This week Editions At Play, the collaboration between Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab, released a new project: Breathe. The mobile story, written by Kate Pullinger in partnership with Ambient Literature, centres on Flo, a young woman who communicates with ghosts. Using the reader's camera, microphone and geolocation, it draws their world into the narrative, incorporating real-life place, time, context and colour so that the experience becomes personalised in continually shifting and eerie ways.
It's the eighth in the experimental series, which aims to team storytelling and classic elements of book form with the "dynamic qualities" of the web - the previous release, A Universe Explodes, was created using Blockchain. However you feel about the results, the Editions At Play team do that very rare thing - actually producing provocative, creative and digitally native new sorts of book, rather than talking about them.
Here Anna Gerber, creative partner at Visual Editions, talks design challenges, dead ends - and engaging that elusive beast, 'new audiences.'
Why a ghost story?
When we first spoke to Kate Pullinger she said she had an idea for a story about a young woman whose world would come to her through her phone. We talked about how there were a few digital projects around that had been using geolocative tech to explore readers’ environments but nothing that looked at our more personal, intimate indoor environments. So it was important to us that the story was based in a room. Kate then decided to bring ghosts into Flo’s world and into the readers’ worlds as a way to bring something mysterious and unexpected into the story and ultimately into the reading experience. Flo’s story becomes interrupted, sometimes in a playful way, otherwise in a more hostile way through these ghost voices. Other than being a great read, the ghosts gave the team a very full bag of treats to play with.
What were the most challenging tech/design aspects of Breathe to get right?
We believe that for tech to truly find its place in something like a book it needs to seem a little bit invisible. And that’s really hard to get right. The book relies on a number of dynamic APIs -- from knowing the street you’re on, to your local school or park, to the time of day and the weather -- that are integrated into the text. We wanted the reader to not necessarily be aware of these moments, it may even be that they only recognise these details once or if they re-read the book. Making sure that the tech already in our phones is used to its fullest and most positive capabilities, while sustaining the book’s overall narrative and character development meant quite a lot of back-and-forth work.
Did you go down any early dead ends?
We had two early connected ideas that would have been amazing but turned out to be more stable in our minds than in reality. One was based around the phone recognising colours in the readers’ environment and the other was that the phone could do a fancy trick around object recognition. We’ll need to wait for more advanced phones to be able to cope with that sort of thing.
What are you most proud of/ pleased with about the final result?
That the book feels delicate in its responsiveness, that it responds to readers’ environments in a way we haven’t seen before and that it gives readers a personalised reading experience.
Your stated aim is to pull in new audiences. What sort of new audiences do you have in mind, and why do you think that Breathe's particular blend of tech, publishing and design will pull them in?
Well, there’s never any guarantee for pulling anyone in :-) but we would love a younger female audience to discover and enjoy Breathe than some of our previous Editions At Play readers because that’s an audience that Kate Pullinger has written for in the past, because it’s an audience we and Tea Uglow at Google Creative Lab Sydney passionately believe in as having the power and insight to innovate across all aspects of culture and industry.
How do you make sure projects like Breathe get in their hands - not just those of the same old book lovers (like me!)?
Ha! We love that it’s in your hands. We’re just trying to cast our net as wide as possible together with the skills of Tea Uglow, Kate Pullinger, Bath Spa University, Ambient Literature, Google Creative Lab Sydney, and Grumpy. We’re calling it a London, Bristol, Bath, Sydney collaborative process. That’s been the case for the making of Breathe and that’s the case for getting it in readers’ hands too.
What has been the uptake and demographics of your other Editions at Play projects so far?
Eight books in, and we’re still learning. We work at the cross section of publishing, design, culture and tech. So sometimes we have greater reach, other times longers reads. Sometimes we kill it locally, other times we capture imaginations globally.
Do you think readers really want to involve the world around them - or escape it?
Both. Entirely dependent on mood, time, and type. In no order. Perfectly reflecting of us humans.
What other innovative book projects do you admire?
Not exactly a book project, but we are big fans of Marshmallow Laser Feast and their immersive storytelling experiences. They have a rare gift for capturing people’s imaginations by bringing a human touch to technology.