Emails, blog posts, and social media feeds were designed to be read on screens, but plenty of people still prefer a good physical book for reading fiction. What if screens could bring another dimension to literature, utilizing tech to create a new kind of experience where books respond to your presence as a reader, making the world around you part of the story?
These are the driving questions behind the project Ambient Literature. A collaboration between the U.K. universities UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, and the University of Birmingham, Ambient Lit has published three stories over the course of two years that adapt to the reader’s environment using GPS and weather data from their phone. In a world dominated by smartphones, storytellers are using all kinds of technology, from location data to blockchain, to turn reading stories on a screen into a new kind of immersive experience.
Open up the link to Breathe –which recommends you use a smartphone to read it–and the page will ask for your permission to use information like your location and your camera. When you agree, it uses three different data sets to personalize the story to your setting every time you read it: location, weather, and season. When you read the story on a rainy Monday in New York City, that’s referenced in the story.
Editions at Play is a collaboration between the London-based publisher Visual Editions and Google Creative Lab in Sydney, Australia. Similar to Ambient Literature, the project aims to create new forms of digital literature that can’t be printed and instead use technology to reimagine a centuries-old art form. With this goal, Gerber and her business partner, Britt Iversen, have created experiments like the first book built on the blockchain, a story about a man who goes insane, which has text that slowly disintegrates, and another work that uses Google Street View as a narrative mechanism to travel around the world.
Other features of the smartphone besides location data can find their way into the story, too: Another thriller Pullinger wrote (outside the Ambient Lit project), called Jellybone, pulls out all the stops, utilizing vibrations, video, audio, and even pinging notifications. However, not all tech should become part of literature. Pullinger says that during the design process for Breathe, she and Editions at Play experimented with pulling in real-time headlines about the war in Syria to the story, but were never able to quite make it work in a seamless way.
While these experimental forms of digital-first literature might seem esoteric, other examples have already gained a foothold. In Japan, novels designed for the cell phone have been popular for years. Famous authors like David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Tao Lin, and Teju Cole have written partial or full stories on Twitter. Even Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s fan website, is a form of digital literature. Pullinger’s story Breathe and many of the Editions at Play stories are easily accessible online for anyone who’s interested.
Ambient Literature could do similar things for digital-first books. The first step may sound counter-intuitive: ensuring novelties like digital books that are personalized to a reader’s environment become so common that using a phone’s capabilities for literary purposes just isn’t that remarkable anymore. “Your phone having GPS is a literary thing that feels new,” Hayler says. “As long as it feels new it’ll feel weird. The moment 20 stories have done it really well, then it becomes part of the fabric of things people can draw on. It’s part of the fabric of writing now.”