Heather Smith - Intersection of humanity & human emotion with technology
Heather Smith is the co-founder and CEO of StoryFile, a technology company which enables future generations to connect and interact with their loved ones through their story-telling app.
In this episode, she shares more about the mission and foundation of StoryFile. We discuss the biggest challenges and wins of the StoryFile journey, then talk more generally about the importance of genuine human connections and what role technology can play in facilitating them. This is something that's become all the more relevant during the crisis, as people have at the same time gotten used to relying on technology, while having a greater appreciation for genuine interactions.
Links & mentions:
“If you can talk to other people that have gone through even similar things or completely different experiences, you always learn something and that, whatever you learn, goes into making you who you are.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in. Our guest today is Heather Smith, co-founder and CEO of StoryFile, a storytelling app which enables future generations to connect and interact with their loved ones. In today's episode, she'll give us a behind the scenes look into StoryFile and its creation, and then we'll talk more generally about the connection between human emotion and technology and how this field will develop further in the future. Welcome, Heather. It's great having you on the show today. Thanks for being here.
Heather Smith: Thank you for having me.
Tim Butara: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about StoryFile and how you started it?
Heather Smith: StoryFile is a new technology that allows people to video record their stories, answering a lot of questions about their life, and then that in turn, allows future generations to have conversations with those individuals and really get to know them, get to know what they want to know at any given time, for example, ask questions over their lifetime even. Because as you progress as a person on this planet, we have questions for our past generations at different points in our lives based on what we go through. So that allows you to have these little conversations with individuals and loved ones and get to know them and learn from them. Learn about yourself, learn about your past and learn about who they were and what they did with their lives.
Tim Butara: That sounds really awesome. And it's really nice to have a way of-- because we often are faced or are met with situations where somebody is like, oh, if only you were able to experience how things were back then, then you would understand. But, well, now if I understand it correctly, StoryFile actually offers people this opportunity.
Heather Smith: Yes, the idea is that everyone on the planet will have a StoryFile of their own. And so 5, 10, 15, 25 years from now, everyone will be able to actually ask those questions and talk to those loved ones as if they were-- in a lifelike way and recall information such as, what did you do in this situation again? Or tell me about how you met dad? Or what was it like when you were growing up in this country, wherever you live?
Choices that they've made through their life, like what led you to become X? Or what was that like, that struggle? How did you navigate life in general? And all the different life cycle moments that we go through as human beings. And that all creates our own identities. All those stories from before, the main shift here is you're not having other generations tell your story.
You're telling your story in your own words, in your own voice, and it's never edited, that video is there forever, and you're able to pass that on to your future generations or anyone else. You could share it if you want with the world. Anyone else can find out anything about anyone at a given time as long as your StoryFile’s public. If it's private for your family, that's fine. But if you do make it public, for example, there are people that have lived over and just passed away in the last ten years that it would have been amazing for future generations to be able to talk to them.
And you don't know exactly what someone right now that's 20 years old is going to end up doing in the next 25 years. And whether or not future generations would want to talk to them about their journey. So that's what we're hoping that it does for humanity. It gives them a better glimpse and a more authentic sight into their past and experience and experience into their past.
Tim Butara: It's almost like a passive time machine, right?
Heather Smith: Yes, it is. We didn't call it that, but a lot of people say, oh, you're making me immortal. It's kind of true. You're able to connect with people in the future that you will have never met.
Tim Butara: And can I ask what led you to create StoryFile?
Heather Smith: So I was working in a Holocaust education field, and for a long time, we had been worried about what would happen to Holocaust education, especially with all the deniers and things like that. What would happen to Holocaust education once the survivors themselves had passed away. And we had autobiographies, we had movies. The USC Shoah Foundation has 55,000 narrative testimonies or audiovisual narrative testimonies from Holocaust survivors all over the world, 60 languages or 30 languages or something like that.
And it's good. It's great. It's a mass and body of work that you can get a tremendous amount of knowledge from, and it'll be a core for all time. However, there was one element missing. And that is the connection that you make with someone when you're able to ask your question and have a conversation or a Q&A with that individual creates a deeper connection with that individual.
And that was the one part that was missing that we saw generations for the last 50, 60 years experience when they were having this dialogue, when they would meet a Holocaust survivor, and when they were able to ask their own questions. We saw that deep bonding, deep connection that comes from that; it's personal. And so we didn't want to lose that. So we said, all right, what would it look like if we replicated that conversation?
And we started working on a project in 2010, and I partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation and USC Institute for Creative Technologies. We did a project that ultimately recorded quite a number of Holocaust survivors. And at the time, we didn't really know the full impact of whether or not it would actually work the way I had envisioned it when I was creating this. But then we saw that it did work.
