Greenpoint resident Brian August is creating the augmented reality smartphone app 110 Stories, and his Kickstarter campaign to fund the project ends Saturday. We talked to him about where the idea came from, the app's technical challenges, and why North Brooklyn is the ideal place to use it.
The L: Will you be ready to launch the app by September 11th?
Brian August: Without a doubt. The launch event itself is September 10th in Greenpoint. I hope to have it in the iPhone and Android app store by September 1st. There's a bunch of developers in Chicago, New York and Germany going crazy right now.
When did you first get the idea for "110 Stories"?
The first time I ever did anything really substantial to lay the groundwork for this, other than thinking about it a lot and drawing and being obsessed in that kind of way, was last summer. At that point I lived on the corner of Keap and Hope and on my rooftop I took a piece of copper tubing and bent it up into the shape of the towers. And I'd already spent so much time staring at the horizon from my roof that I knew exactly where they were, and I knew exactly how big they should be. So I took this piece of copper tubing that was maybe three feet high and handed to my friend and said "go stand over there and hold that, hold it up like a flag," and I positioned myself 20 feet back with my iPhone to get the right perspective, because you've gotta be in the right spot to make it work, and I snapped the picture with iPhone, just thinking, "let's see how this comes out." And we both looked at it and were like, "Holy shit, it looks like the skyline." Not only did that give me the idea for the app, but it also gave me the idea to make the physical thing, which I still want to do, to build spots around the city where you would sit on the bench and look at the view. Some people think it's morbid, but I think it's amazing.
That image was the beginning. And the copper tubing I used to make this very primitive sculpture was an old piece of copper that had been rolled up, so when I tried to straighten it out as much as I could, I couldn't quite make it perfectly straight. In doing so I gave myself the idea that by making almost perfect but not quite perfect, it looks drawn. I realized that was a really great way to do it because it makes it look less like I'm trying to put the buildings back, which is something that might be construed as a little morbid, and it gives it the feeling of an art project, like somebody drew them. My goal is not just to render the towers and put them in their proper place, but to make them look like somebody drew them with a pencil. The whole copper tubing thing was really integral in accidentally giving me that idea. That really was the start of it all, a little over a year ago, although I've been thinking about this for five or six years.
This whole thing came out of this idea of building these looking installations all around the city, and my plan is for me to build the first one—I'm pretty sure it's going to be in Greenpoint, and I want to put it in Transmitter Park. So I want to build a model of the towers with a bench that is the first one of what I hope will be the first of dozens or even hundreds around the city in spots where people remember having incredible iconic views, where they can sit with their kids or their grandkids and go "that's what it looked like." It might take years to do this, but there are so many metalwork artists in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick, and if somebody is interested in working with me to help me build the first one they should get in touch with me (at email@example.com).
So do the towers in the app look like they're made of copper wire?
It doesn't look like copper wire, but we kept its imperfections. It inspired me to make the rendering somehow look humanized. You look at it, and you know the buildings aren't real because it's either a black line or a white line, but they're so accurate and in the right spot that you feel the same way you would feel if they were rendered perfectly. You feel actually better in a way because you know they're not real. One of the things I refuse to let go of and am certain is a good thing to do in a lot of situations, and in this situation I'm a hundred percent certain is the right thing to do, is that less is more. I'm trying to make this as simple as possible. It's something that's not simple at all, and I'm presenting a series of emotions and interactions that are not simple, but I'm keeping this thing simple.
Your project seems reminiscent of many other ephemeral 9/11 memorial projects, like the WTC Logo Project, the Sonic Memorial Soundwalk, or the Tribute in Light; have other memorial projects influenced yours in any way?
Probably more than any of the others would be the Tribute in Light. And without getting into too many details, there's definitely an homage to the lights in the app. I've thrown a couple little Easter eggs in there for people who pay attention.
Have you sought any support from the LMDC and other groups working on "official" 9/11 memorial projects?
I'm actually in the process of being introduced to LMCC, the people who did the lights. To be honest, I've been a little leery about how I associate myself with all of that, because the app is really for me more about what happened before 9/11 than what happened on 9/11. It's about the buildings, people's memories of the buildings while they were there and before there was any notion of the horror of 9/11. And a lot of really good memories that people have involve those iconic images. You just forget how you lived your daily life and when you looked up you expected them to be there. And so when you see them through the app, it's almost like listening to a song that you haven't heard in a really long time, you have this visceral reaction where you're transported back to a very specific point in time. It's those moments and those stories that creep up in you that I want people to tell. That's the comments part of the app.
