In 1979, a mysterious book appeared in bookstores. Written and illustrated by Kit Williams and published by Schocken in the U.S., Masquerade presented itself as a children’s book and told a story in a series of beautifully illustrated puzzles—the solutions of which formed clues to find a literal buried treasure: a gold and bejeweled hare, suspended from a gold chain, buried in a ceramic box to confound metal detectors.
The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies all around the world. I checked it out repeatedly from my local library, at the age of 14, utterly convinced I could solve the puzzle. I was not alone: all over the world—but especially in England, where the book was originally published—property was being dug up, gardens were being destroyed, and general mayhem on the soil ensued. As it happened, the hare was found. As it happened, it was found by cheating. The exact nature of the cheating has never become clear, and there are denials all around, but the hare eventually went to auction and was purchased by an anonymous buyer.
However, by 2001, the development of GPS technology led to a phenomenon called geocaching. Someone would bury a box (usually a notebook with a pencil, sometimes accompanied by an object) and broadcast the GPS coordinates of the location. Those who decoded the coordinates (which in 2001 took a bit of work) went to the location, dug up the box, signed and dated the notebook, and posted online that they had found the cache. Frequently, other objects were buried with the notebook that were available for trade—each finder would take the object in the cache and leave one of his or her own.
Over the years, multiple different versions of geocaching developed, which evolved as technology grew more sophisticated. Laws were established governing where geocaching could occur, historical sites and cemeteries being commonly off-limits. There have been rescues of searchers who have gone into dangerous areas, and, tragically, there have been deaths as well.
Humans love a mystery story, and we also love new technology. The combination of the two is irresistible to many. One evolving technology brings both together: augmented reality.
When we think of augmented reality, we think (mostly) of Pokémon Go. That is the latest and most successful commercial application of AR we’ve seen so far. Released last summer, Pokémon Go has had millions of people out on the streets, in parks, at beaches—even at the White House—searching for and “capturing” virtual critters. The phone-based app displayed a map (created with GPS technology) of where the user was standing or walking, and imposed Pokémon creatures available for capture. The point of any Pokémon game is collection—the more creatures you have, the better you are doing. Suddenly people found themselves exercising and exploring in ways they hadn’t before. This is, ultimately, virtual geocaching.
Any hunt is a story—which was the point of Masquerade. The quest for the Holy Grail—which has inspired poetry, opera, Indiana Jones movies, and Monty Python—is a story. A mystery is a hunt for clues that will lead to a solution. Where there is seeking, be it one individual’s search for answers about his life or a community’s hunt for a perpetrator, there is the possibility for an AR application to bring it to life.
In other words, publishers have the opportunity to look at stories in different ways. Publishers can develop apps for readers, who could point them at books in a manner similar to Pokémon Go and retrieve additional information about the story, or trivia, or details about the likely size of Jo March’s house. AR provides the “enhancements” that we were looking for with e-books—that other dimension that a straightforward narrative can’t offer without footnotes.
Even more enticingly, publishers have the opportunity to create games from their stories. Imagine a Harry Potter AR game: your house is your dormitory, your school is the Hogwarts classrooms, your homework is framed as “spell practice.” AR allows readers to bridge the gap between the narrative and their own lives.
Laura Dawson, CEO of Numerical Gurus, is a book supply chain consultant. She also facilitates Metadata Boot Camp, a webinar series tackling metadata issues in publishing.