What do we mean by digital literature? Electronic literature (or digital literature) refers to literary works created exclusively on and for digital devices including computers, tablets and mobile phones. Digital literature includes a variety of genres such as linear e-narratives and hypermedia narratives. The advent of digital multimedia and Web 2.0 has had an enormous impact on digital storytelling and has lead to calls for literacy and literacy pedagogy to be redefined. Digital literature brings with it unique affordances which I would like to examine in more detail by reviewing three of my favourite exemplars, namely SHERLOCK: Interactive Adventure, The History of Jazz: An Interactive Timeline and Al Gore – Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.
SHERLOCK: Interactive Adventure
Developed by HAAB Entertainment, SHERLOCK: Interactive Adventure is an award winning digital adaptation of The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and featuring Sherlock Holmes, the world-famous consulting detective. Conan Doyle’s short story first appeared in The Strand Magazine in August 1891.
In the process of developing their digital story, I have no doubt that HAAB Entertainment would have thought long and hard about which particular platform would have best suited the story. In particular, every digital story can take advantage of the unique affordances of each digital platform it uses (Alexander, 2011).
SHERLOCK is an immersive, 3D storybook which undoubtedly sets the standard for this genre of digital literature. SHERLOCK is an absolute delight to use. The developers have gone to a lot of trouble to give their app a pseudo-Victorian, steampunk sensibility that is totally immersive. The developers have used shades of brown (or sepia) throughout the 30 pages of their app. As a result, instead of merely looking at an app on an iPad, you feel like you’re reading a dusty old book published long ago. Moreover, because of the look and feel of the app, it felt like I had gone back in time and that I was actually there seeing the story unfold.
The team of developers who created SHERLOCK have reimagined the experience of reading a book in a digital environment by giving the reader two different ways of ‘reading’ their ebook. On the one hand, in portrait mode, the reader can interact with the app as if it were a book: They can look at an illustration at the top of the screen then read the text underneath. On the other hand, in landscape mode, the app becomes an audiobook with the text disappearing and being replaced by a button which the reader can tap to have a narrator read the text (see Figure 1a & 1b).
There are lots of different ways in which you can customise the app. In Settings there are five languages to choose from, namely English, German, French, Russian and Spanish. There are sliders whereby you can adjust the volume of the music and sounds as well as adjust the size of the font. You can also turn hints on or off.
In Share, you can send an email to the developers, rate the app and email your friends a link to the app. As well as having its own Facebook page, HAAB Entertainment’s iPad app can also be found on other social media including Twitter and YouTube.
One of the wonderful things about SHERLOCK is that the developers have included game elements in the sense that rather than just reading about Sherlock Holmes you can be Sherlock Holmes. In particular, in search mode you can use a magnifying glass to look for clues and when you find one you can tap it to add it to your collection which you can view at any time. There’s also a dossier of information you can view at any time as well as a detailed interactive map of 19th century London where you can tap the names of some of the famous buildings and a pop-up will appear with more information about that particular monument (see Figure 2 below).
As a digital technology, the Apple iPad offers unique affordances that app developers would be well advised to take advantage of. The developers of SHERLOCK have done exactly that. The app includes many of the multitasking gestures the iPad is famous for including swipe left, swipe right, swipe top, swipe bottom, double tap, pinch in and pinch out.
In terms of possibly using this app in an educational context, this app is clearly not suitable for unsupervised minors. However, I see no reason why more mature students of History and English should miss out on the pleasure of viewing this app. I believe their students would be highly engaged by the immersive nature of the app as they discover the history of the city of London during the Victorian period.
Whilst I have enjoyed using SHERLOCK, like any technology, the main drawback is that Apple update their software from time to time. In other words, the developers have no choice but to update their app otherwise it may not work as intended once Apple have updated their iOS operating system. As an example, if and when Apple bring out a new version of the iPad, HAAB Entertainment will need to update the app or risk being out of date. In other words, if they don’t update their app, word will soon get out that it doesn’t work properly on the new iPad and people will simply stop buying their app.
