Digital Reading: Can Technology Give Us a Tangible Experience in E-Reading?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND | @bklynanne

While the push to digitize, convert and distribute e-books goes on in the publishing industry, there’s a smaller but influential network of researchers and technologists trying to develop smart, interactive – but still touchable, tangible – books made mostly out of paper.

This is a leap from commercial offerings of the 1990s, mostly for children, of astronomy books with embedded, light-up galaxies, talking storybooks, and glow-in-the-dark Halloween books. The new generation’s books move and respond to user input; they are truly interactive.


Looking for a New Blend of Technology and the Book Arts

Their inventors live equally in academia – such as in the High-Low Technology Group within MIT’s Media Lab, and the Computational Design Lab at Carnegie-Mellon University – and outside of it, in various tech industries as well as peripheral publishing areas. Riding the strong current of the Maker movement (the latest generation’s mash-up of technology with a cultural return to crafting and DIY), these book investigators want to hold on to the sentimental comfort and the form of the book while infusing it with high-tech abilities.

First, the form: Tangible computing (working to interface real objects with computers) is partly an effort to snatch from extinction a crucial part of users’ experience – receiving more sensory feedback– as our activities of life transform into pure digital. For example, screen reading, whether on a computer screen or an e-ink reader, lacks the feel, smell and sound of a paper book.

Tangible results were on display at the recent ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) Creativity & Cognition conference in Atlanta, and at the workshop, the Future of the Book. A deep nostalgia for bound books made of paper infuses many of these projects, but with a twist.

There are pop-up books that respond to light, sound, or touch. Some delve into the meaning of the book form, as in the project Novel Architecture, offering a concrete take on the idea of “immersive” reading. Others reveal pages that fold, shimmer, and interact with the reader.


Bridging the Gap Between Research and Commerce

This is next-generation e-book thinking, for sure, but there’s potential application everywhere in areas that current e-books have struggled with – for example, children’s educational, picture-book, and edutainment products, as in TOK, a storytelling project for young children from EngageLab at Portugal’s University of Minho.

Are these “Maker” books really e-books?  They’re electronic, at least in part, but in their prototype stage they only demonstrate functionality: they don’t yet reach the goal of the book experience – the information, or the story.

Technologists should think about how they can deliver e-text in this more traditional, book-like package, preserving the form and also the material that so many readers will always care about. The bridge, then, is to find a way to program them to contain and display changing text.

Publishers won’t be wasting their time if they keep an eye on this trend. E-books have moved so quickly away from the tangible and the familiar, but perhaps not forever.
There are more possible books in this digital book world than we have dreamed up so far; and those who are developing them live where art and technology meet.

Next: text.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the current president of Women’s Media Group.

Anne is also a member of the advisory board for the Publishing Innovation Awards, which celebrate the best in ebooks, enhanced ebooks, and book apps. New to the Awards this year is the QED Seal, which highlights usability in ebooks along a thorough 13-point ebook inspection in multiple formats and platforms.

Digital Production & Technology, Expert Publishing Blog
Anne Kostick

About Anne Kostick

Anne is a UX fan girl and a partner in Foxpath IND , specializing in the transition to and from traditional content publishing and online content development, management, and publishing. Her clients include trade book publishers; technology and financial services websites; and arts and cultural institutions. Her occasional column, Digital Reading, discusses user experience and related topics in ebooks and digital reading. Anne is emerita president of Women’s Media Group, an industry organization, program director of the Digital Book Awards and a member of BEA Conference Advisory Board. She is the author of several books for children and a definitive collection of jokes.

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