Continuing our profiles of this year's BookTech Company of the Year finalists, we talk to the team behind Novel Effect, a platform hoping to enhance real-world storytime with digital special effects.
Novel Effect aims to add that bit of extra magic to old-fashioned storytime, using voice recognition to sync special effects such as movie-style theme music, sound effects, animated illustrations and responsive "internet of things" connected devices to your words as you read aloud from a print or electronic childrens book.
Think of the classic tale of Peter and the Wolf where an orchestra listens to the narrator and plays music and sound effects at just the right moment. With Novel Effect, you are the narrator and the app is the orchestra.
The idea for Novel Effect was sparked when Matt Hammersley (right), a former patent attorney and engineer, and his wife Melissa, a SCAD trained graphic designer with her own design company, witnessed a friend reading aloud at their daughter's baby shower in Seattle. "Guests brought their favorite books as gifts and one friend read aloud from the book she brought, adding fun voices and sound effects as she told the story," Matt Hammersley explains. "It was then that the lightbulb went off. If every reader could tell stories the same way, every kid would know the joy of books and grow up with a love of reading."
The Hammersleys launched Novel Effect as c.e.o. and Creative Director respectively, then brought on Melody Furze, a special education teacher for children with sensory impairments, as Education Director, and Kevin Coulton, a full stack developer with over one million downloads on the AppStore, as c.t.o.
What gap in the market did you spot?
"The way stories are told has evolved with the proliferation of ebooks, audiobooks, virtual reality, and more," Hammersley says. " However, as shown by the recent decline in ebook sales, readers, especially parents, still prefer good old-fashioned print. Until now the market has struggled to blend print with digital in a way that offers the best of both worlds."
The Novel Effect platform claims to be the first of its kind to use screen-free technology to blend existing print books with rich interactive content. As the app runs in the background, enveloping the reader in a sensory immersive experience, the focus remains on the physical print book.
"We developed a digital program to complement a book and storyteller rather than replace them, while keeping the tradition of print alive," Hammersley insists. "Eight in 10 children say they love being read to and see it as a special time they share with their parents. A majority of parents read aloud to their children, but kids say they stop too soon, losing a valuable tool to engage as a family around a book. Together with publishers, Novel Effect can create and distribute companion experiences for their entire catalog, unlocking a new revenue channel and creating new generations of lifelong book lovers."
Novel Effect also syncs with ebooks and ereaders, which also provide the opportunity for animated illustrations to come to life and for pages to turn on their own using the custom-developed voice recognition system.
Success so far?
Novel Effect graduated from the Pioneer Accelerator by GSVlabs and Google Developers Launchpad this September, then& launched in public beta for iOS devices, with over 3000 books read and 15,000 minutes of reading time logged so far. The user base includes children's museums, schools, daycares, and bookstores, as well as families, and the app was named one of the Best Reading Apps of 2016 by Education World.
The team is currently working on a pilot partnership with large worldwide publishers.
The Novel Effect team is having to graft hard to expand their product offering in line with demand. "Users want more content," Hammersley says. "We want to work with all publishers to create interactive experiences for their entire library of content, connecting them with our network of musicians who can create professionally composed theme music and sound effects customized for each individual book."
They are also hoping to establish more partnerships, helping publishers to produce companion tracks in-house to distribute on the platform. "Our goal is to make their enhanced titles available to our customers quickly and efficiently".
"We want to get Novel Effect’s entirely new medium of interactive storytelling into the hands of every family," Hammersely declares. "We are really excited about the possibilities that our voice recognition system has unlocked to create unique and engaging experiences. All forms of media, from books, to plays, to movies, to games can be enhanced through voice interaction.
"Seeing the physical reaction of kids and adults as they realize Novel Effect is reacting to their voice and words is amazing. Their surprise quickly turns to excitement as they continue to read to ‘hear’ and see what happens next, whether it’s a story they’ve never read before or one they know well. Everyone should feel this joy when reading and our ultimate ambition is to make that happen for every child."
Advice for other publishing entrepreneurs?
"Our best advice is to not go it alone and seek out synergistic partnerships. It is an uphill battle to get noticed and marketing is expensive, but with buy-in from known industry partners, growth can be exponential."
To see Novel Effect pitch for the BookTech crown in front of a panel of industry judges, join us at the FutureBook Conference on December 2nd. In the meantime, catch up with the profiles of two of our other three finalists, Publishizer, Kadaxis and Joosr.