Venus on Mars

Augmented Moments

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 19, 2011

Who knew? While leafing through one of my guilty pleasures, House Beautiful, the July/August issue, I found on page 113 – as part of a photo spread about somebody’s fancy new living room – a small note that says: SCAN THIS PAGE.

You can point your smart phone at a printed page now and automatically trigger an online event, like playing a movie – in this instance, the interior designer describing his creative process – right on my iPhone!

This is exactly what I want to do – not with living rooms, but with novels. Books (paper or electronic) with augmented moments – words that offer more – a popup image, sound effects, a movie clip.

I gave this idea a lot of thought while going through the tortuous conversion of my first novel to ebook – the currently established process involves way too much effort for mostly unsatisfactory results. The current apps that support ebook authoring are mostly geared toward achieving product-defined results – i.e. getting the text to work on a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad – and on making the consumer’s reading process user-friendly, i.e. it looks and behaves like a book – you can turn its pages, bookmark your place, look up something in the index.

These are practical and necessary goals, but fall short of using digital tools and online dissemination to move the text-bound book to another level, one that offers more than static words laid out in lines and rows and sequenced on numbered pages. I keep trying to think of what this new hybrid form will be, how it will look and behave, how additional features like visuals and sounds might be woven into the narrative without destroying the integrity of a “good read.” It still has to be literary, but should offer an enhanced experience.

In my concept of “augmented moments,” the words on pages would still allow for a traditional linear reading experience, the author’s work would retain its narrative integrity, but there would be hints throughout that additional features could be accessed.

I think these elements should NOT be illustrative only (showing us what we’re already reading, like a picture of the house the writer has just described), but should provide some essence of the house that moves our knowledge of it beyond its textual description – past occupants whose souls still linger, for instance, or the architectural drawings that first announced the house’s possibilities, or the contextual sounds associated with the house in this scene (whispered conversations, water running, someone playing a flute, footsteps on stairs).

Each augmented moment needs a trigger (like a finger tap) that will zap a request from the reader to the source, and provide immediate results. Once readers get used to the idea, we won’t even need an obvious “scan this page” message – the links themselves can be embedded in a more subtle way – a wash of color over a line of text, for instance, or a more saturated object in a photo spread – or they may be totally hidden, so that exploring and locating the links becomes part of the narrative adventure itself.

And the filmmaker in me wants to take it all one step further – the reader might “assemble” (i.e. touch and drag) any number of these augmented moments, in any order, then play them in sequence as a mini-movie, a new creation authored by the reader, based on material the writer has embedded in the book. Countless versions would be possible, and perhaps there would be a place to send them (to “the cloud,” that online depository where all our stuff is headed), so that other readers could access and enjoy them each reader’s efforts. The process of “authoring” would then extend beyond the initial writing and publishing of the book, and would be shared among all readers in an ongoing creative process that only continues to enhance the original form and intent of the book itself.

Ebook interactivity is clunky and limited. The interactivity of printed materials is just beginning to show its potential. We can only improve things from now on – like House Beautiful, one page and one fancy living room at a time.

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