Samantha Sullivan/Mustang News

Poly XPress is a location-based, storytelling mobile application. “I don’t know if it’s the next Angry Birds,” computer science graduate student Taggart Ashby said, “but it could be something cool.”

Samantha Sullivan
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You’re at a school. Broken crates and bloody clothes surround your feet. You whip out your phone. You open a webpage and it pings your location. You’ve unlocked a secret. You read about what caused the destruction, see a shaky video — but you can’t quite discern what it was. What happened here?

That’s what the creators of Poly XPress hoped users would ask when interacting with the application.

Poly XPress is a location-based storytelling mobile application. It allows users to create stories using media such as pictures, text, sound and video. Authors can tie different locations through their stories and readers can see a map of those locations.

When readers get physically close to those locations, they will be able to see the media the author put in that location.

Anyone can make an experience like this using the application, which was created at Cal Poly. Users only need a Facebook account to log in.

“It’s a simple way to tell a story that gets people out into the community,” said Michael Haungs, associate computer science professor and co-director for Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies (LAES) program. “You’re not just staying at your computer and reading from there; you actually have to visit the locations.”

Haungs and co-director of LAES David Gillette created Poly XPress. Gillette, who is currently on a sabbatical, had a vision of being able to view ghostly images through a camera lens on campus. Thus, the application was originally meant to tell ghost stories and was called Poly Ghost. However, as development began, the decision was made to allow users to tell a more general story.

“That’s where we think the real power is,” Haungs said.

Various uses

A week before this past Halloween, Los Osos Middle School put on a fundraising event called Area 55. They created a walk-through experience, similar to a haunted house. Poly XPress was used to tell the pre-story, Haungs said.

The story: The government dropped genetically modified organisms from planes, and those organisms found their way to the middle school. The user was supposed to try to help the community figure out what was going on at the school.

Video examples included an unidentified figure dashing into the trees — the short video was meant to look like a “Bigfoot caught-on-camera” moment, where the viewer didn’t really know what they were seeing. In addition, someone caught “raw footage” of government employees cleaning something up, before the phone was yanked out of their hand.

This spring, the Poly XPress team will partner with ethnic studies professor Grace Yeh to do a story about the history of Japanese Americans in Pismo Beach. Using their stories and old pictures, Poly XPress plans to take users on a tour that shows what Pismo looked like in the past and allow users to experience what the people went through, Haungs said.

The application can be used for more than stories, though. An easy use for the app would be a guided tour of campus, Haungs said.

“Giving people the ability to tell stories that they want to tell for fun or education, I think this is really powerful and cool,” Haungs said. “I just want to see people using it any way they want to.”

How it looks

Imagine an e-reader library — there are selections of books to chose from. When a user clicks a book, it is downloaded into their personal list. Each book contains chapters and each chapter contains pages. The book gives you a general overview of what to expect from the experience. The chapters tell users the general area they need to go to and what they’ll find there in a set a pages. Once a user has arrived at a particular location, its page will be unlocked, allowing the user to see the media attached to location, or something that happened there.

Authors not only create the stories, but can also determine how close readers must be to an area to read the pages.

“We need people to tell a good story,” Haungs said. “Poly XPress is not going to make it a good story.”

Computer science graduate student Taggart Ashby said the application is “pretty open-ended.”

His role with the project deals with testing. There are multiple parts to that, namely what users see on the screen as well as the components behind the scenes that make it happen. Ashby said his part is making sure everything happens correctly.

“I don’t add any new, cool, fun features to the application,” Ashby said. “I make sure it keeps working when we do add new things.”

As for the future of the application, Ashby said he is excited to see what people create once it is more “polished.”

“I don’t really know where it will go, but I’m excited to see what other people come up with,” he said.

Computer science graduate student Desiree Creel is focusing on adding social media features to Poly XPress. She hopes social media will bring more engagement to the application, she said.

With the social media version, users will be able to see what their friends are creating or consuming in a newsfeed. Hopefully, seeing their friends read a certain “story” will draw users to read it as well, she said.

Along with the personal newsfeed, she envisions a public global newsfeed of stories that are located around the user at a given time.

Creel is also creating a chat feature so users can communicate with their friends about a certain “page” or location, she said. However, she is still trying to figure out how to save that data and only allow that information to be displayed when the user is at that particular location, she said.


According to Haungs, there is a new dimension to storytelling. Instead of sitting at home and reading about a dark, creepy room, one can go out into their community, stand in that room and read about what happened there.

“I don’t know if it’s the next Angry Birds,” Ashby said. “But it could be something cool.”