I’m a huge William Gibson fan, not least for the ideas with which his books overflow. One such in Spook Country was location-based virtual art: VR images that can only be seen at specific real-world places. As is often the case with Gibson, I read that and wondered, “How long?”
Well, we’re halfway there. I give you Broadcastr, a new platform that allows anyone to record or upload audio, and then “pin” it to physical locations. Broadcastr then indexes and curates that audio for playback via Web or smartphone, where it can be filtered and shared in the usual ways. Think of it as a crowdsourced audioguide to anywhere and everywhere, as if the whole world was a museum: restaurant reviews straight from diners’ mouths, mix tapes for memorial sites, citizen journalism, etc. It also provides the infrastructure for a whole new era of collective oral history; if Broadcastr takes off, its big data will be fascinating.
And it just might. “Mobile is where audio has always worked,” founder Andy Hunter points out – car radios, Walkmans, iPods – “because it has this ability of enhancing your experience without pulling you out of the world.” Today you can use Broadcastr to listen to New York City travel information from Fodor’s as you roam, or walk through Brooklyn and hear the latest local crime blotter, or wander from Houston to 30th Street and hear a different micro-targeted theatrical experience on every block. Think of it as audio-channel augmented reality. They’ve connected with everyone from the Shoah Foundation, who are pinning survivor stories at Auschwitz, to champion storytellers from The Moth; and in the two weeks since their launch, user-generated content has already doubled the size of their library. (Crucially, contributors retain all rights.)
For my highly idiosyncratic money, the most interesting thing about Broadcastr is its ability to tie fiction to a place. So I’m glad to see that its co-founders Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum, who previously launched the e-magazine Electric Literature, view Broadcastr as another way of “bringing narrative to the digital age.” But I do wish that it allowed contributors to restrict their audio so they can only be heard by people who are actually at the tagged places. Restriction breeds creativity. Imagine an audiobook that can only be heard as you walk through its real-world setting: that would be up there with Gibson’s Agrippa, or Geoff Ryman’s 253, or Christian Bök‘s poems inserted into microbial genomes, in terms of tech-enabled experimental storytelling. (Margaret Atwood once said that the one thing Canadian writers have in common is a strong sense of place. She might have been on to something: Ryman, Bök, and Gibson are all Canadian.)
OK, so the rest of you are more interested in their crowdsourced worldwide audioguide, and its obvious advertising and museum/festival/tourism markets. Broadcastr are angel-funded, and they plan to start charging for premium content (on an app-store model) later this year, and then incorporate advertising sometime next year. Their iPhone and web apps are available now, their Android app should emerge this month, and they intend to release an API in July. NYC and the Bay Area seem the most densely packed with material so far, but I quickly found an entry for High Park in Toronto, only a stone’s throw away from me. Go give it a listen; you too might hear something interesting just around the corner.