Reading a Story, Taking a Trip

Peter Brantley -- January 14th, 2013

Consulting a mapThanks to a suggestion from David Riordan of the New York Public Library Labs, I got a quick introduction to Field Trip, a new augmented reality (AR) Android app that emerged out of Google last autumn. Field Trip comes out of an internal startup called Niantic Labs at Google headed by John Hanke, who created an early online mapping application called Keyhole. Keyhole was acquired by Google and turned into Google Maps under Hanke’s leadership. I think Field Trip points toward a new generation of geolocal story telling, enabling us to find stories and interact with narratives wherever we happen to be.

Field Trip is not a groundbreaking application, but it has the advantage of John Hanke’s guidance and the resources at Google. Typically, AR apps work by presenting user-selectable layers of information to a mobile user, taking advantage of GPS or wifi-enabled geolocation information. For example, standing at the corner of Washington Square in Manhattan, I might be reminded that the Triangle Shirt Waist fire took place in a building no more than 100 feet away, spurring interest in worker safety and the labor movement. Field Trip works the same way, presenting information on local history, food and dining, or even shopping deals based on where I am. Field Trip will eventually be an application available to wearers of Google’s Project Glass, a early wearable-computing device that is expected to be available this year or next.

NYPL is interested in Field Trip because they can embed local information – even as basic as census information – on their historical map collection, and present those as a layer within Field Trip. Working with an externally supported, native Android app relieves NYPL from having to code the middleware between their own data and the mobile operating system, whether Android or Apple’s iOS, allowing them to focus on the optimal presentation of information. For these same reasons, Field Trip could become a superb framework to tell stories.

Geolocational story-telling is not new. Liza Daly, currently the VP of Engineering at Safari Labs, released a prototype geo-aware ebook in 2010, and has written more about embedding geo-location interactivity in EPUB3. More recently, The Silent History is a geo-aware novel for Apple devices that uses widely dispersed tags to tell fragments of a larger story. And the UK’s REACT arts program includes one project, “Writer on the Train,” that will tell a story for riders on the mainline between Bristol and London. However, Field Trip is more like a WordPress for geo-locational stories. Although it doesn’t use the standard EPUB3 ebook format, it does enable the creation of narratives that can be “plugged into” an existing application framework.

People often find geolocational-based story-telling frustrating because we are so used to linear narratives that it becomes difficult to comprehend how to “piece-together” a story that could be encountered by someone at potentially random, different points in time. Clearly a distributed story requires a different approach to narrative than a traditional story. But equally, geo-locational story-telling enables a story to be delivered over multiple occurrences when a reader routinely returns to a specific location, which might be a train station, or their town’s shopping district, or a favorite restaurant. In other words, geo-location enables us to liberate story-telling from time and sequence vectors, substituting a spatial one. Instead, time and sequence become dynamic elements that structure the resulting story. That’s an incredible capacity that we have not yet explored.

For now, AR applications like Field Trip seem intrusive, particularly in urban terrain familiar to the user. However, the flexibility and breadth of controls will expand, and the ability to integrate or synthesize information from layers will see rapid advances. Story-telling in place has an interesting future. You just have to be there.

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