I'm designing it to be very agnostic: it just presents an image to you and then it's basically saying to you, "tell me what this means to you." If it's something that's difficult then it's difficult, but I'm hoping that for the majority of people this will experience this as something very positive. I know there will be some people for whom the image will be something very painful, but I've tried to minimize that by limiting my association with organizations directly tied to the victims and the tragedy. As a result, I think this whole project has turned into almost a little bit of a positive oasis amongst all the more somber and reflective remembrances that are going to go on for the next month. I think that's a big part of why it's resonating so much, people are surprised to see a pretty uplifting 9/11 World Trade Center-related story. That's really awesome.
In many respects "110 Stories" seems to be more about the stories people will post rather than the iconic building silhouettes that will be recreated on the app.
The image is very simple, it's to cajole you, to pique your memory and make you go, "Whoa, I forgot about that." It's very thought-provoking, it's provocative. It has a lot of different implications for different people, and I think that's really healthy.
What's the geographical range of the app?
I would like the range of the app to be almost out to the absolute physical distance that you could see them, which I think was 49.7 miles at sea level on a perfectly clear day. But they would be so tiny that they would look like two little black filaments against the sky. So even if you could see them with the app, the app wouldn't be able to render them, they would look like a smudge. I would be very happy if it worked from even 25 miles away, which is far enough away that they're very little. We'll see what happens.
My bigger worry is how it's going to work when you're two blocks away. That's where it's going to get clunky just because of the buildings and the whole perspective gets skewed. You see pictures from underneath where you get all those converging lines going up looking like train tracks. That's gonna be much harder to render than it will be from three miles away, where it's just perfect against the skyline, which is why I'm having the launch in Greenpoint, which is the perfect spot for the app to work and people to see the buildings against the sky perfectly. Plus that's where I live, so it's the view that's become burned into my psyche.
How does the technology work? Does the app generate the towers' silhouettes based on the architecture surrounding the site, through GPS?
It starts with GPS, because it's a smartphone, it knows where you are. Then there's the logic of a three-dimensional model inside the phone that includes being able to rotate it in 360 degrees, and being able to take that model and shrink it or make it bigger. It will figure out where you are, how far away you are, what direction you are from the orientation of the towers, and then it's gonna throw that model in there. The thing we're working on right now with the developers is that the model we have right now is more like a three-dimensional cube, so the back lines of the tower show through the front. I don't want that; I just want it to be the outline, I don't want people to be able to see the edge that's behind the building. So now they're going back to do more coding; everyone agrees it's the best way to present it. Same thing with the antenna. If you look up from kind of close, and you see the antenna sticking up out of the center of the building, I don't want that to show because I want it to look like what it looked like to you. So that's what the developers are doing.
Have you had to take into consideration new buildings that have risen in the area?
We've talked a lot about the fact that a building might be in front of what you're looking at, and how do you have the towers render properly and not be in front of something that they're actually behind? And I realized that in maybe not 90 percent, but certainly more than half of the views that you have of those towers there's nothing in their way from halfway up. They're so much bigger than everything else that from 60 stories up there's just them and the sky. So what we're going to do to keep it really simple is that the rendering is going to start to fade away about halfway down.
What additional features will you add if you reach the new $35,000 goal by Saturday?
I'll definitely add some features to the Android app that the iPhone version doesn't have, like there will definitely be a better experience for people who are not within 20 or 50 miles. I'm building an app that's meant to recreate physical views from within 50 miles. It's for people who were here and lived here, and saw it, and those views became ingrained in them. But I will do some cool stuff for people who are outside of the 50 mile range. The iPhone version is pretty much set in stone, it's pretty far along, now we're working on the Android app and if we can throw a couple things in there to take advantage of the Android's features that would be great.
How many people are working on "110 Stories"?
There's probably close to ten people now working on different aspects of it. We're working on the user experience and user interface for the iPhone, which is the first one, and then I've got a couple of specialists in Germany working just on the augmented reality component. And now Google is helping me build the Android app. So many people had asked me, and then Google reached out to me the other day and I met up with people at Google Creative Labs and they've made it possible for me to build the Android version, so there's another team in Germany working with the augmented reality developers, but they're specifically creating the Android version.