Book publishers have to date shown some reluctance to embrace the new information and communication technologies. However, in one particular field – children’s books – the industry is now experimenting with new approaches.

Children’s Books Becoming an Innovation Laboratory

Everyone in the business has been talking about it. The book world is undergoing a revolution. First there were manuscripts, then came printing, and now we have animated text. So the book is entering the digital era – and to a much greater extent than simply making novels and stories available for on-screen reading. The new ICTs are being harnessed to augment – even radically alter – the reading experience. This innovation process is being focused on one area in particular – children’s books. Children nowadays grow up using the new technologies and players in the book world are well aware of this. So publishers need to create content that makes use of the new ICT tools and can no longer be content just to reproduce a paper version on a screen. In this situation, countless companies – both innovative startups and major publishing houses – have recently embarked on the creation of series of animated books and stories designed to plug into tablets.

Interactive content for kids

While Amazon’s policy is to stick close to the notion of a book – the latest Kindle simulates the feel and texture of real paper – new players have set out to create an approach to reading which is specifically designed for digital. Many startups are already offering e-books enriched for tablets and a number of them have started producing interactive story books where readers have to make their own choices. So far however, only one company has actually developed a tool for creating such books – French firm Cylapp, which has just come out with an interface that enables authors and publishers to create books for children on the iPad. CyLapp started out as a student graduation project, before launching on the market at the beginning of this year. It is now starting to attract both authors and publishers. The innovation tool is essentially intended for producing children’s books: “This is where the market is at the moment,” says Cylapp co-founder Estelle Courdoisy, although she and her colleagues are not strictly opposed to the idea of extending their tool to other categories of books, such as user manuals and school textbooks. Nevertheless, for most publishers, children’s literature seems to be the main springboard for the new technologies at the present time.

Augmented reading for paper books as well

Meanwhile Disney Research has taken an approach which consists, rather than moving towards the gradual extinction of physical books, of incorporating innovative technology into them. The animation specialist has set out to develop a projector system designed to animate paper books. In fact a museum in Germany has already tried out the idea of inviting visitors to animate a paper book onscreen. In France several years ago, publisher Nathan launched a children’s discovery collection using augmented reality. Explains Céline Charvet, who is in charge of Children’s publishing at Nathan: “The idea was to add something extra to reading a book in paper format, and that extra something was digital.” The system works by using a webcam and software to create animated images on the screen as the child reads. “A fun interactive multi-channel experience which suits the way children discover things,” is how Céline Charvet describes it.  Nevertheless, this kind of technology is still difficult to manage and requires some equipment – a webcam with high resolution and a good-quality computer. Going even further down this road, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new ‘wearable’ device that enables ‘augmented reading’ in which you can actually feel the protagonists’ emotional state as you read.  However, some commentators reckon this approach is stuck at the prototype stage and may not see the light of day as a marketable product.  “We’re now moving towards 4D experiences on iPad,” predict the Cylapp founders. So it seems we can expect to see an augmented approach to reading which allows an unprecedented degree of immersion in the text. “The techniques are constantly evolving and it’s up to us to adjust to them,” is the watchword at Nathan. With this reading (r)evolution all content will need to be adapted to or created specifically for the new technology, and indeed publishers are starting gradually to do so. Nevertheless, one question remains: do readers, even children, really want to experience reading in the same way as you do a movie?

By Guillaume Scifo