Is Owl Field’s interactive 3D audio drama 'the Bandersnatch of podcasts'?

Is Owl Field’s interactive 3D audio drama 'the Bandersnatch of podcasts'?

This week sees the launch of a new type of storytelling podcast. Created by Scottish 3D audio company The Owl Field (whose founder, Michel Lafrance features on the FutureBook 40 list of top publishing innovators in the UK), 3D Escape Room: Frequency draws listeners into "an innovative audio-based escape room" in which they must navigate a series of puzzles within 60 minutes.

Touted as a development set to impact podcasting in the same way as Netflix’s "Bandersnatch" has impacted streaming video on demand (although some may argue that "Bandersnatch" has had negligible impact, beyond the court case), the podcast is presented as an audio drama produced in 3D audio, where the listener is made to feel present in the room, trapped alongside the story’s central characters. It features more than twenty voice actors, sound effects and music.

We quizzed Lafrance about the demand for interactive audio, the tech behind the production, the challenges the writers faced and more.

An interactive storytelling podcast? How does that work?
The podcast is part fictional audio drama and part escape room game, where the listener must navigate a series of audio-based puzzles as quickly as they can to successfully reach the end within 60 minutes. We’ve focused on making this as accessible as possible, so the experience is contained within a single podcast feed; no specialised software is needed, only a pair of headphones is recommended for the 3D audio.

The interactive element involves deducing the correct audio tracks to play from amongst the forty tracks contained within the podcast, all of which have coded track titles, and many of which are decoys. Each time the listener solves a puzzle, the code they receive leads them to the track with the next puzzle. Once they’ve reached the end of the puzzle sequence, the listener stops their clock to determine whether they’ve succeeded in escaping.

Were you influenced/ inspired by any other interactive storytelling projects?
I’ve always admired augmented theatre-going experiences like Punch Drunk Theatre and Secret Cinema for how the audience is made to feel present in the production, and I really appreciate the added interactive element found in escape rooms. I felt a similar impact could be made by adding interactivity to the immersive experience of our 3D audio dramas. My goal with The Owl Field has always been to make the listener feel at the centre of the action, so the concept of trapping the listener inside an escape room seemed like an ideal application.

Who’s your target audience and how did you scope out demand?
Escape rooms are a booming industry, with approximately three thousand live venues worldwide and counting, so a primary audience can easily be identified as the growing masses of escape room enthusiasts. Even with this growth, though, many people have yet to have an opportunity to try a live escape room, whether it be due to location, cost, or difficulty organising a group outing. This podcast provides a free and accessible opportunity for them, and, being entirely audio-based, for people living with sight loss as well.

The podcast appeals beyond the escape room theme, though. With Netflix’s announcement that they are "doubling down" on interactive content following the success of "Bandersnatch", it is clear interactive content is in high demand, as listeners seek a level of control over the outcome, where the results are personal and can be compared socially. Here, by framing interactivity within an escape room, the listener’s experience results in a personal time that can then be compared with that of their friends.

How and where are you marketing it?
Podcasting, interactivity, escape rooms, and 3D audio are all on an upward trajectory, so these are all available marketing angles for us. However, from what we’ve seen already amongst our alpha and beta testers, our most powerful marketing tool is the personal result achieved upon completion. There is an inherent desire to discover where you rank, particularly amongst your friends, that suggests the challenge element—combined with the podcast’s accessibility—gives the podcast strong viral potential.

Who wrote it and how did the interactive element impact on the writing process?
This was a concept I’ve personally been exploring for a while—devising various audio-based puzzles in my free time—so once a workable format finally clicked, I proceeded to write the full production. Being interactive meant the writing process required—and was often dependent on—the alpha testing, with several rough mixes sent to various testers like chapters going back and forth between author and editor. Often, I would listen along with the tester, studying their interaction with the puzzles, unnerving for the tester of course, but invaluable.

What was the greatest technical challenge in producing it?
We benefited from having produced The Fairy Tree, an interactive multi-ending audio drama, which certainly helped in anticipating the potential pitfalls. Despite this, it was indeed a daunting project with numerous challenges ranging from initially developing the game’s format, to devising multiple accessible yet challenging audio-based puzzles. The greatest challenge, though, was unquestionably working out the timing to ensure the average finishing time would average sixty minutes. Several rounds of testing were required, with puzzles being reassessed at each stage from feedback that needed to consider each individual tester’s puzzle-solving proficiency! In the end, I think a good balance has been achieved and I look forward to challenge newcomers and pros alike.

What future applications can you imagine for the technology?
With smart speakers continuing to gain in popularity, I expect interactive content to dominate innovative storytelling over the next couple years, particularly now that clever interactive ideas could possibly find themselves acquired.