Zeega is an interactive storytelling platform founded in 2010 by James Burns, Kara Oehler and Jesse Shapins (the name is a play on the name of the early documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov). In 2012, Zeega began working with public radio stations via the Association of Independent Radio’s Localore initiative to create participatory location-based projects. A year later, we’re starting to see the results of those collaborations online. The Zeega team shared with POV their philosophy for interactivity and how they’ve worked with producers from across the country.
What was the inspiration for the Zeega platform?
The original inspiration was seeing so many colleagues in media that had great ideas for immersive stories, but were unable to create them because of the barriers of technology, design and cost. The web itself is a distinct medium that is fundamentally interactive and audiovisual. Our mission from the beginning has been to make the creation of this new medium accessible to everyone… We’ve aimed for Zeega to radically democratize interactive storytelling.
Can you talk about your collaboration with the Tribeca Film Institute in December 2012?
Tribeca Hacks Cambridge was an incredible day. We had 18 artists of all different backgrounds — filmmakers, radio producers, photographers, graphic designers, writers, theatre directors, etc. Everybody had already familiarized themselves with Zeega and begun their projects a month in advance. Everyone had also already met via Google Hangouts. At the end, everybody had completed a prototype and we transformed our storefront into a micro-cinema where everyone then navigated their projects live to the audience.
Many of the projects have continued to evolve since the day. This project from the theatre company FIXTPOINT was started during Tribeca Hacks Cambridge, and has since evolved into fully-fledged urban interactive tour doc. The project explores the four corners of Queen and Bathurst, a traditionally working-class intersection of Toronto hit by hard times during the global financial crisis. Along the way, you meet the endearing denizens of the intersection, from down-and-out buskers to a starving-artist Starbucks barista who just wants you to try some of his samples.
How did you approach working with the media producers on the Localore projects?
Last year, AIR put out a call for public media stations to put their hats in the ring as incubators for these innovative works. And then there was an open application process for producers to submit proposals. We joined some of the winning teams as interactive storytelling partners and co-producers.
We started working with teams last March, and the first phase of collaboration was really focused on joining producers and stations in developing interactive concepts that fit with the narrative of each project and building teams, including the task of finding a local designer for each project. In the early months, it was a constant back-and-forth between the producers on the ground, who were starting to engage the community and gather stories, and ourselves, who were focused on developing design strategies and narrative frameworks to structure the overall projects.
Since we approached all of the collaborations as experiments, we didn’t impose intense constraints on the thinking. The regular process was at times very basic: sometimes it was simply a matter of drawing interfaces on paper during video meetings that we’d then show to one another over the screen. We would edit interface ideas in the same way one might edit a story.
But even though we worked on Localore projects in a very experimental fashion unconstrained by what was possible using Zeega, the projects still used Zeega as major parts of their projects. For example, all of Black Gold Boom’s “Rough Ride” was created using the Zeega editor. Reinvention Stories used the Zeega editor to create Act 1. But for each of these, we slightly customized the Zeega player to test new forms of navigation. On a technical level, what we did was create a web application framework that runs on the Zeega API. All of the code developed for the Localore projects is on Github, so anyone that would like to experiment with a custom Zeega player can easily do so.