Media companies have mostly used voice-activated devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home to deliver news headlines. The BBC’s research and development lab is trying to make stories people can interact with. One result of this is “The Inspection Chamber,” a Kafkaesque audio drama developed over the last nine months with production company Rosina Sound.
“Hello, my name is Dave,” says a female voice as the story begins. “I hope life has been comfortable in the containment room?”
As “The Inspection Chamber” continues, the listener hears from three separate characters: Dave, the female robot, and two scientists, Kay and Joseph. The two scientists, who may be aliens, have to correctly identify a new life form, the listener, before they can go home. (The story doesn’t clarify where it takes place or where “home” is.) The listener undergoes a scientific examination, answering questions like, “Do you feel special?” and “Are you in a happy mood or a gloomy mood?”
“The scientists have different approaches to solving the riddle, so there’s tension between them and tension between them and Dave, who appears less reliable than a computer,” said Henry Cooke, senior producer at BBC’s R&D team.
The story runs about 20 minutes. While the overall narrative doesn’t change, the details do depending on how people respond to questions. Cooke didn’t want to provide too much detail before the story is ready for public use, but he said there are three variations on the ending depending on listeners’ answers.
Voice-activated devices are designed for more simple commands like ordering a pizza or booking a train ticket, so the BBC has devised workarounds for creating fiction. Here’s what it has learned from working on “The Inspection Chamber.”
Encourage regular, unforced interaction
Alexa skills require people to talk at least every 90 seconds; for Google Home, it’s two minutes. The story must include reasons for the listener to reply without seeming forced. “Interactions with Dave became like scene breaks,” said Cooke. “It was a creative decision based on the tech limitations that turned out really nicely.”
Voice-activated devices can only understand a preselected set of words; developers indicate the vocabulary they expect listeners to use. Applying this to fiction means listeners must receive a list of acceptable answers, which can sound clunky. Because of these constraints, not all story scenarios are suitable. A fictional world driven by a procedure, like a scientific examination following protocol, allows the story to be structured without seeming out of place with the narrative.
Limit the number of characters
Starting the story by speaking to one character, Dave, who is similar to Alexa, connects the world of voice assistance to fiction before the rest of the narrative develops.
The BBC’s earlier prototypes, which read like TV show scripts, had too many interactions and were confusing. Another test, in which the user spoke to only one character, limited the story’s scope. Three characters are enough to ensure the listener understands their place in the story, can regularly interact with the device and doesn’t lose interest.
“We didn’t want to make the mental model and where people sit within it too confusing,” said Cooke, adding that to make it even clearer, a ding sound directs listeners when to speak.
The BBC is still testing “The Inspection Chamber” and will release it later this year to Taster, where the BBC releases its experiments for audience feedback. The story works on Amazon Alexa and Google Home and will operate on other devices as they come out.
Most of the time was dedicated to creating the script, with the final two months spent on recording and developing the story. “When building a skill, the work isn’t in the coding time but the modeling of it,” said Cooke. “That’s doubly so if you’re making a complicated fiction [story].”