Augmented reality books need to become more than a gimmick

Augmented reality books need to become more than a gimmick

The popularity of technologies like augmented reality is increasing as more publishers use them to engage young readers. In the US, only 38% of 4th graders and 19% of 8th graders report reading on their own time, and technologies such as AR are seen as a way to reach a generation which grew up constantly interacting with screens and digital content.

This also forms part of a broader shift towards empowering readers and engaging them in the creative process. A recent World Economic Forum report listed creativity as one of the top skills needed for workers to thrive by 2020, and such interactive technologies are key in accomplishing this.

Augmented reality is far from a new phenomenon, however, and many in the publishing industry have been investing in this area for some time. Carlton Books, for example, has sold over 3 million books powered by its proprietary AR technology platform Digital Magic in 31 countries and 28 languages. As the company’s digital director Japhet Asher explains, however, the technology and its applications have evolved considerably in the seven years since they launched Digital Magic.

“Most of our early AR books have been about a particular subject or story, with the digital piece bringing samples of that story to you," he says. "Now, we are also creating books that are part of the story as physical objects as well as through their content.  As a result, some of our latest digital/print titles will feel like artefacts from immersive story-worlds, whether such a world is fictional or is a part of our own that normally lies beyond our reach.  We are accomplishing this by embedding our AR experiences much more deeply into the pages of our books."

Publishers in this space tend to agree that this technology has the potential to combine the best aspects of both digital and print. It’s what inspired mum-of-two Ingrid Salloum to found ImagineMe two years ago. The personalized books her company creates are printed and then coupled with a 3D augmented reality experience that can be accessed through a free mobile app on any smartphone or tablet.

“It’s not about what AR as a technology can achieve—it’s about the way it is leveraged in the book so that it hooks and enriches the young reader’s experience in ways that a normal book could not,” says Salloum. “It should address specific pain points perceived by those young readers, who tend to enjoy books in a different way and want to get involved, not just from a reading perspective. That’s where AR can provide additional depth and richness to make reading more fun, interesting and engaging.”

Salloum and ImagineMe were recently selected for The Nucleus, an accelerator facilitated by the UK Lebanon Tech Hub where they will be developing the concept and technology over the next few months. In preparation for the program, she conducted market research amongst a sample of parents aged from 25 to 45 to learn what factors might appeal to them and encourage their adoption of AR technology.

The surveys and interviews found that while the vast majority – over 93% - of parents habitually used devices like smartphones, tablets or PCs themselves (and often let their children use them), they were often concerned that the content they consumed should be both educational and interactive. While many viewed AR as a gimmick, once they were introduced to it they often perceived it as a potential way of improving their children’s short attention span and enhancing interaction with them.

Many believe that this increased interaction and engagement can also translate into better learning outcomes: “Augmented Reality works on reading because it uses multimodal learning, meaning we are using more than one sense in the brain to learn,” explains Alfred Espidol, founder and c.e.o. of Launchable, a company using AR to improve children’s literacy. “This creates a strong emotional tie for young readers, like they are attached to the book and part of the story. If you watch any kid read with augmented reality it’s as if they are playing a game,” he observes.

Launchable worked with two PhD researchers at the University of Central Florida Maria C. R. Harrington and Emily K. Johnson to investigate how augmented reality has the potential to foster engagement, and their preliminary results chime with a recent article in Publishing Research Quarterly which notes the technology’s positive impact on literacy and overall learning effectiveness through cognitive attainment: ”Augmented technology contributes to increasing engagement, invites participation, and develops appreciation of the context. Augmented books are proposed to incentivize curiosity, facilitate the interpretation of text and illustrations, and provide a learning tool that relates to the reader,” the paper concludes.

In an article published in the Computers & Education Journal, however, researchers examining the potential of AR for education warned that while the technology did offer many new learning opportunities, it also presented significant challenges. It’s more productive, instead, to approach AR as a concept rather than a technology.

This is the approach publishers such as Carlton are adopting, ensuring that their titles are "future proof" by designing engaging experiences anchored on great stories. If you have robust content, they conclude, it will engage readers whether they’re viewing it on a smartphone, through smart glasses... or using whatever new device comes next.