SXSW: JWT London's Sonali Fenner on immersive experiences
SXSW: JWT London's Sonali Fenner on immersive experiences
A view from Sonali Fenner

The future of the senses in storytelling

For most people, the main sensory stimuli delivered by Austin, Texas are the sweet aroma of roasting meat, the sticky gooey feel of BBQ sauce on the chin and fingers, and the fiery hit of bourbon washing down the gullet, writes Sonali Fenner, global business director at JWT London.

But for the week of SXSWi, it’s far more about immersive experiences inflaming the senses – with smell and touch at the top of the pile in 2016.

Over the years, we’ve sporadically seen panels and demos pop up which tackle one or other of the perceptive inputs.

The festival in 2013, for example, was the year of touch and Leap Motion. The rise of 360-degree video and virtual reality a few years later threw the spotlight on ambi-sonic and binaural sound techniques. Providing vital signposts and narrative cues in this more unstructured storytelling canvas.

While there were some senses standing alone this year (notably smell), 2016 appeared to be the year of immersive, cross-modal experiences which focused on the amplified outcomes of multiple senses working together.

The Silent Room

The Silent Room installation (commissioned by SXSW and the world premiere of the work) by Simon Heijdens - the London based Dutch artist - is a space engineered to filter out any sound or colour.

It is in essence 40-inch black hole which visitors walk through alone until - in the absence of any other input - they eventually become the sound of the unmediated space themselves.

The experience is unnerving to say the least, especially juxtapositioned against the sensory overload that is SXSW.

Kodak's Memory Observatory

Kodak celebrated the re-launch of its Kodak Moments mobile app with a Memory Observatory installation.

A collaboration with Marco Lutyens, the interactive installation allowed participants to pass through a somewhat psychedelic portal to witness their photos being turned into a memory journey made all the more powerful by sound and smell augmentation.

 Here’s an eye (mouth, ear and nose) witness description of the experience by Elizabeth Cherian, JWT London’s innovation group director.

 "About 20 of us climbed in and watched images of a new born girl float across the ceiling while audio of her father softly recalled the moment she was born. When the six minute installation ended, one of the Kodak people revealed that the memory was from one of the men sitting among us, who then went on to say that he has never shared his thoughts or photos of that day since her birth seven weeks ago. Having him take account for his memory in person was really powerful." 

Smell as a storytelling tool

On the panel schedule, ‘Scent as a post-digital medium for storytelling’ discussed the power of smell and its ability to elicit deeply emotional responses. Thereby making it an ideal medium for storytelling and engaging an audience on an intensely visceral level.

And the ‘Exploring scent as a storytelling tool’ workshop dove into scent as a sense, a tool for artistic expression and narration and an input ripe for commercial application.

The workshop continued by exploring scent as the building blocks of a storytelling exercise – be that crafting a scent-driven narrative experience based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, to using memory associations with scents as the basis for product-design brainstorms.

Physical computing for children with autism spectrum disorder

On a more educational level, the team from Taubman College brought their Social Sensory Surfaces project to the festival this year.

They have been researching ways to develop new material technologies as tactile interfaces designed to better serve the learning and social engagement needs of children with autism spectrum disorder.

The textiles they are producing are tailored for gradations of touch and pressure-sensitive input - from large sweeping gestures to fine touch, calibrated to prompt a wide variety of responses.

The project team, it appeared, is a masterclass in collaboration, connecting a plethora of expertise and technology in textile structures and CNC knitting, programming of gestural and tactile input devices, and design of haptic and visual interfaces together.

Each of these is an interesting area on its own, but the expertise has been brought together to produce surfaces that are both useful and strangely beautiful.

So, for anyone with an eye for detail, a nose for a story or simply wanting the Midas touch for your business, investing some time and energy into the senses might just pay dividends.