Breathe is a smartphone ghost story that knows where you live
Author Kate Pullinger has written a ghost story for smartphones, using your handset’s GPS and camera to create a text that changes depending on where you’re sat when you come across it. The result is a tale that haunts its readers’ location, and a clever use of a phone’s technology to taper the subtle details of a short story.
Breathe is read using your phone’s browser, without the need for a separate app. After you give permission for the site to access your phone’s camera and location information, you’ll start the story of Flo, who has the ability to talk to ghosts. Without spoiling too much, the 15-20 minute story is structured as swiped sections of text, interrupted by the voice of a mysterious spirit.
Pullinger tells me that she wanted to create “something that felt domestic and intimate”, with the idea being that you read Breathe in your room, late at night.
“There’s a long tradition of haunted technology,” she says. “People have always thought that the loom was haunted, or the printing press, the television, etc. It’s a theme that occurs again and again when it comes to stories about technology. So I thought it would be interesting to take that for a story that uses technology in this particular way.”
Breathe is the last of three works that make up the Ambient Literature project; a collaboration between Bath Spa University, the University of the West of England and the University of Birmingham, aiming to investigate the ways books can be reinvented using smartphone technology. We’ve previously written about the project, which has also led to pieces by Duncan Speakman and James Attlee.
Whereas those two works largely involve wandering outside – James Attlee’s The Cartographer’s Confession, for example, sprawls across a large section of London – Breathe is designed to be read in one location, much like you would a book-bound short story. Its text is built of conditional sections, however, that pull information about its readers place, as well as season and time of day.
Pullinger explains that a lot of work went into finding the right balance to using this information, to prevent it seeming gimmicky: “I didn’t want it to say: ‘It’s 10:15 on Monday morning and you are in central London’.” She also notes that the team behind the story, created in collaboration with London-based publishers, Visual Editions and Google Creative Lab Sydney, had their work cut out in selecting information that didn’t sound clunky when slotted into a paragraph: “You get things like ‘the Borough of London’, which people just don’t say.”
As well as small changes to the story’s text, Breathe also makes use of the phone’s camera to overlay passages of text across images of your room. “That’s one aspect that I’d be interested in developing further,” Pullinger admits. “It’s a simple thing, but I don’t think I’ve come across that before. I think we could do more with that… I find it beguiling but alarming in some ways.
“In the background of it all is the sense that the phone is a kind of surveillance tool.”
You can try Breathe for yourself at www.breathe-story.com.