The Nth screen: technology that brings us together in the real world

As new technologies increasingly shrink the physical distances between us, allowing us to connect with anyone, anywhere. Is there a gap in the market for technology that brings us together in the real world?

Developed by Tim Kindberg and Charlotte Crofts, with ‘pump priming’ funding from REACT, the Nth screen works by turning a group of phones and tablets into a coordinated set of screens displaying multi-segmented films. These films only work together as a set when the screens are physically close to each other, pushing a social aspect that goes beyond sharing on Facebook and Twitter.


The app being demonstrated by Tim Kindberg, Charlotte Crofts and Hazel Grian

The workshop I attended set out to explore this further and also to look at what a group of filmmakers would produce with this technology. Interestingly, the experimental, collaborative and playful nature of the tech came out first. Rather than rushing to produce a lone film, we worked as a group recreating lo-fi, paper games such as consequences and testing out how movement could work across the screens. Although the filming was a part of it, we spent equally, if not more time playing around with the construction of the screens to create different outputs.


Playing consequences with the Nth screen

It was these outputs that really started to interest me as this was essentially the user experience. So when prompted to create something to test the software with, it was this aspect I wanted to focus on; thinking about how a user can interpret and ultimately change your work. Filming a simple scene at the harbour in Bristol, I wanted to create a Hockney-esque scene where your attention was drawn into different areas through close-ups on particular screens.

My intended project, mocked up using Photoshop

My intended project, mocked up using Photoshop

At this point you can begin to see the potential for interactive documentary. However instead of the interactivity being confined to one screen, it was across many and ready to be altered. Much like many interactive documentaries, the content is already there, but it can be consumed in a variety of ways depending on the user interaction. The obvious interpretation is visually; as a user you can construct the screens differently which may alter the narrative, change the meaning or disrupt the overall image. However as well as this, the Nth screen also offers a change in content when more screens are added. For example, connecting with three screens plays out a particular narrative, but connect another screen and a completely different narrative can play out and so on. These additional narratives rely on a physical connection with another phone, bringing forth the social aspect of the tech again.

My nth screen project working over five phones

My nth screen project working over five phones

Working on a platform like this sets your mind on fire with the possibilities, but also drills in a realisation of how ingrained our workings of film production are. Instead of storyboarding in a conventional manner, you must consider what is happening on every screen included at any particular point and also how they work together. This already happens to an extent within interactive documentary. However you are often not forced to consider multiple screens in this way as the simultaneous content is working behind the scenes, hidden by code and away from the users eye. But the Nth screen puts everything out on the table (literally) and encourages a whole new way of production.

"Storyboarding" for the nth screen

“Storyboarding” for the nth screen

A number of outcomes could happen with Nth screen, the commercial potential is there, as is the artistic. Tim has already worked with Fevered Sleep producing a 6 minute artistic installation about climate change called ‘It’s the Skin You’re Living In’. As well as this, Tim and Charlotte are currently working with Hazel Grian as a director shooting an Nth screen feature. It will be interesting to see how this project progresses and I would love to see how an interactive documentary would work on the platform. But ultimately for anything to work, it must answer the question: what fuels our desire to be together? 

You can find out more about the Nth screen and other projects funded by the REACT pump priming fund here.