The beautiful augmented reality dreamscape of Wuxia the Fox

Eight years ago, around the time when the word “transmedia” first started getting tossed around, Jonathan Belisle began collecting his dreams into an ill-defined storyworld. “I started writing the story of a young girl named Oremia, who dreamed about whales. It was nothing structured. Mostly an aggregation of random ideas with the same characters. I thought it was an interesting narrative path, and it really inspired lots of film scripts. During that time I was also creating this series of live performances that used networks, physical installations, and media to create immersive events where the audience felt trapped—but happy to stay—in the world I’d created.”

“I wanted to create a walkable narrative, a storytelling experience that connected architectural projections made with video projectors to human behaviors and media content in the cloud,” Jonathan says about said live events. Oremia’s world inspired several smaller multi-media projects over the eight years those eight years, leading him to collaborate with various artists in theater, illustration, and technology. “Wuxia became a tool, a way of seeing the world—a way to present my vision of the world.”

As a story born from his dreams, the transmedia approach (focusing on worldbuilding over narrative) fit like a glove. After his company SAGA received funding to develop a platform that enabled his collaborators to create programmable environments, Jonathan began seriously “trying to understand how I could make people experience my dreams. And I kept returning to the idea of creating interactive projections in physical space that wouldn’t isolate users from each other.”

Today, Jonathan’s latest attempts to bring people into that dreamworld are manifesting through Wuxia the Fox (which you might remember from its successfully funded Kickstarter back in May), an augmented reality storytelling experience. The set up sounds like nothing too new: a physical illustration book with a companion iPad app that promises to interact with you as you read. But what really sets Wuxia the Fox apart from other is the central role physical environments play in triggering the responsive technology. Relying solely on physical objects, sensors, and spaces, the iPad app truly acts as a supplement to the narrative’s real driving force: tactile human impulse. 

In a modern day return to orality, the story adapts to the atmosphere created by storytellers. Jonathan calls this non-linear branching narrative a “reflexive dialogue,” built around the mostly unconscious inputs from readers. Through cues in the rhythm, cadence, and emotional fluxes of the reader’s voice, for example, the iPad app switches soundtracks. It registers certain gestures and physical changes to the storybook (which includes puzzles and board games), so that the “symbols and gestures (which preceded words) form a language that helps us connect more with our hidden self and metaphors, and discover the broken narratives that stop us from growing, or make us fear some life paths.”

From story to design, Wuxia emphasizes real world causality. 

Borrowing from another aspect of the oral tradition, “the narrative itself is dependent on the reader’s will, so it always involves an unexpected turn. Readers can stop reading whenever they want and pause the story. But when they come back, they realize that pausing it induced a slew of events tied to the reader and listener’s next actions.” By making human intuition central to both the narrative and technology of Wuxia, Jonathan hoped the experience would allow “kids and parents to become aware that no story is just a story. That the prophecy is real if you think it is real and that reality is a consensus made between a reader and a listener.”

From story to design, Wuxia emphasizes this kind of real world causality. “The rapidly changing climate conditions and geography of struggling indigenous cultures shaped my story around key aspects of their fight for their territories,” Jonathan explains. “Many anthropologists and ethnosphere researchers realized that the number of cultures and languages disappearing from the surface of the earth coincided with the disappearance of some species and natural ecosystems.”

The world of Wuxia, as a result, become one about loss. In the story, human beings are rapidly losing their ability to dream after the whales began migrating to Jupiter due to climate change. But Oremia, an eight year old girl, still dreams. She dreams night after night of the whales forced from their homes because of human neglect. And by teaming up with a band of powerful but displaced animal allies, including a telepathic fox named Wuxia, Oremia travels around the globe in search for answers from a legendary humpback whale.

But Wuxia isn’t just a bleak vision of human beings answering for all the harm they’ve inflicted on mother nature. It’s also a critique of technological progress and misuse. “I became obsessed with the amazing machines at CERN like the particle accelerator, and distressed by the geo-engineering projects announced to counter-balance natural ecosystems incapacity to support our presence,” Jonathan explains. The uncertainty he felt over these kinds of solutions to the climate problem manifest in Wuxia as one of the story’s main antagonists. The Junning, a tribe of machines/cyborgs, rebel against the humans in order to protect earth, seeking total control over their dreams and bodies in order to put an end to humanity’s destructiveness.

“I want people to think about the dream they are having.” 

In many ways, Wuxia aims to utilize the very technologies it criticizes in order to “promote a return of orality and local presence by advocating for an evolution of humanity that transcends the instinct for power supply through technologies, by creating educational games and arts-oriented relational encounters, as well as oral conversation in the real world.”

Unlike a lot of other projects involving kids and iPads, “the main intention behind the storytelling experience of Wuxia is to teach children how to avoid technological enslavement and to learn creative, disruptive ways to use and control it.” Which is why, Jonathan explains, Wuxia focuses so heavily on tactile interactions and the unconscious revelations of a dreamscape. “Children discover the world mostly through roleplay and gestural interactions until they fully develop a structured language. They use their hands to interpret reality and express what they feel in physical interactions with the environments and objects surrounding them,” he says. “I wanted the iPad app to connect to that experience of child growth, and adapt to it.”

Although the story wasn’t written with an age group in mind, Jonathan specifically designed the app to “communicate my dream to as many children as possible, so they might discover the hidden metaphors in it and help humanity re-tune to nature.” As a learning tool, he hopes “the narrator experience will immerse the reader into a state of consciousness that activates dormant skills. The musical and symbolic aspects of the iPad app are to induce a mystical and reflexive mindset for both adults and kids. The physical components (the book and board game with wood tiles) are tied to play and to memory.”

But first and foremost, Jonathan wants Wuxia the Fox to be a playground. “I want Wuxia to feel like a shared space, with persistence and immediacy. I want it to heighten the relationship we all have with mother earth. And I want people to think about the dream they are having,” he says.

After debuting a prototype of Wuxia, developed using the ioTheatre platform co-produced by SAGA and TFO, with the augmented reality experience at The Future of Storytelling conference in October, Jonathan plans to use a similar set up across various cities in 2016-2017. However you can also experience Wuxia the Fox at home, with the first installment of the adventure (including the storybook, iPad app, and other physical objects) slated for release this December. For more information on other installments, you can check out the official website.