This morning I experienced a new skill on my Amazon Echo that totally blew me away.
It’s called Earplay. I heard about it by email from Eli Woodward, a Kindle Chronicles listener in Seattle. “As tech-savvy as my friends are,” Eli wrote, “You are basically the only person I know who uses and enjoys an Amazon Echo, and this seems like an especially neat use of that technology.”
I’m going to write in this Medium post about Earplay’s interactive storytelling, but if you want to hear it for yourself, simply click here and then download the “Earplay Demo” mp4 audio file that I’ve shared from my Amazon Drive.
Even better, if Alexa is within hailing distance from you on an Echo, Tap, Dot, or 6th Gen Fire HD 8 tablet, say “Alexa, enable Earplay skill.” Once you have Earplay as one of your Alexa skills, say “Alexa, start Earplay.” She will ask if you want to play the demo or Cygnus, a sample of a longer radio drama where you play a spy who quickly gets in and out of a lot of tight spots.
You can also hear — play? We will have to figure out what verbs to use for Earplay — Codename Cygnus as an iOS or Google Play app. But I believe Alexa will be the best way to experience Earplay narratives.
Story telling began as an aural form. That’s probably why listening to a well-told story has more impact than reading one on a page or screen. Something in our wiring as a species responds to the sound of a story. Our ears seem better at luring us into a story than our eyes are. We imagine that we are the protagonist, and we keep listening to find out what happens next.
With Earplay’s use of voice recognition, the aural power of story takes a big new step. In Codename Cygnus, the story opens in the midst of a poker game. The narrator addresses you not as a 3rd party listener but as the protagonist himself, a secret agent named Jordan Parker. You are asked if you want to draw two cards. You say “two cards.” With those words, you enter a new dimension.
As the action continues, you decide who Parker is, based on your own personality, or maybe you want to try out traits you seldom display in real life. Will you raise the bet? You determine what happens next by saying either “focused” or “impulsive.” You change the course of the story by your choices.
The most obvious benefit of this is that the listener is cast in an active instead of passive role. I followed the narrative closely, because I wanted to understand my next options. I was in the poker game, making decisions, just as in the Earplay demo, I was in the restaurant deciding whether or not to kiss the mysterious woman with a gun in her purse.
The reason I say Alexa is the best way to experience Earplay is that she is only available by voice interaction.
On the iOS or Google Play app, you can follow the action on your screen as well as by earbuds or your device’s speakers. You see the choices of “focused” or “impulsive” as buttons to tap, or you can say either word out loud. This makes Cygnus feel more like a videogame than a voice-only story. You could of course put your iPhone or Android device in your pocket and continue using only your ears and voice. But knowing there is something for the eyes to encounter is a distraction. I think most of us are lead around by the nose when it comes to what our eyes want to experience.
Sadly, we can’t experience the whole Cygnus story yet on Alexa, which only offers the Prologue. With the iOS and Google Play apps, you get another episode free and then must decide whether or not to pay for the story to continue. Mission 1 costs $7.99 and comprises five episodes, 15 to 25 minutes each. Mission 2 is listed as “Coming soon…”
I can tell how excited I am about Earplay by how much it has delayed putting together today’s Kindle Chronicles, which features an interview with Robert Masello, author of a forthcoming historical thriller, The Jekyll Revelation. It’s 2:30 p.m. ET, and I haven’t even begun drafting the script.
The good news is that I was able to connect just now with Earplay’s co-founder and CEO, Jonathan Myers, who is in the middle of a hectic schedule as his company’s content gathers momentum. You will hear all about his creation on next week’s show, because we are going to record a Skype conversation on Tuesday November 1.
I love that Jon’s background starts with an Boston University MFA in writing. But instead of trying to get short stories published in The New Yorker — well, he may have tried that; I’ll find out next week — he went to work as a videogame designer. His work on Codename Cygnus began in April, 2013, and the app was released to iOS four months later.
It makes sense to me that someone educated in the art of narrative and experienced in videogames is well positioned to make a difference in storytelling technology. I am sure there are others who have been pioneering in this revolution that I have not heard about yet.
But today is the day I learned about Earplay, and I can’t wait to hear what happens next.