Do Books Need Soundtracks and Special Effects?

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

Do Books Need Soundtracks and Special Effects?

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.”


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?

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?



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 1:38 PM Mad About Modi
 Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.

Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.