Creating a connected crime scene with Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things


SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE INTERNET OF THINGS is a lack-of-form object difficult to define. We can infer that it is a work of art, but it goes over our heads, because it doesn’t correspond with the idea of a short story, a 2.0 website, a film, or an interactive experience. It is publicized as the WORLD LARGEST CONNECTED CRIME SCENE and perhaps we should leave it at that and not mess about with reductionist definitions or questions like Where the f*ck is the film here?

The proposal of the project is quite simple: GROUPS OF 5 TO 8 PEOPLE MUST SOLVE A CRIME SCENE WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ UNIVERSE. They don’t know that there’s neither a previous story, nor a univocal solution. They have to put the clues together; and when doing so, they are creating their own Sherlock Holmes tale. The game has the following steps:

  • A voice from a phone entrusts the task to the participants.
  • Each group places a body in a crime scene.
  • They question the corpse. The dead bodies’ answers are unconditioned and spontaneous due to the fact that there’s no previous story.
  • Each group takes objects from Conan Doyle’s novels (shoes, dolls, dog leases, bells…) and leaves them next to the bodies.
  • The groups change places and go to a different crime scene. They add descriptors to the objects that convey information (For instance, this shoe size does not match the victim´s).
  • They return to the corpse they originally placed, phone Scotland Yard, and solve the crime using the clues they have.
  • Finally, the body reenacts the crime scene as the group is narrating it, and the reenactment is recorded.

A complete description of the last experience at Lincoln Center can be found in the creator, Lance Weiler’s, log: http://filmmakermagazine.com/95763-alchemyofthings/#.VgLtRWRViko.

Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things started a year ago as an ongoing prototype developed by the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab, a group of faculty and students directed by Weiler and Nick Fortugno. The result was shown at the 53rd edition of the New York Film Festival. That experience is the first of the beta tests (AKA crime scenes) that are going to be hosted by other film festivals around the world. That lends the impression that it is meant to resemble a filmic work.


Arguing that Sherlock Holmes and the… has filmic elements requires more support.  I saw it at the NYFF at a theater, sitting in the audience, facing a scene.

However, I could have disguised myself in the overcoat of Sherlock Holmes and become one of the characters of the story. Since Weiler and Fortugno allows as much collective responsibility as possible, audience members are storytellers or filmmakers, too.  As Weiler reminisces, throughout the process, ‘this analog prototype has shifted from us creating the crime scene, placing the objects/clues and letting participants “solve” what already existed, to a version where everything is instead crafted in the moment by the participants themselves.’

Weiler (filmmaker, executive producer and storyteller) and Fortugno (game developer) are absolutely aware not only of the loss of control in the creation process; but also of the fact that the collective authorship is the core of this experiment. This ‘shift in authorship’ is connected with Söke Dinka’s thought that the user of an interactive piece of art has changed his or her role to become an accomplice. As I am writing here about a crime scene, I find especially appealing Dinka’s sentence that the user “is always victim and perpetrator at the same time” (Dinka, 2002, 38).

Video that shows the collaborative process in one of the meetings

Margaret McVeigh explains digital storytelling as a mosaic where the fragments of potential narrative material constitute the DIGITAL NARRATIVE SYNTAGMA, and the author has to develop a META-NARRATIVE SEARCH ENGINE to sort out the pieces of the database narrative. We can perfectly apply her concepts to the analog/digital experience of Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things, the digital narrative syntagma being Sherlock Holmes’ universe, the bodies and the objects. The search engine that creates the story is the team work, the adding of descriptors and the technologies to read them.

In an interactive work, the search engine is the key element to constructing the narrative. In this case, it is a set of standards that Nick Fortugno and Lance Weiler call DESIGN PRINCIPALS. They enhance the collaboration of all the members of the group and help avoid situations where individual participation is diminished, such as voting or agreeing to follow another´s lead. Those principals are:

  • Granting agency: Nobody is excluded from the process of creating the story. Individual decisions impact the experience.
  • Trace: The game is full of opportunities for finding signs of personal contribution to the story. One could place a crucial object, add an important descriptor, or put the pieces together.
  • Social sharing: Unexpected collaboration between participants is encouraged.
  • Thematic frame: Sherlock Holmes’ universe. It could be London of the 1870s, Los Angeles of the 1920s, or any other framework created by the online participants.



According to Weiler, ‘with any new emergent form of storytelling comes the need for a grammar.’ That is the reason why he and Fortugno have been helped by new forms of technology that combines cell phone apps and social media. Their idea is to make technology available for everybody; therefore they have used cheap devices that work with beacons to locate objects or NFC to scan/read codes. As we can observe in the experience, using an inexpensive technology is works just as well as having cutting-edge Smart Storytelling Objects which can detect Wi-Fi, display text, record or play audio, etc.

Video that explains the use of NFC technology to create a magnifying glass

The authors of Sherlock Holmes and the… have turned every step of the project into a collaborative experience. Toward this end, they have utilized the tool Hackpad for sharing the instructions, allowing others to contribute. Conducttr is another online app that they have used to favor collaboration between local and remote participants.

Lance Weiler and Nick Fortugno have partially displaced the filmic element from their project; but they haven’t displaced what constitutes the essence of a movie: the human element. In the words of Weiler: ‘we’ve found that the more we place human experience in the core of the design, the more magical and meaningful the IoT [The Internet of Things] portion of the project becomes.’ Their work is a form of imaginary movie that can only be seen on the little cellphone screen, but too, it can be drawn on the huge canvas of people’s minds. Spanish filmmaker and art performer, Víctor Iriarte, explains it thusly: ‘Making movies without screens, without projections, live, talking to the audience and telling them movies.’

Anne Friedberg pointed out a gap between movies and their study in The End of Cinema: Multimedia and Technological Change. She wrote ‘the history of “film studies” in its own way parallels the history of film itself, with a lag of perhaps 40 years.’ Maybe in 40 years’ time we will see Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things among the most celebrated films of 2015. Wiler, Fortugno and all the participants are making a movie without a movie, opening the way for the future. Are we prepared for it?




DINKLA, Söke: ‘The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art’. In RIESER, Martin and ZAPP, Andrea (eds.): The New Screen Media/Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: British Film Institute 2002

FRIEDBERG, Anne: ‘The end of cinema: multimedia and technological change’. In GLENDHILL, Christine and WILLIAMS, Linda (eds.): Reinventing Film Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.

IRIARTE, Víctor: ‘Caja con cosas dentro presenta’. In FERNÁNDEZ, Vanesa and GABANTXO, Miren (eds.): Territorios y Fronteras. Experiencias documentales contemporáneas. Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco, 2011.

MCVEIGH, K. Margaret: Making the connection: Lev Manovich’s Texas and the challenges of interactive new media narrative.  Digital Creativity Journal. Vol. 22, issue 2. 22 Jul 2011.

WEILER, Lance: Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things: How to Join a Massive Storytelling Experiment. Indiwire. 14 Aug 2015.

WEILER, Lance: The Alchemy of Things. Filmmaker. 23 Sept 2015.