There’s a moment in the mobile book Breathe where your phone ceases to work. The screen freezes, the camera wigs out, and it’s impossible to swipe to the next page. If it feels like a ghost slipped its way into your phone and took hold of the software, that’s because it has.
Breathe is a ghost story. It follows the story of Flo, a young, clairvoyant woman whose mother died long ago. Flo is desperate to reach her mother, Clara, but her attempts to communicate with her are interrupted by a litany of lost souls who begin to talk to Flo. It has all the standard ghost story ingredients: a mysterious, untimely death, a brave protagonist, and an undercurrent of quiet spookiness. And yet, it’s unlike any ghost story ever created. In Breathe, the ghosts haunt more than Flo—they haunt you, the reader, too.
Breathe is the newest book from Editions at Play, a series of mobile-first stories created by the experimental publishing house Visual Editions and Google Creative Lab that are designed to explore how technology can reshape our expectations of what a book should look like. In the case of Breathe, Editions at Play worked with Ambient Literature, a collaborative research program between UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, the University of Birmingham, to understand how locational technology in particular (think: GPS, weather APIs, cameras, etc) can help create a more intimate reading experience.
Mobile books are designed with some inherent tradeoffs—in the place of paper, there’s glass; instead of ink, there are pixels. But these tradeoffs aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Books on screen might lack the tactile magic of print, but they also open a world of new possibilities enabled by technology.
In Breathe, for instance, the story changes depending on who is reading it and where they’re reading it. The book pulls in different data feeds—weather, location, and time—to subtly personalize the narrative for each reader. The book will register when it’s sunny or if it’s day or night time. It knows your street and city, like an invisible ghost that’s lingering in the background at all times. “In a way, there’s infinite versions of the book,” says Kate Pullinger, author of Breathe and one of the researchers for the Ambient Literature project. “There are as many versions as there are people—even more, actually.”
Sound creepy? It’s supposed to. The book is proof of your phone’s omnipresent eyes, but it’s also a brilliant example of the shifting definition of design in mobile-first stories. “It’s a ghost story, so it needs to behave like a ghost story,” says Anna Gerber, a co-founder of Visual Editions. “We thought about it feeling intimate and uncanny and creepy. Almost claustrophobic.” In printed books, world-building revolves around word choice and visual design. In mobile books, design is about more than aesthetic choices—behaviors are a form of design, too.
Much of Breathe is told through a simple serif typeface on a cream background. The visual design is intentionally quiet—the book’s spookiness comes from how you interact with it. Visual Editions designed each ghost to have a personality that would impact the way readers move through the text. “We drew up a whole design vocabulary that connected to the ghost figures,” Gerber says.
As readers swipe through the book, they’ll encounter an angry ghost whose presence will cause your phone’s camera to unexpectedly glitch out; a melancholy ghost, who fills the screen with swirling smoke; and a mischievous ghost, who won’t let you swipe to the next page. When paired with the book’s use of locational data, these subtle behaviors create a stunning and unexpected effect.
Breathe is the latest (and last) book created for the Ambient Literature project, Pullinger says it will be far from the last project to use ubiquitous computing to alter the narrative of a story. Over time, she’s seen a shift in how writers and designers use locational data. It’s shifted from being a tool to used to “unlock” pieces of a story at site-specific locations like a literary scavenger hunt to something whose use is far more subtle but no less impactful. She expects that exploration—using data as a design tool rather than a heavy-handed feature—to continue into the future. “The works we’ve been creating are more about situated-ness and site responsiveness,” she says. “We’re very interested in, how do you make new narratives that respond to the data that’s around us?”