See me, hear me and walk with me – that’s what many websites try to achieve; in other words, connect people by creating some kind of online sensory experience. The people factor is a two-edged sword: on the one hand demographics are often unreliable and wildly variable, on the other hand, the Internet’s particular appeal is that it allows people to break physical, geographical and even time barriers to access information. For the individual, it is a mostly win-win situation. In 2015, even the barrier to somatosensation via the Internet was crossed with the invention of a glove kitted out with fabric pressure-sensors to replicate touch, called the Lorm glove, the invention of Tom Bieling, a researcher at the Design Lab in Berlin.
“Most of us take for granted the digital revolution and the amazing new connections it has offered. For those constrained by a barrier of unseen sights and unheard sounds, it was once unexplored territory – but with the Lorm glove, they might just have that world in the palm of their hands.” (Lesley Evans Ogden, The Glove That Transmits ‘Touch’ over the Internet, BBC, 13 March 2015, rtrvd. 2017-07-26)
Of the human senses, sight (vision), hearing (audition), and kinesthetic sense (proprioception), can be experienced in one way or another via the Internet, while taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation) have yet to become possible or commonplace.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
More than ten years ago, in 2006, I attended the Design Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa. The most gob-smacking moment of the week came when Professor Shinichi Takemura, a Japanese cultural anthropologist and social media designer, made the audience sit and listen to the sound of water dripping and bells gently dinging in a 700-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto. These soothing, hypnotic sounds came from a suikinkutsu (水琴窟, literally “water koto cave”) is a type of Japanese garden ornament and music device, basically an upside down pot through which water drips, making a pleasant splashing, tinkling sound like a koto or a marimba.
The important thing about that sound was that it was live, happening, as we heard it, at that exact moment, on the other side of the world in a Buddhist temple. There was stunned silence. Then enthusiastic applause.
Video: Extract from 2006 presentation, “Designing the Global Window”, by Professor Shinichi Takemura, of the moment he introduced the concept of the Suikinkutsu water bells.
Shinichi Takemura had started in 2005 to connect the world through the sounds that the earth makes – such as the sound of water, a project he called “aqua scape” He introduced this concept at the Design Indaba. He said that stimulating people’s senses through the Internet is a way of making people aware of their place on the planet, on earth. Through feeling connected people will feel motivated to address social and environmental problems like global warming and deforestation.
The creation and growth of livecams/live webcams
You might say – so what? These days, livecams or live webcams (live streaming videos via permanently fixed cameras on site) are commonplace. But back then, streaming media was cutting-edge.
Streaming media, when someone uses a media player to begin to play the data file (such as a digital file of a movie, song, or a sound recording) before the entire file has been transmitted but while it is happening,was radically new in the early 2000s.
The main problems with any kind of streaming in the early days were incompatible computer or software systems between the transmitter and the receiver; the user not having enough CPU power and bus bandwidth to support the required data rates; and buffer underrun which caused skipping in the recorded content. The bandwidth was so poor in those days that I used to shut down all other programs and just sit and focus on keeping those little connectivity bars steady at 2 or 3 until a file was downloaded and I could save it on my PC. Streaming was just plain impossible. I could only sit there and watch that irritating buffering icon spin.
Go here for a snapshot of webcams focused on a particularly scenic area.
Attempts to display media on computers actually date back to the earliest days of computing in the mid-20th century – and the first example was “muzak” in elevators. But even by the mid-1990s, the power of computer networks was still very limited, and audio and video media were usually delivered over non-streaming channels, such as by downloading a digital file from a remote server and then saving it. (Remember the old music file-sharing platforms of the 90s like Napster? “Quick, save it on the hard drive the second it’s finished downloading!”) By 2002, streaming media became more practical and affordable for ordinary consumers. But thinking of your PC as the key that will open doors to you all over the world? In 2006, that thought was still fresh and madly exciting.
Designing the “Global Window”
Currently, streaming technology has improved enormously, though compression remains a challenge – and of course, it is a tool that can be used for evil. Focusing on the potential for good, rather than evil, Takemura’s message to the audience of amazed designers and artists still holds true though. If you Google “live cams” you’ll find the usual horrendous stuff, but also a number of sites with live webcams showing recordings of famous and beautiful places – some even with sound. Or you can go on to the new Google Street View and take a virtual walk in the International Space Station (what a cramped and grungy place!), or at any number of parks and monuments. And check out any ski resort worth its salt, and you will be able to see the snow conditions live all ski season long. Not just stills, real-time, live video.
What has this got to do with books?
In 2012 already, Audiobooks.com streaming service was offering subscriptions to unlimited library of 11,000 titles that users could stream through their browser or mobile phone. And at this time, 2017, there are many more sites offering free streaming of audiobooks, and also downloading of audiobooks, anything from classics to children’s bedtime stories (list below). And all this is thanks to the proliferation of streaming media.
- The Internet Archive – The Internet Archive offers over 12 million freely downloadable books and texts. This collection included 550,000 modern eBooks, as well as audio books, that may be “borrowed” by anyone with a free archive.org account. And you can also stream audiobooks.
- Open Culture
- Project Gutenberg
- Thought Audio
- Free Classic AudioBooks
- LOYAL BOOKS
- Digital Book
A note of caution
You never know what you’re going to get on free sites – for instance the horror of audiobooks read by robots that sound like your car’s satnav system – and ultimately, you haven’t really got it unless you have downloaded and saved it somewhere as a standalone file. Companies offering paid or free book streaming go out of business at the drop of a hat. To keep up to date, check out the news on the Digital Reader.
A case in point: children’s book publisher Scholastic announced in 2014 that its Storia ebook shop will be changing from a downloading model to a streaming model. This meant that the books that readers had already purchased would become unreadable and inaccessible at a later date. And in 2012, the free and mostly democratizing Google Print (started in 2004), later Google Books or Google eBooks, became the mostly monetized Google Play Books (though some books are still free.) You can stream books and read them online or offline. You can even rent digital versions of some textbooks.
Another Internet giant to follow the streaming model is Amazon, which, by June 2017, had launched in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. Originally launched in October 2016, Prime Reading gives Amazon Prime members access to a changing selection of books, magazines, comics, etc. The cost is bundled into the annual or monthly Amazon Prime subscription, and the supply of content is secured via flat rate payments to authors and publishers.