Innovation is our regular column highlighting emerging technologies and predicting where they may lead
With digital technology now offering so many compelling options, encouraging children to read books has become a herculean task. So said the author and playwright Tom Stoppard this week, when he told the London Daily Telegraph that children are such technophiles that he fears for the future of reading.
David Crystal, president of the UK's National Literacy Association, thinks these fears are overplayed, however. Speaking at the Royal Society of Arts in London this week, he denounced those who say the abbreviated style used in texting is corrupting English. He thinks we should embrace any and all new technologies that get people reading – whether that's Facebook, blogs, texts or emails.
"When these critics walk down the street, don't they see kids reading all the time – on their mobile phones? Are they so blind they can't see that?" he says. "To say kids aren't reading is just false. Too much attention is paid to the technology carrying their words and not the content."
Indeed, the digital written word seems to be in rude health. This week an e-book price war broke out, some say as a direct response to the Apple iPad, which is now used by 3 million readers around the world.
Death of print?
But arguably these devices don't address Stoppard's concerns. It's the printed page more than the written word that he fears is under threat from technology. Putting aside the fact that ink and paper chemistry, alongside binding adhesives, make books a technological feat in their own right – albeit an old one – what can be done?
It may sound trite, but technology could provide the answer. Children's love affair with traditional books could continue in the digital age by augmenting the written word with 3D interactive graphics.
In the vanguard of this is UK-based publisher Carlton, which this week launched what it claims to be the world's first augmented reality (AR) book series – Fairyland Magic and Dinosaurs Alive are out now; Sharks: Monsters of the Deep will follow soon.
Open the dinosaur book and hold it in front of a webcam attached to a computer, and the live image feed on the screen displays a pint-sized 3D T. tex roaming across the page. Do the same with the shark book and the screen fills with water, leaving the user peering into the abyss through a virtual diving mask – whereupon various animated sharks appear, alongside information about each species.
At Carlton's launch this week I saw Russell Porter, the company's design director, demonstrating the Fairyland Magic book. "You may not know this, but fairies are attracted by three things: water, fruit and flowers," he said, as he conjured up all three, and encouraged a virtual fairy to land on a floral card held in his palm.
The technology at the heart of the books is a software package called D-Fusion from Total Immersion, a French AR software house. Total Immersion has perfected a robust technology that can recognise a piece of printed matter such as a book page layout even if some of it is obscured by the fingers and thumbs gripping the book. It then superimposes pre-programmed 3D imagery on the computer's camera feed.
It looks fun enough, and an unscientific poll of one child – my daughter – suggests it could provide children with a novel way to involve themselves with the stories they read. "Cool!" was her reaction when I showed her the video accompanying this article.
It has its drawbacks, however. Holding the book open in front of a laptop's built-in webcam is a little unwieldy when you need to activate keyboard commands: it's best to have a separate webcam and train it on the open book.
"Total Immersion has a lot more ideas coming: it's exciting stuff," says Porter. It won't be long before readers can interact verbally with the animated characters they conjure up, though voice recognition, he says.
Crucially, these AR books work as standalone books: they are commissioned and written no differently from any others. The technology is only an added lure, says Carlton managing director Belinda Rasmussen.
She thinks AR could answer some of Stoppard's criticisms. "We want children to love and read books and we think what we have achieved here is a modern book where the technology gives us something extra. It's still a book first and foremost."