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Pry re-imagines the e-book

The iPad-based project tells the story of a Gulf War vet through layers of video, text and sound

by Channing Sargent
Pry program
Pry is an iPad-based reading experience.

The field of media arts can mean many things to its practitioners: For Samantha Gorman, it suggested a book you can watch and a film you can touch.

Gorman created Pry, an iPad-based reading experience, as a PhD student in the Media Arts + Practice (MAP) program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Established in 2013, the multimedia program already has attracted support and interest within and outside the university.

Earlier this year the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded USC $1.9 million for a digital humanities initiative that involves MAP as an integral part.

Pry tells the story of James, a Gulf War veteran dealing with memories of trauma. Developed for the iPad, the piece is experienced through interaction and tactile engagement. Layered fragments of video, text and sound suggest a story that is revealed with touch-screen gestures linked to the narrative.

As James slowly loses his eyesight due to an injury, the reader must pry open his eyes so he can view the outside world. Later, the reader collapses the text to move into James’ subconscious, revealing memories he has hidden away or replaced with imagined experience. Elsewhere, the reader runs a finger along rows of Braille and hears James’ voice reading the text in a speed and clarity correlating with the speed of the gesture.

An immersive experience for the reader

Focusing on the intersection of text, cinema and digital culture, Gorman and partner Danny Cannizzaro, an MFA student in visual art at the University of California, San Diego, began imagining Pry in 2011, about a year after the debut of the iPad. Later, as a MAP student, Gorman was able to take advantage of the program’s emphasis on collaboration between disciplines, using tools and resources across various departments at the cinema school.

The creation of Pry was a hybrid of writing, production, design and coding, all of which occurred in concert.

“Once we really knew what we wanted to create, we realized that we’d planned to do something that print alone can’t do,” Gorman said, explaining how they came to the idea of integrating film into the project.

In developing the narrative, Gorman wondered what text would look like if it had its own materiality — if it lived off of the page. The answer is an immersive experience that places the reader in an active and exploratory reading of the interface.

“Some people don’t see it as a book and don’t want to see it as a book,” Gorman said, but she believes such a resistance may soon fade. After a demonstration of Pry to an audience at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April, an 11-year-old approached. Once his mom explained to Gorman that her son was shy, but had been really interested in the demo, he unleashed a stream of questions.

A big fan of role-playing video games, he had no trouble calling Pry a book.

“I’m definitely seeing a generational difference,” Gorman said. “Kids who understand technology are very open to new kinds of reading.”

Pry will be available on iTunes in June.

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