Paper has existed in different forms for more than 2,000 years, and in its current form for hundreds of years. The use of paper is totally integrated into our cultural practices, and books are an integral part of our lives.
Books are taken for granted–our first stories come from the books our parents used to read to us, and with books we learn to read, to count, to draw, even to think. The production and economics of books have remained nearly unchanged for centuries. But in the last few years, the advent of digital technology has transformed our ways of communicating, playing, working, writing, and even reading, although it is worth noting that the vast majority of people still read on paper. The printed book is still going strong in spite of the new possibilities that reading on screens makes available to us. Children’s literature, for example, is very creative, and books as objects, e.g. pop-up books, have been very successful. I don’t believe that books in their paper form are in much danger; on the contrary, digital publishing has pushed us to recognize the true value of a physical book. We become aware of its fragility and its physical qualities: its weight, texture, plasticity, and all the special qualities that are particular to paper.
Gathering information for creative purposes
Let’s take a look at what’s currently available to designers, inventors, developers, and authors to help them create and share their own prototypes.
The first thing to note is the incredible quantity of information that your phone (and tablet and computer) can learn about you. This can be a legitimate cause of fear (as shown by the Snowden affair, Wikileaks, etc.), but at the same time, these datasets are a wellspring of inspiration for authors. Currently, when you read a story on your tablet or phone, countless pieces of information are available: the speed at which you are moving, your altitude, your location, the level of ambient light, the volume of sound around you… From this information it’s possible to infer your habits, where you work, where you eat lunch, and where you sleep, not to mention whom your close friends and family are, what you read, and your favorite games. In short we all leave a trail of breadcrumbs that can be followed by computers and services such as Google and Facebook. These companies monetize the information (targeted advertising), but there are much more creative ways imaginable of putting this information to use.
It can be a major source of inspiration for a new kind of narrative projects (fiction, games, music…). Here are a few ideas using the information that your phone can collect fairly easily.
Information to enrich a new kind of narrative
- Your address book: we can use the names of your contacts in a story. Suddenly the protagonists of a novel bear the names of your loved ones, making for an undoubtedly troubling reading experience.
- Your photos: we can illustrate a book using your personal photos.
- Your location information: we can learn the name of the restaurant closest to the reader and use it in the text. The setting of the novel can change dynamically according to the location of the reader.
- The phone’s position in space, using the gyroscope: according to the tilt of the screen, we can know whether the reader is upright or lying down so that the text and screen brightness can be adapted for better sleep.
- Your speed: the length of the text can adapt itself to the length of your journey. On a high-speed train, the text is readable in two hours, on public transport in twenty minutes.
- Your battery level: we can imagine a text that adapts itself to the level of your battery, adding incredible suspense; will you make it to the end of this gripping story?
- The content of your emails: we can insert phrases from your emails into the narrative. The text is built from your own vocabulary and writing style.
- Your Twitter and RSS feeds: some information can be updated in real time (RSS feeds, news and weather, stock prices, Open Data…), infinitely enriching the text because some passages consist of current information added in real time by the system.
- In the visual domain too, the possibilities are endless. We can change the font size, spacing, color, thickness, typeface, contrast, sharpness, etc., according to when the application is being used (always controlled by the author).
- When you shake your book, the letters get bigger and fall off – only the verbs remain on the screen. You can change the text by shaking it.
- Depending what time it is, the background darkens and the type becomes lighter (nighttime reading)
- The book does not wait for you if you take too long to read it–the characters of the story will move more quickly than you and you’ll miss them, and suddenly the text is in the past tense.
- You can only read a text for a limited time, after which it is erased forever.
- If the reader goes backward in the text, the text changes (a bit like how a memory changes little by little as time passes). You go back to reread a chapter, and the dialogue is not quite the same.
- We can make an infinite book that loops with itself (it changes as you reread it, new events taking place and characters disappearing)
- The text can disappear: the first lines disappear as you read, like a wave eroding a sandcastle on a beach, or a sunset on the page. Night falls gradually across the page.
Information to enrich a new kind of narrative
- The book can talk to you, and a dialogue can take place between the story’s author and the reader.
- The book can do a sarcastic commentary as you read (or it can encourage you).
- You can breathe or talk into a microphone to accelerate or change the path of the story, for example. Breathing on the microphone could make the words disappear from the page.
- We can also use voice recognition – the system can recognize certain words and phrases fairly easily, which you can say to change how the story unfolds.
- The book can get angry and randomly erase some of your friends from your address book. You then have to negotiate with your book to save your address book (like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel).
- We can learn your heartbeat (when you place your finger over the camera and flash of your phone).
- We can guess exactly when you will fall asleep (based on your movements and your position in bed).
As you can see, the list is nearly infinite, and we can imagine a multitude of stories that draw on the data provided by the reader.
We can have stories that adapt themselves based on a whole range of information collected from the reader’s environment (with the reader’s consent). The idea is not to be afraid of sharing personal information but rather to use it in a creative way (while still remaining wary about the use of this personal information).
These new stories are alive. We must reconsider how we conceptualize “books,” thinking no longer in terms of static pages, an inert object, a finite text, but rather in terms of beings that possess feelings and memories and can carry on a conversation.
By Étienne Mineur, Cofounder of Les Éditions Volumiques