Blog Post

Million Story Building

(originally posted at

If a building could talk, what would it say? How would it "feel" about the comings and goings of the people who use it every day? Would it be affected by their moods and desires? What kind of relationship would it have with its occupants if it could communicate with them somehow, and how would they respond? Perhaps most importantly, would such a feeling-and-talking building even be desirable? In attempting to answer these whimsical questions, the Mobile and Environmental Media Lab (MEML) at the University of Southern California conceived of Million Story Building, an experimental design project exploring how location-specific mobile technology can add playful, imaginative and practical new layers to the relationship between a structure and its inhabitants. Using the newly-constructed School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) Building as a test bed, the MEML team has designed a location-sensitive iPhone application (see video) that enables students and faculty to engage with their workplace in a variety of exciting new ways, from scanning Quick Response (QR) code glyphs mounted next to posters in the hallways in order to access and tag video clips from a central database, to leaving virtual messages for others to read in an Augmented Reality view of the building's central courtyard. Functions such as these, working together with networks of sensors, interactive plasma screens and web-based social media profiles, made it possible for iPhone-carrying building occupants to learn about SCA history, discover events and activities, share stories and updates of their own, enrich the school's media archive, and participate in an Alternate Reality Game. Furthermore, and crucially, users could come to expect increasingly customized communications, behaviors and interaction opportunities as a profile concerning their preferences, habits and interests was generated based on their usage of the system. The end result was a prototype for a personalized and self-renewing "ambient story" experience co-constructed by the collaboration between the occupants of a building and the building itself.


At its heart, Million Story Building is an effort to mobilize a range of storytelling and interaction tactics such that the occupants of the SCA building can experience a deeper and richer connection with their workspace and co-workers. Such an effort is not unique in the history of design; indeed, the practice of embedding story and play in physical space is almost as old as civilization itself - one recalls the Catholic Via dolorosa (Stations of the Cross), the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage of Shikoku or the transit to the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan. More recently, what Jill Walker-Renberg calls "distributed narratives" have manifested themselves in public and institutional space through sticker art, coordinated graffiti campaigns, flash mobs and other interventions. Million Story Building emerges at the nexus of these practices and the new potentialities unleashed by the recent blossoming of mobile and ubiquitous computational technologies.

More Information

The Million Story Building series archive is an effort to gather together, enframe and contextualize key planning documents from the first phase of the project's development. By browsing proposals, demo descriptions, annotated meeting notes and other development documents, readers can get a sense of the key concerns from which the project arose and the various components of the prototype application, both implemented and imagined.




This is fantastic. The planning document archive is an especially thoughtful resource. I look forward to reading some of those documents.

My one concern is the phrase "made it possible for iPhone-carrying building occupants to..."

iPhones are still not an affordable device, even by smart-phone standards. My concern is that the whole project becomes less accessible to those without the means to purchase an iPhone. Granted, I suppose you could argue that this presents an interesting opportunity for people to interact face-to-face and share their iPhone with others, but that seems more like a workaround.

Do you know how accesibility was addressed in the design process?




Hey Mike,

Yes, accesibility is a big concern in the ongoing development of this project. At this stage, however, we're just trying to develop some proof-of-concept demos; the general sense among our group is that smart phone technology that is now out of the reach of many consumers will be more or less ubiquitous within a few years. Rather than scaling back our investigation in order to accomodate low-tech solutions (e.g. an SMS-driven interface or a phone-tree type interaction), we decided to forge ahead using the state of the art technology contained in smartphones like the iPhone. As we move forward, we plan on developing on the Android platform as well -- which may in fact turn out to be a much more accessible (ie, affordable) smartphone platform in years to come.