The History of Jazz: An Interactive Timeline
Developed by Amped/955Dreams, The History of Jazz: An Interactive Timeline is a whimsical, animated iPad app that appeared in the Apple App Store in January 2011. The app has clearly been designed to take advantage of the unique affordances of the iPad in the sense that the developers have made a conscious decision to design their app such that it can only be viewed in landscape mode. As well as that, they have made good use of some of the more common gestures associated with the iPad including swipe left and swipe right.
The app includes a comprehensive ‘app tour’ that clearly indicates how to navigate your way around the app (see Figure 1 below). As well as that there’s a Settings page whereby you can do various things including email the developers as well as give the app a rating. However, the ‘rate this app’ link didn’t seem to be working properly. In particular, I tried the link a number of times over the course of several weeks and I always got the same error message telling me that I didn’t have an Internet connection when in fact I did.
The app’s navigation consists of a series of timeline bars at the bottom of the screen. As you tap a timeline bar a date range appears on the bar just tapped plus the bar moves up the screen and the timeline moves left or right to reveal the content relating to that particular period. Tapping the Genre View button causes the timeline bars to lie flat thereby revealing an interactive diagram of the different types of jazz music. Tapping an entry in the diagram causes that entry to become highlighted plus the timeline moves left or right to display the content you have selected (see Figure 2 below).
Each time period includes a short piece of information about the style of jazz music popular at that time with a link to more information via Wikipedia. There are also thumbnails of several YouTube videos plus a showcase of jazz ‘Legends’ from that particular period. Tapping the photo of a ‘Legend’ causes a larger block to drop down from the top of the screen (see Figure 3 below). Each of these blocks includes biographical information about the artist plus YouTube videos of their performances as well as a curated list of their essential songs and albums. A feature of the app is its in-app purchasing whereby you can purchase a piece of music by tapping the button labelled “$0.99 on iTunes” (see Figure 4 below). However, I tested this on a number of occasions but I couldn’t get it to work.
The History of Jazz is a delightful, informative aural romp. There’s much to love about the app but there are also some things which detract from the user experience. Streaming media is always going to be an issue in a digital world and Amped’s app is no exception for it includes a large number of videos which are being streamed from YouTube.
On the one hand, if the developer had not gone with streaming media, they would have ended up with a very large app. Apart from the fact that the app would have taken up a lot of memory on an iPad, the app would have also taken a long time to open.
On the other hand, by going with streaming media, the developers have undoubtedly opened themselves up to link rot. A website may be restructured and/or redesigned such that any inbound hyperlinks may no longer work. Moreover, a hyperlink may be broken because of some form of blocking. As a result, a web link that worked yesterday may not work today.
Unfortunately, there’s already evidence of link rot with several videos being unavailable for one reason or another. Ultimately, this and other issues are likely to detract from the user experience.
At times, I found the navigation to be a bit lacking. For example, whilst reading a section on Donald Byrd I found a typo where the text refers to “his live shoes” instead of “his live shows”. Anyhow, later, when I went back to confirm the typo I couldn’t even find the section on Byrd. At this point I realised that, whilst navigating the app is a breeze if you already know about the history of jazz, it would be a totally different story if you were new to jazz and just had the name of an artist. The user experience would benefit from a Search button which newbies would be able to use to find information on specific artists whilst jazz buffs would probably never need it.
I could easily imagine a music teacher, a student of music, a music historian or a musician buying this app and getting many hours of aural enjoyment out of it. In particular, The History of Jazz would be a great resource for a music teacher who would undoubtedly be able to use it in class with his or her students.
Al Gore – Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis
Developed by Push Pop Press, Al Gore – Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis consists of 18 chapters and includes photography, interactive graphics, animation and video as well as audio commentary by Al Gore himself. The app has a visual table of contents in the form of a horizontal film strip along the bottom of the screen. As you swipe left and right the content on the screen updates accordingly. If you see something on the main screen that looks interesting just tap it and the table of contents will disappear. To go back to the table of contents simply pinch inwards and the table of contents will reappear.
