Friday, 9 March 2012

Making the Hackney more Hackney: a review of the @HackneyHear

An app I trialled last year has finally arrived in the iPhone app store.

The app is free.

It's an audio GPS triggered experience.

And it's called The Hackney Hear.

When I went to trial it I didn't have high expectations. At that time I didn't have a smart phone, I didn't really understand what an app was and GPS makes me nervous.

The team behind the app gave my girlfriend and I an iphone and a headphone splitter and sent us out into Hackney with only the app to guide us. And from the moment we started using it we were hooked.

The design of on the screen was simple and engaging and the voice of the app guided us through. As we walked we were transported. It was an exciting thing to share, this new and unusual experience, being whispered at by the places you stand in.

The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky once said that
“art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
And this is what the Hackney Hear did for us. It changed the world around us, the world that we are used to seeing and so never really look at, into something more emphasised. It put London Fields into a bold typeface. It made the stone more stony.

When you use the Hackney Hear this is what happens:

The location around you speaks, sometimes literally through the voices of the people of Hackney, sometimes with the everyday sounds of Hackney, and also in heightened forms such as stories, songs and poetry. All of this is transported through your earphones and into your mind. It is an intimate experience.

As you pass a statue you hear about its history. As you cross a field you hear people hoola hooping on a Sunday, like ghosts of the weekend, heard but not seen. When you sit on a park bench it talks to you, tells you about the changes that it has witnessed. You hear quotes from literature that refer to Hackney. You hear fiction from authors like Michael Rosen and Ian Sinclair, fictions that spring from their experience of Hackney. When you pass the Lido you hear a song about the Lido. It is like a magic spell. You see the building as you hear the song. You hear documentary footage and interviews, people describing the present day Hackney in all its complexity, from gang colours to zebra crossings.

I don't live in Hackney. Trialling this app was the first time I'd ever been to London Fields. But the experience of using this app, of walking through this augmented reality, made me feel as if I know Hackney on a much deeper level that I would have done if I'd just passed through it unthinkingly. To someone who knows Hackney already I think this app might be an even richer experience. It might make the Hackney more Hackney.

I look forward to returning to London Fields to re-experience The Hackney Hear. I look forward to it's reach growing to cover more areas of Hackney.

And I wish that there were more audio landscapes like this one. But maybe that would dilute the quality because one of the things that makes this app great is that it has been curated skilfully, providing a rich and complex experience for its listener. Although maybe listener is the wrong word because listening is only part of the experience. Maybe people using this app should think of themselves as explorers.

I look forward to exploring this landscape again. And hope in the future to be able to explore many other areas in this unique and exciting way.

This is what some other people said about it:

Hackney Hear - the trial users speak from Hackney Hear on Vimeo.

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