And then I started getting questions around the world, when I was taking these people out. Can I do this with my grandparents? This is amazing. Can I do this with my parents? Can I do this for myself, for my children? Can we do this with the founder of our company? Can I use this to train my employees and pass on institutional memory and anything where there involves people asking questions, using their curiosity to get at information. Everybody just thought it was amazing and it would have great applications in the world.
And we knew that. I mean, I knew that as well. So the problem was that technology had to develop and get to a certain point if that was going to happen. So we decided to start StoryFile and look at how we could advance technology to make the entire process, the entire idea of doing this, automated to the point where every single person could do it on their own. And that was a big leap. That was a big leap.
Tim Butara: And can you tell us more about that? Can you tell us more about how you did that? I'm specifically interested in how StoryFile conversations manage to establish this authentic connection and relationship with listeners.
Heather Smith: Well, first of all, in order to have an authentic, realistic conversation with someone, we believe that you need to be talking to that individual. Not an avatar, not a digital recreation, and not only the audio as well. You need to see that individual. You need to see their body language. You need to see how they think about a response in order to get the full picture of who they were or are.
And in addition to that, it allows you to show videos, show other visual content as well, and have that individual describe that and tell you what's happening with that other multimedia. So the video infrastructure for uploading and downloading, and 5G's helped tremendously with this, had to come a long way. So it's now at a point where some of that can happen in actual real time, depending on your WiFi, your internet, your home internet speeds, and it's still developing, it will only get better. That part of it.
Then we had to advance natural language processing to the point where you could have a more natural conversation. It's very different than it-- so a chatbot answers your question based on what it thinks someone would say. In our case, since we are basing this on authentic individuals and real people, and based on what they've said already, we don't alter anything that you've said. And we think that's very important because we want your story to be in your words, in your voice for all time, and have someone say, yes, this is my thought. This is how I look at something. This is my philosophy on life, and not have that-- when you were a kid, did you ever play telephone like the game of telephone?
Invariably you get to the end and you're like, what? There weren’t even the names involved. So it's all in an effort to capture that authentic story and have the person that actually lived it be the one to tell it. And you had to make natural language processing evaluate a given data set and not have a wide berth of what the data could actually examine because it had a definitive it has a definitive data set, right?
So that definitive data set had to be the basis for this natural language processing, and then you had to, on top of that, make it as natural-seeming as possible, based on your conversation and based on words that we would actually use in conversation and not be too formal in a way.
And it's also verbal. We're not typing in something; you can type it in. You can type your question in if you're somewhere that you don't want to talk, speak it in. But it's supposed to, meant to be designed to be a verbal conversation back and forth. So that technology. It took a while to develop, and we're constantly working on it. There are things that we still want to advance in natural language processing, but it's constantly evolving.
Tim Butara: And what were some of your other main challenges of founding and growing StoryFile?
Heather Smith: It's challenging, first of all, doing something that’s never been done before. Introducing a whole medium to the world, conversational video, which is what we do, and all the applications. I think the biggest challenge has been focusing on what we wanted to attack, what we wanted to do with the technology first and what we wanted to put out there in the world first. We decided that we wanted to put out there in the world the ability for everyone in families to record their own family members and leave this as a legacy. Leave this conversational video interview as a legacy for future generations.
We decided to attack that somewhat first. We also specialize in filming historical figures for museums and historical figures in general, for anyone that wants to preserve those stories, like, for example, the civil rights, Native American stories in our country have not really been told and not, certainly not shared with the world by the people who lived it. There are a lot of people over this past century that have lived through what I think are tremendous challenges that possibly my generation or subsequent generations to mine haven't gone through.
So there's a tremendous amount of knowledge from them that we, as a company, wanted to share for the world, to have this type of interaction forever with these individuals and learn about their struggles and their journey because it all adds to our own sense of identity and our own journey. If you can talk to other people that have gone through even similar things or completely different experiences, you always learn something and that, whatever you learn, goes into making you who you are.
So that's what we wanted to enable people to do anytime, anywhere they wanted to, privately, if they wanted to, collectively in museums around the world. There’ll be a point where podcasts will actually be probably interviewing StoryFiles of individuals if they wanted to. It's a shift, and it's going to be a shift in our world to be able to talk to video and have these conversations. People do need to take the time to do it. But the time that you're taking to do it is nothing like the time that you take to do it over and over and over and over again throughout your lifetime. So we're just encouraging everyone to just invest a little bit of time. Do it, have it. You can add to it if you wanted to. So your StoryFile could keep evolving over time, which will be nice.
