The Real Experience Designers: Lance Weiler

A storyteller by craft and an experience designer by way of execution, Lance Weiler has introduced an entirely new species to the cinematic form: the co-creator. They are an evolved, active form of the previously passive, catered-to audience. Weiler is adamant about the role they play in not only the resulting experience, but the process of creation as well: “I design with and for them, and consider them as collaborators.”

His projects have included founding Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab, collaborating with the United Nations and US Congress, and bringing renowned director David Cronenberg’s technological fantasies to life. Through his ventures, he’s redefined what it is to experience narrative at its core as a bona-fide participant, immersed in not only the emotional ups-and-downs of the story but also in its physical environment, incorporating tangible objects that cue the story’s direction and meaning.

How do you tap into the human, emotive aspects of people who are experiencing your stories?

I was fascinated with the idea of the Internet of Things and the opportunity to lay stories across the real world. By 2015, they estimate that there’ll be 1.5 trillion sensors in the world. I’m really interested in what those sensors say to us as human beings, how they help us make sense of the world around us, and what data means in terms of finding and telling stories. For example, Lyka’s Adventure is a really cool project that was inspired by my son, and tells a story about a little robot from another planet who has a really big heart. Her planet’s been decimated by climate, and she’s on a hero’s journey. The idea is: how can kids be her companion on this adventure? She was kind of a connected toy. I’d beta-tested it with a fifth grade class in Montreal and Los Angeles. Within ten days, they’d moved Lyka—a little plush toy—over 2,000 miles in 56 locations.

How does your audience figure into your process?

I’ve embraced, in my work, a mixture of story, play, and human-centric design thinking. Like anthropologists within a space, we’ll spend a lot of time with the actual audience, like a 21st century version of a writer’s room.

‘Audience’ is not really the affected term for it. I’ve struggled with it for a really long time within the work, because in some instances I’m always trying to leave room for the audience to participate in some way. The audience is a hive mind. They’re fast, smart, and challenge you in ways that are really quite exquisite. They express themselves in brutally honest ways. I came from a background of writing for film and television, and game design, which had me working in a vacuum.

There’s always been an escapist, passive quality when it comes to storytelling. Now, as an audience, we also have a bigger sense of responsibility.

I think the desire is to be even more connected in the real world. I’ve seen more and more people driven to the idea of being a part of something as a response to how easily connected we are. I see interesting things that are coming out of scarcity models; as though that this only happens once. It’s ephemeral: a moment that needs you to connect to the real world around you.

You see it in terms of immersive theatre, like Sleep No More in New York [an interactive theatre experience]. You’re literally there with these other people, but you’re connected and disconnected at the same time because you’re wearing these masks. You’re a voyeur able to go anywhere you choose, or you could sit in a chair all night if you chose to; it’s a theatre where all the seats are burned. It’s an opportunity to really change the relationship between audience and story. You’re kind of shaping your own path.

Powerful as an immersive experience is, what happens when it’s over? What lingers?

The stories that I’ve written throughout my career had a three-act structure: a beginning, middle, and end. But the work that I do now goes on. BodyMindChange will go on for four years, traveling the world [as an exhibit]. That’s a long cycle for a story. Granted, certain stories last thousands of years, but they last in a single form: I’ll re-read a book, watch a movie again. But there’s something really interesting about the challenge of a linear form becoming non-linear—where does it change? When does it start? Where does it end? How can I extend it? How can I make it more relevant and reflective of the time?

As a form, digital provides a level of connectedness. But there’s still a relative awkwardness to how people communicate with it. They’re communicating with 140 characters, or they’re communicating with things like Skype, which is always inherently filled with [interruptions] like hey, can you hear me? We’re stuck in these fragmented interactions that are kind of limited by the infrastructure, by the amount of people on the line at any given time. In some ways, technology gets in the way of deeper group dynamics.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For the full version, please subscribe to The Human Experience Issue. 

Photo by George Pimentel

the author

Caroline Leung