop and listen, and one of them glances over at you with a glare, annoyed that you are eavesdropping. This makes you a bit nervous and embarrassed.

And that is strange, because you know that these are not real people: They are virtual characters in an ongoing story that is taking place among the streets of your town.

These characters, and several others, have been talking for several months now. They are debating the changes to society that have disrupted their lifestyles. Some of the characters are able to peer into the future and engage with us living here and now in the year 2017 – those of us who happen to have the augmented reality app.

As we join in these virtual conversations, we become incorporated into the unfolding fiction that is playing out. It is an open-ended narrative, acted out by artificially-intelligent characters that are experienced only in augmented reality. Increasingly, we humans here in meatspace become intertwined in the narrative. The boundary between fiction and reality dissolves into a fractal curve. Our lives fuse with the narrative – the narrative fuses with our lives. And that takes some getting used to: the nature of narratives change as we become participants in them.

This vignette that I have just described is just one possible future manifestation of a set of technologies that point toward a new genre where the boundary between reality and fiction is increasingly difficult to detect. And the key ingredient is a set of artificially-intelligent characters with real embodiment: They occupy real place and real time, via augmented reality, geolocation, computer vision, and other technologies that situate them in the physical world. This embodiment is critical to how their narratives play out.

Emergent Narratives vs. Branching Stories

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
– Jean-Luc Godard

Our lives are awash in a sea of overlapping narratives. “Narrative” can be defined as “a spoken or written account of connected events” (Wikipedia). Although the term “story” is often included in this definition, it must be emphasized that a story is a fixed work of creation, which has a beginning, middle, and end. A story is contained, like a song.

But consider Godard’s quote: the linearity of a story can be deconstructed in many ways. Branching storylines have been developed extensively in digital games in which the player has agency in the story, as well as with altered traditional literary media (i.e., the Choose Your Own Adventure book series). Branching stories are assembled from discrete building blocks. And while the ordering of these building blocks may be open-ended, the blocks themselves are fixed and static. The blocks fit together in various ways, but the story is still essentially set by the content of the various blocks.

Can a building block be broken down into sub-chunks? Certainly. But beware. There is no logical end of this line of reasoning – one falls into a kind of Zeno’s Paradox. The smaller and more numerous the chunks, the harder it becomes to compose the glue that holds these chunks together to create meaning. After all, a story is more than just a sequence of events. So, if you want infinitely small, and infinitely many story “atoms”, you’ll be left with just glue…and a pile of atoms.


But don’t despair, simulation can come to the rescue! We have only just begun to tap the vast potential of artificial intelligence and other technologies to design simulations that permit narratives to emerge from the very atoms of virtual reality. But while we are waiting for the technology to become advanced enough to make this viable, I would claim that we have a perfect shortcut: Us!

It may be tempting to claim that a deep simulation using the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI), physics, behavioral psychology, and other basic laws of nature can be tuned just right to make spontaneous events happen in a virtual world that are “meaningful.” But that is a tall order, and some may even claim that it can never happen. This is why I am suggesting the inclusion of us – real people with already rich intertwined narratives – in the mix. Think of the simulation matrix as dead soil: Add water, microbes, and seeds, and something will start to grow. True AI doesn’t just work right out of the box – it has to grow, it has to learn – it needs fertile soil.

For this reason, I suggest that we do not need super-intelligent AI systems that emulate high-level human reasoning, emotion, and narrative intelligence. The AI can be just smart enough, and – more importantly – able to react to us and learn from us – to absorb our own meanings into the fabric of the simulation.

The Artificial Life Approach: Starting with a Primordial Soup

I have been developing a technology for several decades that I started while doing research at the MIT Media Lab in the early 90’s. It takes as inspiration the craft of artificial life: Designing virtual petri dishes from which lifelike behaviors emerge. Since that time, the toolset has exploded to include more sophisticated genetic algorithms, physics simulations, neural nets and much more. Concurrently, the rise of machine learning algorithms will help tap vast databases to extract something resembling meaning.

But there is still something missing from this toolset: Virtual body language. In order for AI to be expressive, it needs some form of embodiment. For this reason, I’ve focused on cartoon-style characters – having just the right set of expressive affordances and the ability to learn adaptations to provide an affective dimension. These characters also have a degree of reactive agency, such that narrative-like moments can emerge spontaneously.

With this simplified approach, one can avoid the uncanny valley as well as keep things real and actionable. We will eventually get to human-like intelligence, but I am in no rush. And besides, replicating ourselves accurately may not actually be what the future calls for.

What the future may be calling for is an augmentation of our own narratives with highly-connected artificial agents which have emotional intelligence, expressive body language, access to the internet’s crowd-wisdom, and a strong association with time and place – being truly embodied and situated. Their responsiveness to us complex humans here in meatspace would give the characters endless fodder for generating continuous emergent narrative.