Ambient Literature has the book world talking – and for all the right reasons
Book trends come and go, from psychological thrillers to erotica, via hygge and lagom.
But Ambient Literature is something a bit different. Rather than just a genre, it uses those things we have on us nearly all the time – our smartphones – to tell stories that “exist somewhere between the ethereal and the magical”, according to one of the project investigators, Tom Abba.
Or, to put it in layman’s terms, Ambient Literature is an immersive form of storytelling. It uses technology to turn your phone into an interactive landscape that syncs to the story you are reading; for example, if it’s raining in real life, it will start raining in the story, too.
“What if there was a little extra magic in the world?” Abba asks Stylist. “What if your everyday could be infused with story?”
Well, quite. These are the appealing questions that, for the last two years, a team of artists, writers, researchers and technologists have been answering. The team behind Ambient Literature, from the UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, the University of Birmingham, and development partners Calvium Ltd, have been busy developing stories that sit alongside people’s daily routines.
The team have created four stories so far, and they all meld literature and technology to respond to your presence in the world in various different ways.
It Must Have Been Dark By Then, by Duncan Speakman, is a city walk that looks at changing environments. It’s up to the reader to choose their own route and, incredibly, each telling of the story brings up a unique map.
The Cartographer’s Confession, by James Attlee, is set in London and is meant to be experienced as you explore the city over the course of a day. Words We Never Wrote, by Abba and Alyssia White, takes an internal space such as a bookshop or a library and makes it part of the story. Readers move around the space while listening to the story and its accompanying music, and follow the instructions they are given.
Finally there’s Breathe, by Kate Pullinger, which is designed to be read on a web app. This is a haunting, 15 minute ghost story that uses your phone’s GPS to track your location while you read.
To test out the trend, I read Breathe on a sunny afternoon in London, near Charing Cross. The text in the story included locations in my vicinity – Bressenden Street and PAUL Strand – and the weather matched the warmth of the day outside. It could have been an unnerving experience, but instead it made me feel like I was part of the story, and that the character was speaking directly to me.
This feeling was enhanced by the app’s clever use of the camera on my phone. As I moved around, the background to some of the pages of Breathe changed according to the streets that surrounded me. And, most interestingly of all, there seemed to be “hidden” messages in the story – as I continued walking, my phone moved with my body, and I suddenly saw pink in the corner of the screen. Tilting my phone further, I saw faint words begin to appear; it took me a moment to get the angle right, but eventually I saw the words of the “ghost” in the story come up on my screen.
Breathe is different to many books in another way, too; it doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative, meaning writing it required some out-of-the-box thinking from Pullinger.
“It was the first time I’d written conditional text – text that changes according to set variables,” she tells Stylist.
And here’s where it gets a bit more technical than your typical ghost story…
“In Breathe, there are three APIs (application processing interfaces) that draw data from the reader’s phone into the story,” continues Pullinger. “So, the story changes according to the weather, time, and location of the reader.
“This meant that I needed to provide text for all those versions – for instance, if it was hot, cold, warm, cool. The only variable that was immediately obvious is the location, but in fact the story is loaded with conditional text – but I wanted it to be subtle. All of that was very interesting to write.”
Pullinger says that a project like Ambient Literature, which “looks seriously at the potential that technology can give us for new forms of storytelling” is important, and that it could develop even further in the future.
For example, at one stage Breathe might have included an API that would have allowed news headlines to be pulled into the story. While this didn’t end up happening, it is something that could well be possible in the future, if the technology is developed.
This may sound strange, but the point of Ambient Literature is that it is to be experienced, not just read about. And thanks to funding from the Arts and Humanities Council, all four stories are available to download for free, meaning there’s no excuse not to give this immersive reading experience a go.
For now, the Ambient Literature project is beginning its next stage: the Ambient Literature Lab. Here, the project team will be offering workshops in writing and making Ambient Literature, alongside consultancy for publishers and organisations, and an ongoing series of commissions.
It seems the possibilities for Ambient Literature are endless; who knows what magical world of storytelling will open up from our phones next?
Abba tells Stylist that Ambient Literature “haunts, enchants, delights and entertains”. From reading Breathe, I can attest that he is right.
Ambient Literature has made my phone into something that connects me to my surroundings, rather than distracts me from them. For this reason, I hope this is a trend that lasts.