What happens when we can make books respond to our environment? What if instead of locating the best text to read for where we are, the best text could locate us? What if we created an e-book to be navigated in real space?
Linking the content you read to the place you are standing is a simple but potentially powerful idea that has so far been largely unexplored in the e-book space. However, this kind of interactivity through geolocation is achievable today in EPUB (the industry’s dominant e-book format). I haven’t seen examples of it though (except a few that suggest using geolocation as a kind of novelty, to personalize a story to a reader’s location, here and here), so to test and demonstrate how this idea might be usefully applied to art publishing, I created a sample EPUB that begins to explore some new, geolocated content navigation and storytelling possibilities.
Actually, I created two EPUBs. The first linked to my office in Tucson, where I knew I could test the coding of the geolocation elements; and the second linked to a sample selection of five works in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s outdoor art and nature park, 100 Acres. The IMA version is available here for download, but because the only way to fully experience the e-book live is to be there, I’ll be showing screen shots and describing the process in narrative. You’ll have to trust me that it actually works.
That said, even if you’re not at the IMA, I’ve specifically designed the book to be navigable and readable from any location. There are built-in fallbacks to account both for readers not at the location of the book, and for those at the location but having technical issues with their GPS. The practice of using fallbacks to ensure a digital publication remains readable, no matter the device, is a tenant of EPUB publishing. It’s also just a polite way to design.
The Geolocated Reading Experience
First, imagine that instead of picking up a printed guide at the sculpture park’s entrance, or buying a book on the park before getting there, you are presented a QR code and shortened URL that were direct links to download an EPUB guide to your phone. (For those who haven’t tried this, it’s super easy. Try it. Visit this page on your iPhone or iPad with the iBooks app installed, and click the EPUB link above. You’ll be reading the book in moments.)
When you open the downloaded, geolocated e-book, you are immediately presented a large link that asks “Where Am I?” with smaller “About” and “Help” links below that, and then a listing of your current longitude and latitude, and the estimated accuracy of the reading. Think of this as the book’s home page. There’s no cover image other than that used for shelf graphics, no title page, no dedication, copyright, introduction or epigraph. Or at least none of these things are in the front—a relic of print design that most often doesn’t translate well to e-books. Instead, you are plunged directly into the page you need the most, the page that answers the most pressing question: “Where Am I?”
The longitude, latitude and accuracy readings are live, and through a simple script are updated regularly and automatically. And though you don’t see it as a reader, the “Where Am I?” link is being updated as well. As your longitude and latitude changes, the link changes to send you to different sections of the book. So, any time you come across a new sculpture, instead of figuring out which one it is in your guidebook and then locating the appropriate text, you just click the “Where Am I?” link and voilà, the appropriate text locates you! Read the text, enjoy the video, audio, images or other embedded media then wander off to the next artwork, click the link again and voilà again, a new text for your new location!
An outdoor sculpture park is a fantastic candidate for this kind of treatment. The automated wayfinding of the e-book supports the kind of relaxed, wandering experience that’s one of a sculpture park’s most salient visitor features. A geolocated e-book can present relevant information to visitors as they want or need it, with little effort, and without a predetermined tour route or schedule. Likewise, imagine a guidebook like this for public art sites spread around an entire city. A reader doesn’t have to know where they are or what they are looking at, the book will tell them.
Some Technical Bits
An outdoor sculpture park also makes for cleaner implementation on a technical level. In an outdoor setting there is less signal interference for cellular positioning, there are not multiple floors of galleries (geolocation can give you an altitude reading, but it doesn’t appear nearly accurate enough to differentiate if a reader is in a first or second floor gallery), and artworks are generally farther apart from one another and so easy to differentiate in the geolocation. These, I found, are important details. Your phone’s GPS is accurate, but not that accurate. So to make the geolocated experience work for the reader, you need a large target area to link the text to. Under the hood of this e-book, for each artwork I wanted to reference I established an imaginary rectilinear block around the object, and determined the longitude and latitude coordinates of the four points making up the four corners of the block. I wrote a script that then says, if the reader’s longitude and latitude readings fall within this given rectangle, link them to a given text about the work. This repeats for each of the five objects I included, with none of the rectangles overlapping.
For all other positions a reader may find themselves in there’s a default page that says (cheekily) “You’re nowhere” but then goes on to give them the directions they need to either try again, or to navigate the book without the geolocation feature. This is one of those fallbacks I mentioned earlier. Another fallback is when cell service isn’t available, or the geolocation fails for any reason, the reader is automatically presented with a linked list of the book’s contents from which to navigate on their own. You could take this a step further and also offer a visual table of contents, so readers wouldn’t need to know what the title of a piece was, only what it looked like.
More Than Multimedia, A New Storytelling Tool
This sample book’s approach to the content is largely guidebook-like, though I did include a video snippet and just as easily could add audio and other features. Beyond offering an enhanced multimedia experience, however, this automated, geolocated navigation also suggests new narrative routes for exploration.
One of the things I was most struck with, even in the first test I did around my Tucson office, was how quickly and easily the geolocation becomes a kind of tour guide for the reader, automatically giving them certain information at certain locations. Much more than simply reading a book, it felt as if there were a living person leading me through the various spaces I had mapped out. What if this tour guide had a voice? What if rather than an institutional description of the artworks, the book offered a story told by individual? A personal tour of the work by a museum curator, a fantastic docent, an artist in residence, or a talented local writer. And, once the geolocated e-book is built with one of these voices, it would be an easy matter to switch in new text for a second edition of the book. Why not offer a half-dozen versions of the book, each with the story told by a specific, unique individual? And their writing could reflect their knowledge of the location they know their readers will be in, creating unique, engaging and enriching experiences with the art that surrounds us.
 For those that don’t know, EPUB is the dominant reflowable e-book format on the market. It is used by Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google, Sony and nearly every other e-book vendor out there with the exception of Amazon who uses a more proprietary format of the EPUB standard. EPUB is also a very open specification that requires no licensing and no special tools to create. So, arguably, any digital publishing project that can be undertaken in EPUB will be cheaper to make and more widely readable than doing the same thing in any other format.
 It was Rachel Craft of the Indianapolis Museum of Art who pointed me to The Silent History—a digital novel in iOS app form, which utilizes a unique serial and geolocated narrative—which in turn inspired me to explore geolocation in EPUB. Rachel was also nice enough to go out into the park last Saturday and test out the geolocated book I sent her, and she reported back that it worked perfectly. Phew.
 In most e-reading devices and software, readers have no way of easily navigating past a book’s frontmatter aside from turning the pages, one at a time until they get to the beginning of the actual book. This is in part a software issue, but it’s exacerbated by publishers’ stubborn obsession with print design tropes. Makes me wonder what book publishers would do if unleashed to design for other digital content.