Curl up with your iPad and start reading Gone with the Wind—go with me on this for a minute—and as you visualize Scarlett O’ Hara gliding across the room, you actually can hear the swish of her petticoats.
Or you’re plowing through The Da Vinci Code and suddenly you’re jolted by the two-note whine of Paris police sirens.
As disorienting as it may seem, the experience of reading to a soundtrack took a big leap forward last week with the launch of a new software application called Booktrack. The company, with a U.S. office in New York City, is about to start rolling out versions of e-books that come not only with music but also sound effects synched to the story line—a ticking clock here, a gunshot there and just like that, you’re multi-sensing. Booktrack files currently work on Apple devices and should be available on Android devices soon.
How does the book know when to fire the gun? It reads your mind. Almost. By calculating your reading speed from when you turn the page, it gauges when you’ll reach the word or group of words that trips a sound effect. For slow readers, the background music plays on a loop, idling euphoniously, until you get to one of the trigger words.
To show this isn’t some forever-in-beta bagatelle, Salman Rushdie, the Pulitzer Prize winner himself, was at the Booktrack launch party in New York. His short story “In the South” will be available with a soundtrack this fall. So will Jay McInerney’s “Solace.”
Plenty of classics will be getting the Booktrack treatment, perhaps with the notion that people will give the golden oldies another go if this time they come with music. Coming soon are sound-spiced versions of Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, The Three Musketeers, Pride and Prejudice, even Romeo and Juliet. (Hear those swords clanging? )
Let’s face it, though—this is not a product for those for whom a book is an experience in quiet immersion. Most likely Booktrack ultimately will be popular with the generation of people who can read/listen to a book while texting friends, watching “The Office” on Hulu and hacking into the Pentagon.
It’s no accident the first title available on Booktrack is a young adult, science fiction novel, The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore (aka James Frey). iTunes sells the Booktrack version for $12.99 and the ordinary e-book for $9.99.
Actually, a lot of innovative things are happening with sound these days. Here are a few of the latest:
- Pump up the volume: Orange, the French telecom company, has created a T-shirt that builds up enough energy through ambient sound to charge a smart phone. The shirt has sheets of piezoelectric film—the same thing you find in speakers—which can convert sound waves to enough current to charge a phone. The downside: Right now, you’d have to stand along a noisy city street to generate enough juice.
- You again: Apple has applied for a patent for software that would allow your iPhone to recognize your voice.
- Noises off: Researchers in Spain have developed a prototype of an “acoustic cloak” that eliminates noise.
- Talk to the pants: MIT scientists have created plastic fibers that can detect and produce sounds. They can be used to make clothes that act as a microphone.
Video bonus: A little old-school sound show featuring the lyrebird, which not only can mimic other birds, but also new sounds in the jungle, including a camera with a motor drive and strangely enough, a chainsaw.
What book do you think would be better with Booktrack treatment? Personally, I think the pitter-patter of hobbit feet would add a little something to Lord of the Rings.