The Reading Machine


The Reading Machine re-imagines a prototype electronic reading device developed by the American expatriate writer Bob Brown in 1930. Our headsets feature animations of specially-commissioned 3D texts by renowned British writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair erupting from various landscapes in Oxford and London. The Reading Machine launched at Oxford Brookes' Special Collections Archive in the John Henry Brookes building in January 2017.

People interacting with Reading Machine 2017
Eric White, Iain Sinclair, Craig Saper and John Twycross
Eric White, Iain Sinclair, Craig Saper and John Twycross

The event featured a reading by Sinclair, a presentation by Professor Craig Saper of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and photographs and animations by AGAST co-founder John Twycross. The event coincided with the Augmented Reality Winter School hosted by Fridolin Wild, Director of the Performance Augmentation Lan, who joined members of the public and other collaborators to explore the exhibit and bring it to life.

The installation presented an augmented reality version of a 1930 Reading Machine invented by the American modernist writer and publisher Bob Brown, an optical poet and 'grandfather of the e-book'. Previously forgotten by literary history, Brown has been rediscovered by scholars of modernism and media theory interested in his visionary machine and 'the readies' he designed for the device - a media ecology which Brown hoped would become as ubiquitous as the 'talkies' in cinema. 

Person interacting with Reading Machine 'Diplomatic Parking Only'
Bob Brown's Reading Machine prototype 1931 and MakerSpace prototype 2017

The work was also integral to subsequent workshops at Oxfordshire County Libraries MakerSpace, held in collaboration with EOF Hackspace, and exhibition events at the Ashmolean Museum (see below). The exhibit resulted in the creation of new open access AR applications freely available as part of AGAST’s toolkits (forthcoming).

The RM2017 workshops at MakerSpace combined creative writing, practical modelling and digital making activities. We produced functioning prototypes of Bob and Rose Brown’s Reading Machine with an accompanying AR exhibit using 3D-printing and electromechanical engineering techniques. Drawing on White’s research on the Browns’, and Sinclair’s examples, participants wrote stories about the ‘future of reading’ in Oxford which they read using their machines – two of which are themselves now on permanent display in the Oxfordshire County Library’s main location in Oxford.

People interacting with Reading Machine Ashmolean
Phone AR screenshot 'Due to Crossrail Improvements there will be no service'

White presented this work in a TEDx talk to 500 cross-sector policy makers, which showed how humanities research could promote social inclusion in STEAM provision.

The Reading Machine 2017 workshop projects were also exhibited at the Ashmolean museum’s ‘Cool Modernism’ exhibition (Mar-Jul 2018). 10,000 guests attended with 1200 engaging specifically with the projects, followed by a public lecture for an audience that included families of workshop participants. 

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