Each chapter is laid out like a book with the text in blocks across two columns. However, the text is broken up with other content including high quality images and videos. You can zoom in on an image at any time by tapping on it. By doing so, the image will then resize to fill up the screen. Tapping the image makes it go back to its original size and location. Some images appear to stand out from the rest of the screen in the sense that they go beyond the edges of the page. Tapping such images causes them to unfold thereby revealing the other half. For example, Chapter 1 includes a visual representation of the various sources of air pollution. When you first see this image it fills the righthand side of the screen. Tapping the image causes it to unfold such that it now fills up both sides of the screen (see Figure 1 below).
Our Choice has the look and feel of a glossy coffee table book with many of the images being of a high quality. Many of these images include some form of interactivity. As an example, some of the images have a globe icon in the bottom right of the screen. Tapping this icon causes a map of the world to appear with a labelled red pin showing you exactly where the photo was taken. Once you’ve finished looking at the map you can tap the X in the bottom right and be taken back to the image you were previously viewing.
Moreover, many pages include interactive infographics. These infographics are characterised by a hand symbol in the middle of the image. Tapping the image causes it to resize such that it fills the whole screen. You are now free to interact with the infographic as appropriate. For example, in Chapter 13, in a section on the proposed European and North African electric grid, after tapping the image so that it fills up the whole screen, and a highlight in the shape of a white circle shows you the available options in the bottom left of the screen. Pressing and holding your finger over those options causes the content on the screen to change accordingly. As well as that, there are several prompts one of which invites you to “Touch a country to learn more” (see Figure 2 below).
As an app, Our Choice is much less interactive than it could have been. It is functional and informative but it’s certainly not beautiful. I suspect this may have more to do with the perceived readership than anything else. The developers of Our Choice would have done their homework and would have known that there’s no real need for the app to be highly interactive. The subject matter is such that they’re not trying to entertain. They’re trying to take an emotive subject, namely climate change, and lay out the facts in the hope that by doing so they can perhaps provoke a response from the reader.
This app may not be as exciting as the other two apps. However, its subject matter is timely and I have no doubt that it would have broad appeal. Anyone with an interest in environmentalism, climate science, renewable energy or demographics would enjoy reading this app. In an educational setting, I can see Our Choice possibly being used in high schools as well as universities. In particular, in a high school, Our Choice could be used in a range of subjects including biology, chemistry and physics. Moreover, this app could also find a market with green groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and others.
I worry about the shelf life of an app like Our Choice. According to the App Store, this app hasn’t been updated since September 2013. The technology behind the science of climate science is evolving so rapidly that this and other apps like it are going to be out of date even before they’ve been developed let alone two years later. As a result, as a professional educator, I would be concerned about the veracity of the information contained therein and would be reluctant to use this app in an educational setting.
Alexander, B. (2011). The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. ABC-CLIO.
Amped, Inc. (2011). The History of Jazz: An Interactive Timeline (Version 2.1) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/
Gannes, L. (January 12, 2011). 955 Dreams Jazzes Up iPad With Interactive Music History App http://allthingsd.com/20110112/955-dreams-the-ipad-gets-jazzed-up/
HAAB Entertainment. (2014, March 24). SHERLOCK: Interactive Adventure. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/sgx3p_sYuEw
HAAB Entertainment. (2015). SHERLOCK: Interactive Adventure (Version 1.6) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/
Leu, D.J. et al (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), 5-14. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.55.1.1
Push Pop Press. (2011). Al Gore – Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (Version 1.0.4) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/
Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). https://www.csu.edu.au/division/library/ereserve/pdf/walsh-m3.pdf
Yokota, J. & Teale, W. H. (2014). Picture books and the digital world: educators making informed choices. The Reading Teacher, 34(6). Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3886534/Picture_Books_and_the_Digital_World_Educators_ Making_Informed_Choices