Widgets Magazine

Brown Institute awards media innovation grants

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation recently awarded seed funding to eight teams from Stanford and Columbia that aim to utilize technology to transform the production and use of media content, in the program’s second class of “Magic Grants.”

Established in January 2012 after a $30 million gift from former Cosmopolitan editor in chief Helen Gurley Brown, the Brown Institute is a collaboration between the School of Engineering and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism that aims to “sponsor thinking, building and speculating on how stories are discovered and told in a networked, digitized world.”

The grants, which will support projects ranging from detecting media bias to storytelling through augmented reality, will provide three Stanford teams with up to $100,000 in funding and a fourth group with partial funding.

“This year, we gave special priority to projects that led with a story,” said Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute at Columbia.

Stanford graduate students Justin Cheng and Joy Kim received one such grant for their project, a Web platform called “Ensemble” that supports collaborative storytelling by large numbers of contributors.

“The idea behind Ensemble is to get people working together to write a story in a way that doesn’t result in chaos,” Kim said. “There is a lead author who starts a story, who acts as the creative director. That person fills out an outline [of the story] and provides prompts to lead other people to contribute.”

Cheng and Kim, who have worked on Ensemble since the beginning of last year, said that they plan to use the grant to develop connections and create a more robust system architecture.

“Our vision is to see hundreds or thousands of people working on a story to create something amazing,” Kim said. “We are aiming to get well-established authors writing for their fans, for example.”

Widescope, another Stanford-born grant recipient, shares the aim of enabling broader participation in a collaborative process. Created by graduate students David Lee M.S. ’13 Ph.D. ’17 and Pranav Dandekar, the social media platform crowd-sources input and solutions for contentious issues such as – in the project’s first trial – balancing federal and state budgets.

“The problem of the deficit is a serious problem that affects everyone,” Dandekar said. “Everyone has an opinion and yet there is no way for people to voice their opinions [in a way that] creates a solution. The best thing we have on the web is discussion forums.”

“You can look at different resources about the federal budget and make your own budget for tackling the federal deficit in a small group, and then collaborate with other small groups,” Lee added.

Lee emphasized the broader potential of bringing together large groups to address serious issues.

“We are focusing on the budget problem, but you can imagine consensus platforms for any time of issues that people want to discuss,” Lee said.

Storytelling with Augmented Reality (STAR) – a project proposed by graduate students Hao Su and Matt Yu and visiting professors Roland Angst and Peter Vajda – aims to bring digital storytelling to mobile devices, integrating cellphone cameras’ live feeds with other media content.

“We have a new platform to tell stories,” Angst said. “It’s not just about television, movies, or books. Now we can really use telephones that go outside and use the real world as a platform. This project is about combining storytelling with the latest technology.”