Epic Australian journey gets remixed for smartphone era

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Inside Tracks by photographer and publisher Rick Smolan makes use of the Aurasma smartphone app to bring some of the photos to life. Photo: Against All Odds Productions
Inside Tracks by photographer Rick Smolan makes use of the Aurasma smartphone app to bring some of the photos to life. Photo: Against All Odds Productions

Rick Smolan, creator of the Day in the Life series, has made a career out of turning complicated ideas into groundbreaking photography books. His latest book is more personal — and equally innovative. It’s a collection of photographs he made in 1977 that seemingly come to life with a smartphone app.

Inside Tracks combines Smolan’s photographs of a woman’s trek across the Australian Outback with a smartphone app that, when pointed at one of the pictures, brings the reader to a corresponding scene from a movie about the epic journey.

“It’s the best book I’ve ever done,” said Smolan, a New York Times best-selling author. “It has done amazingly well, especially for it being self-published. The smartphone feature has fascinated people. It’s an inspiring story with cool technology.”

Smoland and Robyn Davidson, left, and actors Adam Driver and Mia Wasikowska. Photo: Against All Odds Productions
Smolan and Robyn Davidson, left, and actors Adam Driver and Mia Wasikowska. Photo: Against All Odds Productions

The book is filled with images captured during Robyn Davidson’s Outback odyssey in 1977. Davidson became a treasured folk hero in Australia after making the nine-month trip with four camels and a dog. At the time, Smolan was a young photographer on assignment for National Geographic who followed her off and on throughout her journey.

A double-truck photo of Robyn Davidson meeting up with Aborignal children during her journey across the Australian Outback. Photo: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Production
Robyn Davidson meeting up with Aboriginal children during her journey across the Australian Outback. Photo: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Production

Smolan’s pictures proved arresting because of the colorful scenery along 1,700 miles of rugged Australian countryside. They captured the beauty and resolve of a remarkable woman with a spiritual connection to the land, and Davidson’s journey became one of National Geographic’s most popular stories. She wrote Tracks, a best-seller about her experience, and a movie by the same name came out last year starring Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and rising star Adam Driver as Smolan.

Inside Tracks merges Smolan’s pictures with imagery from the movie, thanks to free iOS photo-recognition app Aurasma. (An Android version of the app is available on Google Play.)

Davidson and her four camels in INSIDE TRACKS. Photo: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Productions
Davidson and her four camels in Inside Tracks. Photo: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Productions

The pictures in Inside Tracks also reveal Smolan’s connection to Davidson. The two enjoyed a brief romance during the journey, which was reflected in the movie. They remain good friends.

The filmmakers used many of Smolan’s photographs to re-create scenes for the movie and flesh out some fine details, like clothes Davidson wore on the journey.

Smolan convinced producers to give him rights to some of the film scenes so he could use the Aurasma technology with a book that would show both Smolan’s original photos and stills from the set of the movie.

With the Aurasma app, a reader of INSIDE TRACKS can point the phone at a picture and view a corresponding scene from the movie, TRACKS. Photo: Against All Odds Productions/YouTube
With the Aurasma app, a reader of Inside Tracks can point the phone at a picture and view a corresponding scene from the movie Tracks. Photo: Against All Odds Productions/YouTube

Aurasma launched in 2011 as a way to publish augmented digital content. Available for iOS and Android, the app uses advanced image- and pattern-recognition to blend the real world with interactive content, such as videos and animations known as Auras.

“Instead of being a static book experience, the story can be seen in lots of ways,” Smolan said. “You can point your phone at one of my original pictures of Robyn and see how it is brought to life in the movie. It’s a lot like the newspapers from Harry Potter.”

Inside Tracks was published in December after a successful Kickstarter campaign that sold more than 11,000 copies, a substantial number considering photo books are generally not great sellers.

Smolan, though, has made a career beating the publishing odds (his company is named Against All Odds Productions, after all). In the 1980s, he co-created the Day in the Life series, organizing photographers to converge on a country on a single day to produce extraordinary images of ordinary existence. The book was done in a number of countries and 1986’s A Day in the Life of America went on to sell 1.4 million copies.

He expanded the Day in the Life idea for America 24/7 in 2003, organizing photographers and picture editors in every state to document their communities during a single week in time. In addition to America 24/7, each state produced a 24/7 book.

Smolan admits he performs much better when he is in over his head on projects. Fellow photographers laughed at him when he began talking about the Day in the Life series and several publishers rejected the idea.

Eventually, he launched A Day in the Life of Australia with support from the government. It was a hit and the series went on to include the popular America version along with books from Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, China and California. He has also published books exploring technology, medicine and the early days of the Obama presidency.

His next project is developing a television series based on his favorite childhood science fiction book, Tunnel in the Sky.