Editions at Play - the Peabody Futures award-winning initiative created by UK-based publisher Visual Editions in collaboration with Google Creative Lab to explore new, dynamic reading experiences - has just launched its ninth project, We Kiss The Screens.
Created by Tea Uglow with the help of an AI called George, WKTS is a multi-perspective story experiment based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Described as "a book of many truths, where no one can quite agree on what happened," the mobile version is available to read now. As you read - depending on the choices you make - a unique, personalised print-on-demand copy is then also available to order for free.
Designed to explore how digital culture can be used to create personalised physical objects in a way that goes "beyond #hashtags or having your name printed on a Coke can," it's certainly a fascinating experience, and a worthy successor to previous projects such as Kate Pullinger's Breathe and Uglow's blockchain book A Universe Explodes.
But will these super-clever experiments ever appeal to an audience beyond a few digitally curious bibliophiles? And exactly what does it take to create one? We caught up with Anna Gerber and Britt Iverson, co-founders of Visual Editions (and members of the FutureBook 40), as well as Uglow, to find out.
You've interrogated various elements of digital and interactive storytelling throughout the Editions at Play series. What did you particularly want to explore with this project?
BI: Right from the start Editions At Play has been about experimenting with what books can be in a digital age, and how we can create stories to read on mobiles that are based on the possibilities offered by the internet rather than by the conventions of publishing.
We're intrigued by the connection between the stories readers choose to read online and the ones they choose to read in print and thinking about how we can connect the two. We Kiss the Screens explores that connection by rewriting the same story eight different times and using UI and print on demand to look at how digital culture can be used to create uniquely personalised physical objects that offer readers perspective and diversity of thought.
Where did you develop your ideas? Did you research, prototype and user-test or just come up with the concept within your team?
AG: We wanted to see how we could bring the physical tactile world together with a mobile first story. So we started with the question, "What would happen if a digital book could make a printed book unique to each reader?" We had touched on this idea with Breathe, the ghost story that comes to you, by bringing in real street names, the time of day and weather so it became a real part of the story and also with Entrances and Exits by using Google maps to navigate the character's journey all over the world. For We Kiss the Screens, we take the experience outside the phone and place it in readers' hands in the shape of a printed book.
The testing and researching and failing and testing again happened within Google Creative Labs who made sure the multiple narrative structure (the same story is retold eight different ways) worked from a UI and UX perspective; Visual Editions who made sure the text and visual language did the storytelling justice and worked seamlessly from digital to print; HP Indigo who pushed what's possible in the print on demand world in terms of colour (every page has a different colour); and FE Burman who know print on demand machines better than anyone and showed us that it really is possible for these books to look and feel like they were printed on litho, even though each one is unique to you.
Did you go down dead ends or change direction at any point?
TU: Yes. Certainly. We were always committed to the prospect of trying to create a book that told the same story from multiple perspectives without judgement. But quite how wide we were willing to go with that parameter changed a couple of times. The latest time quite drastically when we made the narrative very tightly fitted to the original and removed the scope for poetic license with the source material.
What were the most difficult technical aspects in creating the project?
TU: Technically the greatest challenge is in creating a model to allow every page to have a personal component and then to pass that to the printer in a format that they can use, it's really pushed at the possibilities of digital to print and PoD.
What were the most interesting challenges in writing it?
TU: It was a challenge but it was fun. The most interesting part is in trying to see how dramatically you can alter a narrative with minimal text changes, and trying to retain a sense of where everything was meant to be. That old problem of how much one can appropriate a perspective also occured to me, which is why we don't have a #blacklivesmatter perspective. Ideally all eight would come from different people, but that proved almost impossible.
Is there a danger that personalising books ties us into our own filter bubbles, rather than challenging us with something we wouldn't choose?
AG: Well, yes sure, there is always a danger that we perpetuate our own filter bubbles and in a way the book asks us to ask those very questions. When's the last time we looked up to see how far our filter bubbles stretch beyond what we know or feel comfortable with?
The less abstract answer looks like this: the ideas behind the printed book is for readers to see beyond their own choices. The book is inspired by fake news, alternative truths, chatrooms, the rebirth of propaganda -- all realities of modern day life. The idea that anything can be true, especially if it is broadcast, especially if it has popularity, or even if it is printed is a large part what the book asks us to rethink. Or at least to be aware of. As you read your pages in the digital version of the book, what you don't know is that each page you read has physical consequences. When you get your unique printed copy, you see that the pages you read are marked in white. But - and here is the point - you can also see the pages you haven't read. The pages that lie outside your filter bubble. The chosen filter, yes. But also the ignored, discarded and filtered out.
Do you think projects like these will ever appeal to an audience beyond a self-selecting few digital experimenters?
BI: As with any experiment it's about seeing what's possible, capturing people's imaginations and sharing learnings widely to inspire new leaps in how we think about books on digital devices, how we value digital culture, and how we move beyond linear ways of thinking when the world around us is anything but. So, yes we do.
TU: If you asked about today, no, and that doesn't matter, it is simply articulating an idea. If readers of the future don't 'ever' find these narrative ideas appealing with more popular formats and content then I would be disappointed.
In terms of outcomes, what would success for this project look like for you?
BI: If we inspire at least one meaningful conversation around what books and culture can be in a digital age, then that's success.