Virtual Humans and Oral Storytelling

The storytelling animal…

We are what writers Gottschall and Harari refer to as the Storytelling Animal. We construct meaning about ourselves and others through the stories that we tell. Stories have been with us since the dawn of human history, sometimes even attributed to our survival and success as a species.

In our own African cultures, stories have been passed down for generations by word of mouth. These are shared experiences peppered with distinctive features of African orature. These features of orature include performative and participatory devices such as song, chant, banter, mimicry, or call and response… “Hadithi, hadithi?” These devices enable the co-creation of a story and form a bond between the storyteller and their audience. Bringing to life this culturally significant experience. When such experiences are recorded via legacy media such as books or videos, the immersion and depth of being in a live storytelling session is lost. We become merely passive observers of an otherwise interactive and rich experience.

Works of African orature, owing to their innately participatory nature, cannot be properly documented via linear films or books. A limitation long observed:

“One listens to a clever storyteller… Here was no lip mumbling, but every face and body spoke, a swift gesture often supplying the place of a whole sentence… The animals spoke each in its own tone: the deep rumbling voice of Momba, the ground hornbill for example, contrasting vividly with the piping accents of Sulwe, the hare. It was all good to listen to – impossible to put on paper.

Smith and Dale (1919) | The Ila-speaking People of Northern Rhodesia

Sigana: Tales of Lawino , stems from a doctoral research conducted by one of our team members, on storytelling using new and emerging technologies. This study, supported by a research grant received from the Mawazo Institute, investigated how such technologies can be used to record and share works of African orature; especially in the field of digitizing intangible cultural heritage. Jewelry or a weapon can be physically preserved, 3D scanned, even reproduced if desired. But can you put a memory into a glass case at a museum or art gallery? Intangible culture is those elements of a peoples or place which can never be truly understood unless experienced.

In a rapidly changing world, emerging technologies can help us preserve the traditions of oral storytelling in Africa, as well as the timeless tales told across many different communities. These new methods of retelling old tales provide us an opportunity to share, celebrate, and experience this intimate relationship between a storyteller and their audience.

virtual humans

Virtual Humans (or Embodied Conversational Agents) are of growing interest in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). They are used to further the application of the human-human interaction metaphor by endowing virtual actors with human-like social behaviors. These virtual agents are capable of interacting with a human user to enhance immersion and engagement in a virtually constructed environment. When imbued with narrative intelligence, Virtual Humans can function as storytellers and typically perform one of three functions: as a companion, guide/instructor or intelligent conversational partner.

We believe that traditional African storytelling CAN be experienced in such a way, using such ECA systems. These are virtual storytellers, given presence through a digital avatar and life through AI enabled interactive storytelling systems. They combine a range of technologies that enable their verbal and non-verbal behaviour. By imbuing them with an appearance and voice identifiable as African, they can gain a sense of authenticity and authority, allowing them to realistically represent a flesh and blood oral storyteller.

Why does this matter? In-line with the framework prescribed by the research that informs this project, we seek to make a technical contribution to the use of emerging technologies in recreating traditional forms of storytelling in Africa. Digitization of cultural heritage is already a mainstream practice for preserving tangible culture such as historic sites and archaeological findings. Sigana : Tales of Lawino, is thus premised on preserving intangible culture using new technologies such as Virtual Reality and Virtual humans. This is an often-overlooked aspect of cultural heritage preservation.

living history

Such virtual humans have many potential uses. Our museums and archives boast a huge collection of physical artifacts and archival media, preserving both fragile material history and easily lost intangible culture. That said, while displays of shared community or tradition and art for the sake of beauty are typically appreciated, the lack of context and personal engagement hinders both the enjoyment and value of such efforts. The absence of stories involving the content of these collections leave them as lifeless physical objects, abandoned to their archival tombs.

New technologies offer an opportunity to share and celebrate intangible culture by allowing it to be brought to life and experienced in a directly interactive and immersive manner.