Storytelling's Next Wave


Storytelling's Next Wave

Adam Buhler

First, there were cave paintings. Then writing. Then moving pictures. Then… AI?

Replacing actors in Hollywood movies with your favorite Instagram influencers, in real-time, including their voices and quirks. Carrying on conversations with the characters. Ask the script to make itself darker, funnier, or more family-friendly. Meet the characters in the park later that afternoon.   

AI has opened paths to these scenarios; it’s just a matter of time. Who’ll combine the supporting technologies first and best, master the new medium, and build the future of content and entertainment?  

Let’s look at the ingredients:


AI can now be guided to create convincing music, video, images, and even written content. These tools generally don’t work “on the fly” – they must crunch for a while before we can experience their output – but improvements in processing speed and new algorithms bring us ever closer to the threshold of instant generation. 

Cloning human voices? Done. Just imagine one of the major voice platforms offering the option to hear the news as read by your favorite YouTube influencer. 

Digitally swapping actors in a movie? Done. Facebook’s AI team has been quietly building a library of open-source tools that identify and transform human bodies in existing videos – in real time. And the work of Caroline Chan at UC Berkeley is an early step toward digital human puppetry, driven purely by algorithm.

Generate convincing prose based on minimal prompting? Done. Now, extrapolate this forward to the concept of individual movies being written for individual tastes. Next, let’s note that the ad industry was rocked last month by news that JPMorgan Chase just signed a five-year deal with Persado, a start-up using AI to craft messaging more irresistible than that written by a human.


AI is enabling a paradigm shift in storytelling away from linear, passive interactions. Wouldn’t you rather be a participant in the story yourself?

At one end are simple user experiences, such as Black Mirror’s choose-your-own-insanely-stressful-adventure “Bandersnatch,” on Netflix. Or new apps such as Wonderscope, unspooling fantastical tales through AR characters who respond to spoken input from kids. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we have vigorous, you-are-the-story experiences such as The Void, a location-based VR startup that completely immerses players in a shared virtual narrative. The Void is expanding locations, thanks to multi-million dollar investments from the likes of James Murdoch. What helps set The Void apart from typical VR is the breaking of isolation, enabling groups of friends to enjoy the experience together.

Another angle involves building on the interactive capabilities of Voice, still a fresh frontier for new use cases despite its adoption by so many millions. Marketers should pay attention to innovative campaigns such as HBO’s “WestWorld – The Maze” Alexa skill, which brought fans into an intricate, branching story voiced by the show’s actors. 

New product categories are being created along the way. Witness Fable, “The Virtual Beings Company.” Their “Lucy Project” asks the question, “what would it be like to interact, have a relationship, and go on a quest with a character inside a VR movie?”

Speaking of virtual assistants, a 2016 Digitas study found that more than one in three Americans (37%) would be interested in making a purchase through a chatbot. This year, we also conducted a proprietary study that explored the massive potential of chatbots for marketing purposes and found that chatbot experiences lifted emotional connections to brands by almost 20%, putting them on par with mobile websites. Imagine what could happen to that number with a fully realized virtual character or personal shopper instead? 


We’ve seen how AI is becoming a tool for artists and creators to modify and generate “reality”.  And we’ve seen how AI is enabling an active, two-way relationship with digital content, with the potential to touch education, entertainment, gaming, and of course, brand building. 

But what if we mix in a third nascent technology, one that could enable these characters and experiences to travel with us, becoming contextually and visually aware of whatever location we’re in?  What if our newest user interface is the very world around us? That’s the promise of the AR Cloud.

The concept is straightforward: as cloud computing races ahead in speed and power, and as 5G networking brings lightning-fast connectivity to devices and wearables, regardless of location, we can map a one-to-one digital space across the earth. Using AR (ideally, via convenient, hands-free glasses), I could tag a building with virtual graffiti that would persist and be visible to any later AR-equipped passersby.  In a more sophisticated scenario, perhaps a virtual being could accompany me as I walk outdoors, aware of our surroundings and avoiding physical obstacles in our path. 

There’s a gold rush to dominate this “MirrorWorld,” as Microsoft, Unity, Samsung, Magic Leap, and others race to build and own the new infrastructure. Our own Brett Leary, SVP Tech/Commerce, believes this new “Third Space” is especially full of possibility for brand builders.


It’s not premature to let one’s imagination roam, and to start experimenting with the basics. For example, getting hands-on experience with current AR workflows will prepare your future path through the MirrorWorld as it gradually becomes another channel of human commerce and communication. 

Similarly, attaining general fluency with AI concepts – even at a high level – offers a clear competitive edge across verticals and business models. To this end, the fascinating blogs of AI researchers at companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, A16Z, and Amazon are an unalloyed delight of the post-Internet era.

It may be three years, or ten, or twenty, but the technology arc is clear to see. The possibilities of AI as a creative canvas are overwhelming, and increasingly urgent. The next wave of storytelling rushes toward us.

Brace for impact.


Adam Buhler

Adam Buhler

SVP, Technology, Experiential Lead North America

Adam Buhler leads the Experiential Technology offering at Digitas North America. He explores and deploys emerging technologies for the agency and its clients. 


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