Reading the future

Will print books still be relevant for digital natives? Or to put it more simply, is the print book dead? I think we have moved on from a time when this was seriously considered to be the case, but why is it still often believed to be the case? And have we even reached a point where a print versus electronic debate is obsolete?

Springer Nature has been offering all of its books in both print and digital format for more than 10 years now and we invested early in digitising our entire back catalogue. This has enabled us to study reader behaviour and find out that, in the case of academic books at least, people are not wedded to one format or another—print or digital—but in fact pick the format depending on their specific learning situations. So can this help us to develop new formats and products that address such individual situations?

As the largest academic book publisher, we want to be at the forefront when it comes to developing new formats—whether we are helping students learn more effectively or researchers understand more quickly. To do this we need to know what the optimum way is to present book content to our brains. In order to get more and better insights, we are closely following a new area of interdisciplinary research that explores “reading success” of books. It aims to identify if there are differences in the amount of content that you can memorise depending on the format in which you read it. For example, experiments show that readers score better in a test about how much they remember when they read a printed book in comparison to a tablet or e-book version.

The reason for this seems to be that, at least in part, reading is a relatively new skill for the brain, compared to other tasks that the brain has been optimising already for millions of years. The first alphabets date back no more than 6,000 years, and for most of this time a large majority of people were illiterate; for most of human history our brain was not adapted for specialised skills such as reading texts. Even today, we seem to use the parts of our brain primarily responsible for spatial orientation when we are reading.

At Springer Nature we are keen to use this research to develop new book formats that may help increase the capacity for us to retain the information we read. One example of this is “virtual reading”. It is early days and the technology is not yet mature, but it is developing at a rapid pace, with first results showing that reading books in the future might indeed be in virtual or augmented reality settings.

This may be because print book content is “immobile”; it is fixed in a physical form and research shows that, in some specific learning situations, students who study with a print book score better in their exams than those who read from a small-screen PDF. One explanation for this is that reading in print resonates better with our spatial orientation and memory.

While the introduction of electronic book formats has enabled us to experience book content in a more fluid and flexible way, something which clearly brings many advantages, research has also found that when users scroll up and down to read a text, they have less spatial orientation and may not be using the full capacity of their brains.

Reading in virtual reality, however, has the possibility to combine the positive elements of both print and electronic book formats. Its 360-degree format enables readers to view multiple pages simultaneously without interrupting the reading flow through page turning or scrolling.

Greater possibilities

This is because in a virtual reality environment the reader can be shown many pages at the same time, with the full text being readable simply by a movement of the head. Further experiments are under way to see whether, for some texts, reading in such an environment—one where a user’s brains are able to better orient them within the text with a simple turn of the head in the right direction—will further enhance our ability to read faster and memorise quicker, as opposed to scrolling, which results in a greater loss of focus. First results seem to be very promising.

As said earlier, we are still at a very early stage in finding new ways and technologies that help readers to more quickly access and memorise the content they are reading. We are now using this research to experiment with new ways of displaying book content that builds on the strengths of both e-books and print books. As a result, these are exciting times for the book and for us at Springer Nature.

Niels Peter Thomas is chief book strategist at Springer Nature. He will be participating in an EdTech panel discussion entitled Techmate: Education and Technology at the FutureBook Live conference in London on 30th November.