People, Presence, and Perspective: A Place-Based Approach to Digital Storytelling

By Special Contributor posted 02-20-2023 06:00


By Elizabeth Lee

A place is more than just a spot on a map, it is composed of both natural and human characteristics: the landscape, climate, built environment, and culture. Places inform identity and can serve as a touchstone for connecting people, stories, and events of the past and today. Digital storytelling offers possibilities to deepen connections with a place and its history, highlighting underrepresented voices, and reaching new audiences who might not be able to connect with the place otherwise.

But what does it mean to construct a sense of place in the virtual that evokes reality, while offering new opportunities not possible in person? What elements do we need to capture and replicate? How do we tell a story about a place that engages and informs the virtual visitor?

Two people standing with a camera device on a tripod next to a river.

CyArk's Avidan Fernandez works with Odutola Amans, a Nigerian heritage officer, to scan the Busanyin Shrine near the Osun River. | Credit: CyArk 

3D Documentation and Place

CyArk was an early pioneer in the application of 3D documentation technologies for cultural heritage preservation and interpretation. We create highly accurate 3D models of sites by combining 3D laser scanning and photogrammetry. As the underlying technology has matured, our mission has evolved to connect new audiences to cultural heritage through the creation of place-based web, mobile and immersive experiences. As a nonprofit organization, we utilize 3D documentation and digital storytelling to create more equitable and respectful access to places, lift up new voices, and increase understanding of the past and our shared human experience. 

When creating digital place-based experiences, we have found it helpful to consider a People, Presence, and Perspective approach. 

People-centric narratives foster a greater connection to a place. By placing people, both past and present, at the forefront of the story we hope to enable greater understanding of a place. 

Presence encourages us to think about the experiential elements contributing towards constructing a sense of place.  What does it feel like to be there? What sights and sounds contribute to making this place unique? 

Perspective promotes a multi-vocal presentation of a place. Multiple perspectives of a place not only bring spaces to life, but also produce a richer experience with more opportunities for people to connect with the voices in the experience. This also provides an opportunity to address histories of power imbalances by highlighting previously underrepresented narratives.

CyArk interviewing priestess at Busanyin shrine.

CyArk's Kacey Hadick and Dr. Ijeoma Onyejekwe from the National Commission of Museums and Monuments interview Osunyemi Efunsola, priestess at the Busanyin shrine. | Credit: CyArk


In recent years, we have collaborated with a number of local communities and partners that highlight the power of place-based digital experiences. Beginning in 2019, CyArk worked with site stakeholders and descendant communities to develop Resonant, a prototype VR game for connecting people to cultural heritage. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we were able to combine 3D data, lighting effects and audio cues with actual voices from descendant communities to convey a powerful sense of place at Balcony House within Mesa Verde National Park. Players are transported to the cliff dwelling site of Balcony House, where they can activate a series of resonants, extensions of the player’s imagination built upon their research, which come to life around them in the scene.

To achieve this, CyArk worked closely with site stakeholders throughout the project, beginning with outreach to all 26 communities with affiliations to the site.  CyArk engaged with Tewa speakers and members of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office to craft the game design, interpretive framework, and script and ultimately produce the majority of the audio within the experience.

This collaboration with members of the descendant communities throughout the project provided a richer understanding of the layered history of the site and its connections for communities today. It also provided an opportunity to elevate indigenous voices and ways of knowing. Indigenous voices are incorporated into the experience alongside journal writings from the early archaeologists working at the site. 

Glowing footsteps along the 3D scan of  Balcony House within Mesa Verde National Park.

Illuminated footsteps guide the visitor into Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park in the Resonant VR experience. | Credit: CyArk

While CyArk’s 3D models serve as a foundational point in time record for exploring heritage sites, they are merely the base layer. Resonant demonstrates the importance of lighting, sound, and authentic voices in creating a presence within the experience. The time of day and weather shift when the resonants are activated, creating a dynamic environment and allowing the player to experience the place in ways not typically possible during a single visit.  


In 2022 CyArk launched Tapestry, a platform for building and telling place-based stories on the web and mobile devices. Tapestry leverages our expertise in 3D documentation as an immersive canvas connecting with the stories of people and places around the world. With this tool we hope to explore new opportunities for creating a virtual sense of place providing access for people to engage with new voices and perspectives.

Through video, audio, and images, people guide the virtual visitor through the site, bringing places to life and shedding light on their significance in the past and today. Many of the experiences published through Tapestry are guided by more than one person and incorporate multiple voices and perspectives on a place through expert interviews, community narratives, oral histories, and music. 

Images of three individuals interviewed for a Tapestry project.
Glenda Philips-Hickman, Reverend Terrance A. King and Angelo Hickman are three of the people that share stories within the St. James AME Zion Church Tapestry tour. | Credit: CyArk 

CyArk worked closely with historians and archaeologists at Cornell University as well as the pastor of the church to develop the Tapestry tour for St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca, New York. The tour is a unique opportunity to experience the history of a place that continues a legacy of African American celebration, resistance, and resilience. The church was part of the Underground Railroad and remains an active space of worship and an important part of the local community today. CyArk worked with the congregation as part of the storytelling process to share their perspectives and cement the connections between the storied past of the church and the living heritage today. 

The resulting Tapestry tour features voices of eight different individuals and also incorporates audio of a traditional hymn, a worship service, and the ringing of church bells. The Tapestry tour allows virtual visitors to engage with the church, its history, and the local community via different points of interest anchored in the 3D model. The church congregation and wider Ithaca community came together to launch the virtual tour with an in-person event to celebrate the project.

Each place has a multitude of stories that shed light on the human experience and our relationship with the world around us. Ongoing dialog with site stakeholders and community members continues to enrich our exploration of place. We look forward to working with local partners and communities to create new place-based experiences that help us better understand our world and one another. 

Elizabeth Lee is the vice president of program and development at CyArk.