Site Specific Stories

I want to add place to my own list of the modes we read and write across when thinking about transliteracy.

I recently got an iPhone, and it has changed almost entirely the way I use and interact with the web, where and when I read and write on the internet, the sites I visit and the tools I access. The change has been prompted by the portability of the device, and the ability to locate myself physically in the web via GPS.

The GPS facilities on iPhone and other smartphones allow us to pin ourselves to the map, to add our physical location to our tweets, our photos, our facebook status updates and comments. Services like foursquare and Gowalla enable us to play on the map, stealing territory, winning badges, earning real and virtual gifts (foursquare and Gowalla both partner with businesses to offer rewards to participants who 'check in' at their venues). This tagging of location adds another level to folksonomy, not only what, but where.

I stumbled upon and downloaded the Layar application to my phone. Layar is an 'augmented reality browser' which shows places around you as points on a map, a list, or in 'reality' view. The reality view overlays geographical points on the camera view, and as you walk or turn around, the points change and move with you. Different layers offer different views; cash machines near you, local house prices, geo-tagged tweets and FlickR images, Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos. You can select particular points and find directions from your current location to that point. Individual points can be used to trigger video, audio, or webpages, even to make a call or send a text.

I first tried Layar out sat on my sofa at home, just after I'd downloaded it. It was interesting, but as a static experience, once I'd checked out a few points, and played with the directions feature, I felt I'd seen enough.

A couple of nights later, I was walking to meet a friend, and tried out Layar again as I walked. It was a completely different experience. I loaded the 'Tweeps Around' layer, a layer which shows geo-tagged posts from Twitter. The users' profile images floated in space, scaling as they faded off into the distance, tweets from weeks, months ago hanging in the air pinned to real spaces, 197, 35, 280 metres away. As I walked up the street, tweets disappeared and new ones appeared as I passed them or they fell out of view. The network I normally imagined as shapeless, fuzzy and intangible, suddenly felt real and solid, less a cloud than a thick pea-souper fog. It was heady, immersive, creating a genuine feeling of being in the web, a virtual world intertwined our own physical world.

I started to think about the potential of Layar as a platform for storytelling, and the possibility of siting fragments of story, characters and histories across a city, a village or a street. I'm not so interested in finding the nearest cash machine or houses for sale, but the real and imagined stories of what happened in the places I walk through. The ghost stories, the story of the deal that went down and then went bad, the jokes told, the drunken kisses, and how the dog saved the day. Layar provides the opportunity to create narratives which immerse the participant in the environment of the story, not a place to go to, but a place you are already in, seen through new eyes. Fragments of the past(s) collide and overlay the present, the user is invited to hunt clues and to piece together the story, even to collaborate by adding their own markers, through geo-tagged tweets, images, videos etc.

I'm currently developing a Layar project with the Harris Museum in Preston alongside their upcoming Industrial Revolutionaries exhibition, creating a city wide exhibit of Preston's industrial past. The layer will contain images, archive film, stories and 3d representations of buildings and factories which are long lost. The project moves the exhibition out of the gallery, onto the streets and enables the audience to immerse themselves in a rich, multi-layered social history across multiple timelines and sites. The Layar environment invites the user to undertake a psychogeographical derivé around the city, the points potentially arbitrary wayfinders for a (re)discovery of the space. Like Ackroyd's 'London: the biography', it describes the city not simply through chronology, but through senses, voices, stories and memory.

I will document elements of this project and other experiments with Layar on the Transliteracy Ning 'Research Workshop' discussion forum. Please contact me if you are interested in discussing the project or potential collaborative projects.


2 thoughts on “Site Specific Stories

  1. Gosh, Gareth, this sounds so interesting, and the Preston project is a great application for this… application. I’ll have to get the app myself. It is odd though, the idea of you walking through the city streets inhabiting a virtual simulation of the city streets through your phone. A ‘head down’ experience, as opposed to a ‘head up’ experience that walking usually provides. This isn’t a judgement, just a comment of the isn’t-life-and-technology-strange variety. I think site specific stories have huge potential for us all as writers and readers. Thanks for the ‘heads-up’ (heh heh) on this project. Kate

  2. Hi Kate. Yes it is a bit odd, like people talking on hands free phones as they walk along and people who turn the Sat-Nav on to drive the same route to work each day!
    I do think that there is the potential for this kind of application to force a direct engagement with the physical environment. For the most part, I think we tend not to look at our environment, especially in day to day walking about, to work, to the shops etc. Adding stories to the places potentially makes us look up, look around, and reconsider the spaces we walk through every day. That’s what I’m keen to find out I guess. I’m interested in the feeling you get when you visit a new place, and every building, object, shop and cafe is full of questions and ideas, and you can’t help but create stories as you walk around.
    The Preston project is personally interesting for me, as it’s the town I grew up in, so I’m finding myself reinterpreting streets and buildings I’ve walked down thousands of times. Next time I visit for testing, I’ll take some screengrabs and post them up.

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