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Breathe: A Digital Ghost Story

DOI: | Issue 1 | March 2019

Author: Kate Pullinger, Bath Spa University

This video features interviews with Prof Kate Pullinger and Dr Matt Hayler, both discussing the aims and development of Breathe. The music that plays throughout is Bessie Smith’s Shipwrecked Blues, which is also the song referred to and quoted from throughout Breathe.


Breathe is a literary experience, a work of experiential storytelling – a ghost story for the smartphone that uses data pulled from the reader’s phone to personalise the story to every reader. Funded by the AHRC’s larger Ambient Literature project, Breathe builds on much of Pullinger’s earlier research into new ways of creating fictional forms native to the smartphone. Specifically, it explores the question of how the affordances of smartphone technology can be used to create literary works that are situated in time and space in relation to the presence of a reader, making use of three APIs (application processing interfaces) – weather, time, and location – so to access data via the reader’s phone in ways that subtly alter the story for every reader.

Research Statement

The aim of Breathe was to explore the question of how the affordances of smartphone technology can be used to create literary works that are situated in time and space in relation to the presence of a reader. Using three APIs (application processing interfaces) – weather, time, and location – the story accesses data via the reader’s phone in order to subtly alter the story for every reader. Through the use of conditional text, the story changes according to the temperature, the season, and the place it is being read. Because the story is a ghost story, this often produces an uncanny effect for the reader; for example, the ghost in the story knows where the reader is located.


Narratively, Breathe tells the story of Flo, a young woman who has the ability to talk to ghosts. As Flo struggles to communicate with her mother, Clara, who died when she was a child, other voices keep interrupting. As these ghosts disrupt Flo’s search for Clara, they recognise the readers’ surroundings and begin to haunt the reader in the same way as they haunt Flo. Breathe is thus best described as a literary experience, a work of experiential storytelling – a ghost story for the smartphone that uses data pulled from the reader’s phone to personalise the story to every reader.

Breathe builds on much of my earlier research into new ways of creating fictional forms native to the smartphone. An earlier project linked to this research strand was Jellybone (2017); commissioned by a German start-up called Oolipo, Jellybone used the media affordances of the smartphone, including images, short videos, audio effects, notifications, and vibrations, all of which were combined with text. This ten-chapter novel for the smartphone is a supernatural thriller which tells a story about the same female character featured in in Breathe, Flo Evans. In Jellybone, Flo is slightly younger, living at home after graduating from university, plagued by messages from the dead that arrive at all times of the night and day on her phone. Jellybone is, in some ways, both more conventional and more innovative than Breathe: conventional in that it builds on the kind of text + media work that I have been creating over the past fifteen years, and innovative in that it attempts to create a text + media work native to the smartphone.

Published in 2018, Breathe was commissioned as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Ambient Literature. This research project ran for two years, 2016-18, with partners from the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, Bath Spa University, and the University of Birmingham. The Ambient Literature Research Project focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers. It explored the following research questions:

  • What happens when data aspires to literary form?

  • What does it mean when the place where you’re reading becomes the stage for the story?

  • How might writing, reading and the idea of the book itself change when we use technology to design stories, rather than simply deliver them?

These questions were addressed by the research team in discussion with its advisory board, itself comprised of artists, scholars, and mainstream trade publishers. In order to further expand on these research questions, the project commissioned three major new works, one of which was Breathe. While the first two commissions, Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark by Then, and James Attlee’s The Cartographer’s Confession, were created in collaboration with the technology company, Calvium, Breathe was created in collaboration with Editions at Play, which is itself is a collaboration between London-based publisher Visual Editions and Google Creative Labs Sydney. This collaboration grew up out of conversations I had been having with Tea Uglow, Director of Google Creative Labs Sydney, and Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen from Visual Editions. Breathe became the eighth title published by Editions at Play and it was, in part, shaped by the aesthetic form the publishers had been refining. This form retains some of the elements of the codex – pages and page numbers, black text on a white background – while at the same time disrupting and expanding those elements through the visual design interventions that represent the voices of the interrupting ghosts mentioned above as well as the conditional text that is produced by the three aforementioned APIs.

In addition to these three APIs, the story also uses visual design methods to represent the interrupting voices of the ghosts through a sequence of ‘ghost behaviours’, making the most of the haptic qualities of the smartphone screen. Most memorably, perhaps, is the instance where one of the ghost behaviours disrupts the swiping right behaviour the reader has been using to navigate the story: when the reader attempts to swipe right to move to the next page of the story, the text itself is rubbed away. And as well as these ghostly behaviours, the phone also accesses the reader’s camera at the beginning of the story, taking a single image of the reader’s surroundings; this image is brought back into the story several times, making literal the idea of Breathe as a book in a room – the reader’s room.

Below is an example of page 3 of Breathewhere conditional text and an interrupting ghost voice are present:

It’s <Time format=`words` /> where you are. Around you <CurrentPlace type=`locality` /> <action related to time of day – night: sleeps, morning: rises, afternoon: works, evening: rests>. I’m glad I found you. I’ll tell you my stories.

The Mischievous Ghost – Deleting Text Prototype: (1) - deletes the text above, types:

Stupid stories. Stupid girl. I’m close by, I’m on <CurrentPlace type=`route` /> already. You need me – not her.

This extract from the text shows the use of conditional text to personalise the story based on two of the three APIs embedded in the story. If it is before 12pm when the story is accessed, the first line will read ‘It’s morning where you are.’ The second sentence will locate the story in the town or city the reader is in while also adapting it according to the time of day: ‘Around you London sleeps.’

The next paragraph in the text describes the interrupting ghost behaviour: the text on the page – Flo’s voice – is deleted and replaced by the ghost’s voice. And the final paragraph produces the uncanny effect, depending upon the location of the reader: ‘I’m close by, I’m on Sawley Road already.’ This variable text works well despite the fact that if the reader is indoors the geo-location API can be imprecise – ‘I’m close by’ can, of course, mean around the corner or in the next street.

Despite the technological innovation behind the creation of Breathe, the story is designed to be accessible to all readers who possess a smartphone and have access to an internet connection. It resides on a URL and therefore does not require a download. As well as receiving a good deal of coverage in the mainstream, technological, and design press on publication, Breathe has had a long lifespan of attention in online style and culture publications, attracting the millennial readership we had hoped to interest in the project. It has been used as a case study by The British Library’s Emerging Formats working group, as our legal deposit libraries continue to work on understanding how best to collect born digital, dynamic texts. Looking forward, the Ambient Literature Research Project will be publishing a co-authored scholarly volume, Ambient Literature, with Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.

You can find the work itself online for free at: The story takes approximately 15-20 minutes to read and should be read on a smartphone.

This article is made available under the CC BY 4.0 license.

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