6 August 2021

Daniel Sytsma on the work behind our FastCo recognition: Volkswagen Road Tales

Daniel Sytsma

Daniel Sytsma is Chief Design Officer, Innovation and Global Design, Dentsu Creative & Global Chief Design Officer, Isobar. He is responsible for driving design excellence and creating game-changing work with the design communities in dentsu and was responsible for six-time Cannes Lion winning and D&AD Pencil winning ‘‘Snelweg Sprookjes’ (translated: Road Tales) for Volkswagen. 

Daniel’s work and approach was recently recognised by Fast Company, with Isobar being included within the publications 2021 best workplaces for Innovator's list.  


Tell us about your award-winning ‘SnelwegSprookjes’ (translated: Road Tales) work.

Road Tales is an app with location-based interactive audiobooks that transform ordinary road objects into magical characters of a story. It is free to download on iTunes and Android in the Dutch market and reached number one in the books category of the Apple app store within 24hours of launch.


How did the work come about?

The dentsuACHTUNG! team was briefed by Volkswagen to drive sympathy and preference among their most important target group: families. The insight was that children are increasingly looking to screens for entertainment in car journeys, so we set out to deliver a solution using audio-based entertainment. Bringing together multiple disciplines, theteam created a solution to encourage children to stay curious and look outside for inspiration.


What was surprising about the work?

This is not your typical AR work because there is no visual element to the experience, but it is adding context and location-based relevance to audio. Our goal was to create an experience for kids on the backseat that entertained them without looking at a screen. The app allows you to pick a story and hit the play button, from there on it's an audio-only experience to ensure a mixture of AR & screenless entertainment.


We worked in collaboration with some of the top children book writers, the combined team created a story for every road by writing dynamic story chapters that are triggered by objects along the journey. Each road is different, so as a result, every story is different. Each story follows a structure that many kids books use. We get introduced to a character that is looking for something or someone. The character goes on a journey and finds multiple things or other characters on it’s way. These experiences add up to the resolution of the quest. This structure is perfect for a location-based modular story.


What is innovative about this work?

‘Road Tales’ was developed for Dutch children between 4-11 years old and works across all mobile devices. It uses a custom developed story-engine that creates unique tales based on the location of the user. To ensure the stories to react to the environment, the team scanned all Dutch highways to identify objects like bridges, windmills, trees, petrol stations, and other main objects to transform them into story elements. The app uses geo-location the app to pinpoint where you are. We loaded in all the surveyed objects, so the app can identify these objects to build a tailor-made story for each user.


Did you encounter any big challenges? How were they overcome?


The big challenge we had was that we knew that the magic of the experience was most felt when the stories would react to very specific objects along the road like bridges, windmills and iconic buildings. Which is best achieved when you write a custom story for every part of the road. At the same time we wanted to deliver a scalable experience that works on every section of the highway, regardless when you drop in. The team wanted the app to work on every part of the Dutch highway system, totalling over 5000 Kilometres.


That’s why we created this story engine, an algorithm that creates stories that match your predicted route in real-time, using pre-written story modules that connect to objects along the road. To populate the story engine with locations of over 6000 objects, the team used open data sets, ran a Deepmind algorithm alongside Google's vision api and drove popular highways by car to manually check and add new location points using a custom-built data entry system. Figuring out this story engine and all its edge cases required an intense collaboration to the team of writers and the team of technologists.

How did the team culture help ensure the idea stayed creative and innovative?


When we had to convince our client we knew that a traditional presentation at their office wouldn't work. This is the type of work you need to experience to believe it. So we decided to take the presentation to the backseat of a small Volkswagen where we showcased a working prototype of a demo story that was created specifically for the highway next Volkswagens office. It allowed Volkswagen's head of marketing to understand the experience from the child's perspective.


We worked in close cooperation with some of the best child book writers in the Netherlands to write four unique stories. The combined team briefed the writers on what was technically possible. The writers were in the lead of the creative aspects, and together with our creative team, that each story was technically approved to implement in the app. As a result of the success of the app, children’s authors have approached Volkswagen for their stories to be featured.


How do you keep innovating, both in your creative process and in your thinking?


I still learn every day from strategists, designers and creatives with whom I may work. I have been working at the same agency for almost thirteen years, but fortunately new, interesting people are joining thefamily every year.


Our profession is constantly evolving. That is why we are actively working every day to redefine our own desk model and to build new propositions. For me, that started with the launch of Kraftwerk. We set this up because we noticed that our customers were increasingly aware that a brand is not only built with beautiful stories, but that you also have to apply the same focus on creativity and design to the digital user experience of your brand. This fitted in nicely with Achtung’s digital brand activation background!

A couple of years ago, we set up NowLab. This is our innovation lab where we explore the future with customers and make it tangible, in the form of prototypes. We have built a physical space of 120 square meters for which we hold design workshops, organize events and do design sprints. NowLab’s promise is that we can bring a distant future close by moving from idea to validated prototype in a few weeks, so that you as an organization can better organize your roadmap.