GryffinDocs' time-travelling touchscreen tales aim to turn teens onto history

GryffinDocs' time-travelling touchscreen tales aim to turn teens onto history

Teens are turning off history, but this international startup is hoping to ignite their passion using the dual power of storytelling and tech.


The pitch

GryffinDocs Media's twin projects – Time Traveler Tours & Tales – aim to combine the traditional power of narrative with the latest in touchscreen technology, in order to engage the next generation with history in an immersive and exciting way.

Time Traveler Tours are a mash-up of Horrible Histories and Pokémon Go: story-driven interactive mobile treasure hunts to historic places, enhanced with gamification and augmented reality experiences. They target the educational tourism market. Time Traveler Tales are their e-, audio, and print book counterparts, repurposed and republished for the education and trade markets. In future, the company also hopes to create virtual reality editions of the Tours for the benefit of those who cannot travel.

"Our mission is to ensure that no young person says, "History is boring!" ever again," says co-founder and creative director Sarah Towle. "History isn't the problem, it's the way it's presented. But no one can resist a good story. And we all learn best through play. So Time Traveler Tours & Tales marry world-class storytelling with the magic of the touchscreen to create engaging portals to the past and #TurnHistoryOn for youth (and the young at heart)."

The team

Towle describes herself as an "educator-cum-digital-storyteller" and has connections to an international network of authors through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She co-founded the GryffinDocs with travel editor James O’Connor and their comprehensive team includes people from within and without traditional publishing: historian and podcaster, Tim Noddings; UX and game designer, Debra Everett-Lane; interaction designer Yu-Ting Feng; children's publishing veteran Emma D. Dryden; marketing consultant, Mark Southern; graphic artist Jane Dixon-Smith; audio engineer Joe Bianco; curriculum developer, Marcie Colleen; accounting executive Frank Totaro; and in-house tech guru Becca McCarthy. 

What's the gap in the market?

The idea for Time Traveler Tours & Tales was sparked when Towle and her family relocated to Paris, and she found a lack of age-appropriate quality content targeting the educational needs and leisure-time expectations of secondary-school-aged kids.

"The family travel sector, which has grown year-on-year since 1990 – even during the global economic crisis – now accounts for one third of the 2.1 billion-visitor travel and tourism market," she explains. "Yet, while family destination guides targeting adults are available from all the major travel publishers, and while activity and coloring books targeting the under-8s are plentiful, teens and tweens are still expected to learn about – and enjoy – the discovery of history and culture as an adult would. But they don’t." 

Towle's research revealed that discovered that teenage brains have not yet developed the capacity to connect with people and events too far removed from themselves. "They are not capable of making sense of past chronologies as they jump from era to era on a typical tour. And who can get exciting about memorizing names, facts, and dates? So they turn off. What does turn them on? First-person storytelling – it tugs at the heartstrings, triggering an empathetic response – as well as supporting visual illustrations and, of course, the kind of playful engagement that touchscreen devices can provide."

Success so far 

On 19 May 2015, Gryffindocs launched a $40K Kickstarter campaign to support the development of their proof-of-concept title, which was fully funded with $41,491 raised. In April 2016, Towle pitched and won a seat at the startup incubator Travel Tech Lab, supported by the Mayor of London and London & Partners .

April 2017 saw the launch of their proof-of-concept StoryTour, Buried Alive: The Secret Michelangelo Took to His Grave (now available in the App and Google Play Stores), with e- and audiobook editions to follow this quarter. In the same month, GryffinDocs was chosen by HRH the Duke of York as one of “42 UK-based Human Learning startups to watch” and was invited to participate in Pitch@Palace 7.0. 

Biggest challenges?

Simple - money. "We stretched our Kickstarter win as far as we could without paying any of the founding members," Towle says. "Currently, we seek investment as well as a publishing partner to help with the manufacturing and sales of our print editions and complementary curriculum guides, as well as to handle foreign rights worldwide." 

Another big challenge is discoverability. "Buried Alive is out in the world. But few people know it. Though we’d all like to be developing our next title of Samuel Pepys’ London, our available resources are largely given to marketing Buried Alive. Fortunately, our burgeoning marketing campaign – the #HistoryHero BLAST blog and podcast – is a lot of fun, and we’re convinced the time we’re devoting to it will eventually pay off in helping us to build trust in our digital storytelling brand."

Ultimate ambition?

The GryffinDocs team aims to create a digital storytelling brand that puts the humanities back on par with science and maths, by delivering engaging content into the hands of youth where they want it most. In the context of today's political and digital upheavals, it's a timely mission.

"Cultural literacy is at stake today," Towle insists. "History has shown us, time and time again, that a past forgotten is too easily repeated. We must nurture an awareness of humanity’s worst mistakes so as not to replicate them. We are wise to draw from the lessons of their greatest achievements as we seek to create a sustainable future. What is history if not billions of amazing stories passed down through the ages? Our ambition is to continue to efforts begun by pre-history’s oral storytellers, but to do so using today’s most innovative literacy tools." 

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Don’t! But if you insist, keep showing up. If you are passionate and believe in your idea, success will follow. Good luck!"

GryffinDocs Media has been shortlisted as one of six finalists for the BookTech Company of the Year Award. To watch the team pitch live for the award, book your tickets for the FutureBook 2017 conference now.