Enhancing traditional books with technology

by Philip Webb on 11 January 2011

In a previous blog, I explored the idea of merging interaction and narrative. But what about using interactive technology as a complement to reading?

Now that books can be read on a dedicated e-reader or tablet device, the possibilities for enhancing or changing the experience of reading narrative text (either fiction or non-fiction) are truly exciting. Marcus du Sautoy, the author of The Num8er My5teries, a book about bringing maths to life, makes use of a gaming app and web content to supplement the static text with visual interactive material so that readers can try out the puzzles for themselves. His excellent article Into the Unknown discusses some of the opportunities and limitations of this new publishing technology.

My reservation is that the act of reading is such a singular and focused experience, that any interactive add-on to the text on a device may just interrupt the flow. Reading may seem passive but the interaction between reader and book can be highly active whereby the reader re-creates the world of a novel in the mind. Apps that offer complementary content such as interactive family trees, maps, glossaries and author interviews need non-intrusive interfaces that don’t distract the reader from the main experience. Mobile Art Lab’s Phonebook allows an iPhone to be placed inside the covers of a book to deliver content appropriate to the current page. Such seamless augmented reality solutions offer a way for physical books to be enhanced by interactive technology.

The Alice app for the iPad offers animated scenes using artwork from the original Alice in Wonderland book to ‘bring the characters to life’ which is more a re-invention of what a book is than a complement to the text.

What’s interesting is that the possibilities for interactive technology lie at any point along the spectrum between complementary apps for traditional paper-based books and complete re-imaginings of what a book can be. And often the nature of the content itself can determine what blend of traditional linear text and interactive content will work.


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