Summary:

The best way to explain fracking is to let people do it, believes former LA Times reporter David Sarno, which is why he started to build interactive storytelling experiences based on game design tools.

david sarno lighthaus

It seems like a simple enough concept: We experience storytelling through our senses. So the more senses you add to an experience, the more immersive it can be — a concept that’s the root of Lighthaus, a new start-up founded by former journalist David Sarno.

Sarno spent eight years reporting on technology for the Los Angeles Times, but thanks to a Stanford Knight fellowship, is now focusing on a new venture that applies game design principles to create touchable interactive graphics — graphics which can help bring important stories to life.

As demoed above, Sarno and a team of artists and designers have built an interactive experience illustrating the realities of fracking — a “touchable story” created, Sarno says, “in less than a month for a few thousand dollars.” The goal, Sarno told me in a Skype interview, is to get faster and cheaper.

While relatively new, Lighthaus already has a few clients: One is the Stanford Medicine magazine — Sarno is designing a guide to the condition placenta accreta as part of an issue focusing on childbirth.

In addition, Sarno is working on a modified version of his fracking experience for the Dallas Morning News. “There’s a lot of fracking in Texas, and they’re interested in representing the process in a new way,” he said. “I’ve found, in showing the graphic, that a lot of people say ‘I didn’t understand how fracking worked until now.’ It’s a pretty technical process, but they’re learning about it by doing it.”

And the applications for what Sarno is developing extend beyond journalism — according to him, these interactive experiences could help explain complicated medical issues to patients, or illustrate concepts in digital textbooks.

While Sarno makes reference to incorporating game design concepts into these graphics, that doesn’t mean he’s trying to replicate the gaming experience. “How do you gamify the news? I like to believe that what I’m doing is not an answer to that question. When I think gamification I think earning badges, scoring points, trying to get to the next level. But I’m using video game design tools to create experiences,” he said.

Of all the senses, why emphasize touch? “It activates a large part of your brain that we’ve never used to tell people’s stories,” Sarno said. “It has the power to engage peoples’ minds and attention that other media have not been able to do until now.”

Despite no longer being a reporter, Sarno doesn’t feel like he’s left the profession. “I want to bring a journalistc approach to some of these other fields, where it’s important to accurately and informatively portray these subjects,” he said. “I still think of myself as moving in the journalism world, and I hope that continues.”

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