Back in the 1940s, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made a simple animated film. Heider and Simmel used it in an experiment: They asked people to watch the film and describe what they saw happening.
Try it out yourself.
Here’s the Heider-Simmel film.
What Heider and Simmel discovered is that many people who watched this abstract film of simple shapes roaming around were quick to see a story unfold. In those simple shapes, viewers often saw characters with emotions, motivations, and purpose.
Our impulse to tell stories is one of the questions we’re investigating in our radio hour on story.
The film still makes people see stories
More recently, the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC showed the Heider-Simmel film to seven comedians and asked them to narrate the action. The result is worth watching.
Help a computer tell a story
Imposing a story on the Heider-Simmel film seems to come easy to humans. But try getting a computer to do it.
“The truth is, it’s super, super hard for computers,” Andrew Gordon, a computer scientist at USC, told us. (You can hear more from Gordon in our radio hour on story.)
Gordon wants to get computers to be able to tell stories like people do. And you can help! Gordon created an online game that allows you to animate your own Heider-Simmel-like movie, and to come up with narrations for other people’s Heider-Simmel movie creations. Gordon uses the data from these apps to refine his algorithms.