Tim Butara: Maybe in a similar line or looking at it from the other end of the spectrum. So we talked about the main challenges now, what about the biggest success of StoryFile? To you, what has been the biggest success or the element that you're most proud of or most excited about?
Heather Smith: One of the biggest challenges was getting it all to happen in real time. We didn't want people and not only that, but getting it to happen in a way that it wouldn't-- everybody had to be able to use the devices, the camera devices that they had on hand, which would be a smartphone or laptop computer, et cetera, tablet, things like that. And those devices have a limited amount of storage data. And obviously, depending on you, you might have less. You might have more. So none of the data could live on that actual device, it had to-- because, God forbid, you reached your maximum during the middle of the interview. So getting it all to happen in real time, that was really challenging.
Tim Butara: And so I'm guessing you were very successful in that?
Heather Smith: Yes, that was the biggest success. When we had cracked how to record someone answering questions, how to allow them to record themselves on their own, and then have that all happen, all the steps that need to happen in order to create that StoryFile, have that all happen in real time. That was a huge shift in whether or not we would be successful or not.
Then it's actually releasing the product that, the consumer product that we've worked on for the past three years, releasing that to the public now. We released it only a couple of weeks ago, beginning of October. So it's out there in the world now, and people are having really great experiences with it. And we're just getting people used to the whole thing about, wow, you could do this. This is amazing. So we'll see. I think it's going to be an amazing gift for Christmas this year, considering everything that we've been through over the past 18 months or two years.
People haven't been able to have these conversations in person for a long time, either, and they've lost loved ones. And you're thinking about-- everybody has been thinking about their own mortality. So we think that this would be not only a great gift for Christmas, but a truly, truly valuable, essential gift for everyone to have at this point in time in their lives to capture themselves. Do a StoryFile. Just so that you have it for future generations.
Tim Butara: I agree. It's going to make for an excellent gift. And I think that we're definitely filming this episode at the perfect timing.
Heather Smith: Yes, we are.
Tim Butara: So maybe if we open up discussion a little bit, do you maybe know of or use any other technologies that have a similar mission or vision to StoryFile? And if so, how do they compare to StoryFile?
Heather Smith: I think that there are a few different technologies or companies out there. They all either work with audio only and not video, or they do a digital recreation of yourself, of the person. And it may work for some people. My vision was for you to see the authentic individual, though, and I'll tell you why that's important. It's important because of body language.
Body language is a huge part of communication. So unless I see you answering those questions, I hear you, I look into your eyes. That's probably over half, actually, of communication. Human beings have an amazing capacity to, for example, look into someone's eyes and tell if they're lying or if they're embellishing or if they're shy and get to know your real character behind you as you're answering these questions. And that's what we wanted people to feel. We wanted them to feel that connection personally, we wanted them to feel as if they actually got to know these individuals.
Will it replace an actual physical, like, in person conversation? No. But it's inherently the best you can get because it is based on the real person. And it is that real person that answers to their questions in their own voice, and you see them. For example, when you don't say something, when there's a pause that tells you almost as much as when you're actually saying a word.
Now for the people that do digital recreations or avatars of individuals, the difficult part is they will never be able to capture that body language 100% because you cannot predict. For example, I'm talking right now. Your audience can't see me, but I'm using my hands, correct. So if I was doing an avatar, they wouldn't know how to do those hands or whether or not I did those hand gestures. You do need the video. In our minds it's essential to being authentic and capturing that real person.
So there may be cases for it, but that's where we differ dramatically in that we're not making up an individual. We're not making you look a certain way. We're not changing what you're saying. We're not feeding people words that they think that you might have said in response to a question. It's your actual question. And if you don't have an answer, you just tell them, I don't have an answer for that. Would you like to ask me something else, or try asking me about X, Y or Z, or that's a great question. Unfortunately, I didn't record that answer. You can be blunt about it. So we're all about creating those authentic experiences as best as we can.
Tim Butara: Yeah. As you said, it's basically as close to being an in person, face-to-face conversation without actually being an in person, face-to-face conversation. Essentially.
Heather Smith: Right. So we've been told by people that do it.
Tim Butara: Well, but yeah, that's the most honest feedback, right. Because there's always this divide between people developing some products and people actually using the product. And it often happens that the people developing the product are so familiar with it that they forget about something super essential, like, I don't know, a search option for products or something like that.
