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The PolyXpress Mobile Ethnographic Storytelling System

Dr. Michael Haungs, Dr. Grace Yeh, and Dr. David Gillette


To study the connection between place, story, and narrative mobility, an interdisciplinary team of humanities and engineering researchers at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) have created the PolyXpress system—a mobile, platform-agnostic geolocational storytelling application that storytellers with basic web browsing skills can easily use to create and distribute stories. First developed as a ghost story-telling game, and then converted into an open-source, free-to-share system, PolyXpress is now being tested in an ethnic studies memory project about settler and native communities along the California Central Coast, and in a storytelling project in Brisbane, Australia in collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The PolyXpress project has three goals:

  • Discover an effective method for capturing, and presenting, location-based stories for internal and public use by underrepresented communities.

  • Create a free-to-share, public software system for storytellers that requires only basic web browsing skills to use. 

  • Build an international, academic and community-focused network of development partners to collaboratively expand, refine, and strengthen the PolyXpress system.

Project Foundation 

The uncelebrated and casual stories of marginalized communities all around us often remain hidden from public view due to a lack of resources and access to easy-to-use technology to capture and present these stories. The time, money, and effort required for the creation of a location-based storytelling system for a museum or large public venue limit which stories are captured, built, and presented (Hansen 2012) . Innovative story design, creative play, continual revision and the iterative adaptation of story to environment and user are rarely supported; as a result well-trodden, simplistic "official" public narratives are privileged.

By making PolyXpress free and simple to use for academics, students, and community storytellers, we hope to provide under-represented communities with an effective, adaptive technology to tell their histories. 

In the process, we also hope to deepen the understanding of local histories, and discover new forms of effective place-based narrative (Tebeau 2013). In tying digital storytelling to geography, PolyXpress provides an opportunity to study how geolocational technology can augment and thereby influence a community’s knowledge of place (Valk 2013) .

Iteration #1: PolyGhost & Frank Aston Archival Display: January-April, 2012

The PolyXpress development process began with an art and history archival show at Cal Poly’s Robert E. Kennedy Library presenting the work of Frank Aston, an early 1900s California photographer. The LAES program created location-centered ghost stories (scattered around campus) based on the archive photos, supplemented by voice recordings, soundscapes, fabricated newspaper stories, and journal entries. The stories were presented through a LAES-purpose-built, geolocational iPhone story application called PolyGhost.

Iteration #2: PolyXpress & California Middle School Walkthrough: October, 2013

To provide for wider system access, the PolyGhost iPhone application was rewritten as an HTML5 web application, renamed PolyXpress, then used for a walkthrough, interactive story experience for a California middle school. This system iteration placed participants in the role of concerned citizens using scientific methods to determine if space aliens were behind a series of mysterious incidents on school grounds. 

Iteration #3: PolyXpress & Brisbane, Australia Walkthrough: April-May, 2014

An Australian development team (led by Dr. David Gillette) composed of undergraduate students and QUT design faculty ran the first field tests of PolyXpress in a large urban environment. The team collaborated with the director of a local aboriginal arts festival to knit together stories about the land under the current urban infrastructure of Brisbane. The goal of these stories was to help users see and hear (through different media) how the area may have appeared to the original aboriginal inhabitants, and to reveal other changes to the landscape over time. Comments from the Australian PolyXpress site testers, plus technical usability reports from the QUT student development teams were complied into recommendations that guided the next field tests run in California weeks later.

Iteration #4: PolyXpress & Pismo Beach, California Walkthrough: May-June, 2014

PolyXpress was used to curate stories and digital assets made available through the Re/Collecting Project at Cal Poly (Re/Co), a digital-only memory project of under-documented communities of California’s Central Coast. Re/Co makes its archive available through Omeka, an open-source web-publishing platform for collections based research developed by Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Cal Poly faculty, staff, and students worked with local community members to record and digitize their stories and story materials, assets that often cannot be found in any institutional repository. With collected research materials, the PolyXpress team studied Pismo Beach, California as a palimpsest: a narrative surface and a geographical structure that hints at nearly erased layers of community and place-based histories (Dourish 2007). As a part of Re/Co, ethnic studies students went into the field to research, digitize, and record stories and story materials from the local community. LAES students adapted the stories from this Pismo Beach project to be presented through the PolyXpress system. Since many of the stories in Re/Co intimately tied to place and because its archive is already online, Re/Co assets, and Omeka assets generally, have proven to be a good fit for PolyXpress. The current questions the PolyXpress project explores are: 

  • How do natural and built geographies shape the migration, settlement, and uprooting of the diverse communities that move across them? 

  • What physical reminders hint at past stories and how can technology augment how we bear witness to those pasts? 

  • How can multi-vocal narratives of a place inform and possibly transform its future? 

  • How can PolyXpress better serve as an open-source, collaborative platform for widespread, community-driven ethnographic research?

As the main service-learning component for project-based hybrid arts and engineering courses at Cal Poly, the PolyXpress teams have focused on rapidly cycling through design and testing iterations to build toward a stable beta stage that will support future widespread testing and use. The research questions for the project are equally evolving and refining their focus, and the team continues to expand with the addition of new research and development partners. To see the PolyXpress system, visit . To learn about the Re/Co project, see: To learn about the LAES Program, see:


Dourish, Paul. 2007. "The Infrastructure of Experience and the Experience of Infrastructure: Meaning and Structure in Everyday Ecounters with Space." Environment & Planning B: Planning & Design 34 (3):414-430.

Hansen, Frank Allan. 2012. "Mobile Urban Drama: Interactive Storytelling in Real World Environments." New Review of Hypermedia & Multimedia 18 (1):63-89.

Tebeau, Mark. 2013. "Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era." Oral History Review Winter/Spring 40 (1):25-35.

Valk, Anne. 2013. "Bringing a Hidden Pond to Public Attention." Oral History Review Winter/Spring 40 (1):8-24.

Academic Support Organizations:

The Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies Program

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA. USA

The Center for Expressive Technologies

Cal Poly, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA. USA

The Interactive Visual Design & Urban Informatics Research Groups

The Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.

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