Last year, Zappar's lead designer, Anna Broadhurst, worked with a primary English teacher, Frankie O’Reilly on an augmented reality book for children aged 7-11. The idea came about after O'Reilly noticed that disengaged students were more inclined to pick up a book with a technological element, bridging literature and digital media.
The protagonist of The Boy with his Head Stuck in a Book is a school boy who hates reading. He gets his head literally stuck in a book when he is dragged to a library and flung into a fantastical world full of characters from classic novels to contemporary fiction - the aim being to inspire students to explore these texts in more detail, with minimal nagging from parents and teachers.
We asked Broadhurst to share her learnings and insights from working on the project.
Why did Zappar decide to branch into children's literature, and why now?
We’ve already seen a huge leap in the integration of publishing and literature with technology over the past couple of years, but there’s so much more to offer. When it comes to combining reading and technology, most - if not everyone - would suggest an e-book. Only recently have wider audiences started to climb onboard with technologies like augmented reality and the solutions it can bring to books and education in general.
Something that has been of huge interest is merging the tangible tech that students use and creating a project that resonates with them and gets them excited about reading and picking up a physical book again. Interactive novels, or immersive literature, are one of the key ways to engage students, enhancing the content provided by books with technology. By creating experiences or storylines that have an immersive aspect, educators and innovators can begin to re-engage an unengaged audience.
While working with this kind of innovative tech is exciting, there are certain elements that can prove to be more challenging than others. By incorporating a storybook with technology, there has to be a story that captures the reader's interest and serves a purpose rather than just creating cool experiences that don’t really do anything. It’s also important to make sure the book isn’t saturated with technology, taking away the main point of the project - to encourage children and students to read.
What are some of the unique user experience considerations you had to incorporate?
One of the biggest challenges we faced was when it came to choosing a binding for the book. We had to consider that the user is likely to be using a tablet to scan the pages and as children have smaller hands it would be difficult for them to hold both the book and the device at the same time. To accommodate for this we wanted a binding that would stay open when placed on a table or lap. It also needed to be relatively flat in order for the digital content to track to the page (a curved surface warps the image making it harder for the camera to then detect it successfully).
What evidence do you have to show that AR is a genuine spur to reading, rather than a sexy gimmick?
If someone was to only scan the illustrations in the book, the story wouldn’t make complete sense to the user. The aim of AR in literature is instead to ignite curiosity in the reluctant reader and get them to then want to find out more about what is going on in the story. It works the same as traditional picture book illustration, where the text and illustrations work together to tell the full story. AR is just one step up from this by using animation and interactivity to work with the illustration and text. By using the tech in this way, this traditional technique can be extended to slightly older ages who have outgrown picture books but are reluctant to read text only stories, which is why the age range of 7-11 was chosen.
User testing on the book has shown that the kids were indeed inclined to scan a page before reading the text but that after watching and interacting with the animation they then returned to the text to find out the full story, and then spent time travelling between the two - showing that it does successfully engage children in reading itself.
Does it exclude children without internet at home or money to power mobile data?
The purpose of immersive literature is to make a seamless link between tech and reading, and incorporate the technology that people are using more of into picking up a book. It’s important to remember that the end goal of ideas like this is to get more people reading, not to get more people reading with their phones. The added immersive element to interactive reading is a huge benefit in the struggle to encourage people to pick up a book, but shouldn’t be seen as the be all and end all for those who may not have the access to the technology or funds to run systems like this.
What dead ends/ mistakes did you make along the way?
Part of the original intention was to have a personalised aspect to the digital content and whilst we’ve since done this at events, where the child gets to take a selfie and then see their head inside of the book, it was never something that materialised in the print version. In our future books this is definitely an aspect we will explore further.
What doesn't work with books and AR?
If the AR tells the full story, it will replace the need for the child to read the text. It needs to only support and enhance the story, engaging the user but in a way that doesn’t completely tell it. And the opposite is also true, if the AR adds nothing of value to the storyline then it will only be a gimmick. The print and tech need to go hand in hand to support each other.
How do you see AR changing or developing this year, and how might that affect the book trade?
The future of the AR landscape is going to be really exciting to watch this year. To see this technology become more and more integrated into daily consumer life is a great step for the industry in general, and is sure to provide us with some really innovative campaigns and products in 2018.
The book trade will always be hugely popular, across all ages, however as technology develops it would be interesting to see AR incorporated across literature for different age groups. Perhaps an augmented reality cookbook, bringing recipes to life, or a travel book that allows you to really explore places before you see them in the flesh? Augmented reality opens up a whole host of opportunities across a variety of different industries, and the developments this year in the book trade could be incredibly exciting.