Heather Smith: Exactly. I'm sure that we'll find a lot of those and those iterations in the coming months. But we also do have quite a lot of things that we want to develop, continue to develop that still need a lot of R&D behind it. And moving natural language processing. Most people call it AI, but moving that in the direction that we particularly in particular, needed to move for our purposes and our vision. It's a slow process, and it's a very complex... you're dealing with a lot of I mean, human beings are very complex. Our language, our communication and our ability to communicate with each other is extremely complex. So in order to get that to replicate something like that, we've pushed it a lot up until now, and we still have things that we would want to go further with.
Tim Butara: Well, actually, since we started talking about this, do you maybe have any predictions for what future developments will look like in this field? Or if you have any concrete info about upcoming StoryFile developments, can you maybe share that with us?
Heather Smith: Yeah. One thing that we're looking forward to doing is adding audio descriptions to actual, for example, photos, for example, creating what we're calling living albums. And that metadata, we want to be able to follow that picture, and we'll develop timelines, and you can connect with individuals from different databases and find out... Let's say you find out you have a relative. You did your DNA, you find out you have a relative in X country, and so you go on, you find their StoryFile and you talk to them. But they have photos that you've never seen, and they can describe who's in those photos. What was happening at the time. Tell the story behind the photo. Even objects have stories.
So many people, unfortunately, when their loved ones pass away, they get rid of almost everything or they look at things and they look at it. And I don't know. This doesn't have meaning to me. I don't know why my loved one kept this, or I don't even know who these people are. Where did this come from? If you truly value something for a specific reason, why not tell the story behind that object or that photo and what it meant to you?
And that also, in turn, the next generation doesn't have to keep it necessarily. But at least you have it there. It's preserved. You can see the video, you can see the photo, you can see the object. You no longer have to physically keep it unless you want to. But you know the story behind it. And you know what that meant to that individual. And that sometimes can tell us so much about who we are and what we value in life. Often those stories are gone with them.
Tim Butara: It's really great that you're now enabling people to not lose these stories and to maintain these connections. And it's really awesome, right. Obviously, we already talked about how the past 18 months have kind of highlighted even more the importance of having these authentic relationships and keeping them and maintaining them and valuing each and every in-person interaction we can have with our loved ones. So how would you say that all of this plays into it? Obviously, we covered it a little bit already, but can we talk more about this and maybe how advancements in technology are impacting this?
Heather Smith: Well, I think that, for example, most of us, most of the planet, the human beings, didn't really interact with Zoom or video conferencing as much as we have. I think people are a lot more used to using their cameras and using, for example, even FaceTime before the pandemic started. I think it's gotten a lot more-- people understand videoing themselves a lot more than they had in the past.
So it's easier for people to do this now. Technology wise, a lot of advancements, infrastructure has advanced, making things faster, easily available - bandwidth, for example, has been huge. Advancements in and that in turn, allows you to have advancements in almost every other aspect of AI and natural language processing, because it depends on that bandwidth. It depends on those databases. It depends on that thinking that they're able to do in a split of a second.
So, yeah. It's been a very interesting ride trying to build this over the past three years and seeing the efficiencies that have just even happened in the last year with it have been tremendous. And I also think that people, because of what we've all been through, have gotten to another kind of normalcy with technology. If that makes sense, you've gotten somewhat normal with it. So that will help people be familiar with how to do a StoryFile, for example.
Tim Butara: Yeah, I definitely agree. And thanks so much, Heather, for joining us today and especially for sharing your story with us.
Heather Smith: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Go and do your StoryFile. Help, find a loved one and help them do it. What's fun about it is, if you're helping a loved one do this, you take the time and you schedule it. You arrange it, you work on it, you work on the script together, the questions that you're going to ask this individual, et cetera, and you end up learning so much about them.
Because most people, we don't take the time to actually ask a lot of these questions. You don't even think about them sometimes. And the individual, the person you're interviewing hasn't thought about those things in a long time. So it's a really interesting, it's a gift. It really, truly, truly is a gift, especially to the individual that's interviewing and helping their parent or grandparent or loved one, their aunt, their uncles, their mentors, teachers, anyone do a StoryFile. It's a gift for the person that is doing it and helping them. And it's a gift for the individual that does it.
Tim Butara: Yeah, it's definitely a gift for both. Awesome. Just before we wrap up the episode, Heather, if our listeners wanted to reach out or to learn more about StoryFile, where would you find them?
Heather Smith: Storyfile.com/life is the StoryFile Life website, or you can find it through storyfile.com as well. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org. My email is email@example.com and so there you have it, Instagram, everything all the usual places.
Tim Butara: Okay. Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Heather, for joining us. And good luck with the StoryFile journey going forward.
Heather Smith: Thank you so much. Be well.
Tim Butara: And to our listeners, that's all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
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