Do Books Need Soundtracks and Special Effects?

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
Feb. 4 2014 9:00 AM

Do Books Need Soundtracks and Special Effects?

140203_EYE_1
An augmented reading experience for science fiction from MIT Media Lab

Courtesy of MIT Media Lab via Flickr

When e-readers first emerged, making it unnecessary to print words on felled trees, the devices sought to soothe those who had grown accustomed to the communion between man and book largely by mimicking the familiar experience of turning pages filled with blocks of text. The only things missing were the tactile and olfactory qualities of paper.

Now, many readers believe that reading a book on a screen doesn’t fundamentally change the  act of reading. But a couple of recent innovations seem determined to redesign this quiet, unitasking activity into a multisensory experience.

The recently launched Booktrack is a service that allows authors to add a synchronized soundtrack to e-books and other digital content. The idea is to turn reading into an “immersive, movie-like experience.” On the company's website, the founders claim that “Booktrack will change the way people read, write, and publish their stories.”

Advertisement

Setting music to narrative is a familiar trick of This American Life–style radio storytelling, but it seems odd to ask authors to add "sound designer" to their job descriptions. Do books, like movies, really need a predetermined soundtrack to manipulate emotions and set the mood?

140203_EYE_2
Wearable tech is programmed to let readers experience a fictional protagonist's physiological emotions.

Courtesy of MIT Media Lab via Flickr

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have introduced a concept for an even more elaborate digitally augmented reading experience, geared toward science fiction.

They call it Sensory Fiction. It's “about new ways of experiencing and creating stories,” Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault write on their project website. “Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images. By using a combination of networked sensors and actuators, the Sensory Fiction author is provided with new means of conveying plot, mood, and emotion while still allowing space for the reader’s imagination. These tools can be wielded to create an immersive storytelling experience tailored to the reader.”

Using The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree as a prototype story, they developed an animated book embedded with vibration capabilities and programmable LEDs “to create ambient light based on changing setting and mood.” Readers would strap into a wearable tech apparatus “to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions,” the researchers write. A change “in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state triggers discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localized temperature fluctuations.”

If Booktrack wants to make reading more cinematic (its creators claim that it is “transforming reading the way sound transformed silent film”), Sensory Fiction seems to want to commandeer all our senses in order to inject virtual thrills into what has long been a low-tech, free-associative activity.

Will these tech-based redesigns of the reading experience make old-fashioned silent reading seem outdated and quaint? Or will they remain one-off experiments like the occasional scented theater performance or multisensory fireworks show? Or will they join the ranks of iSmell—that ill-fated attempt to perfume the experience of surfing the internet—or the long-running joke that is Smell-O-Vision?

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.