“You have so many types of reality out there in media today,” said Google’s Luca Prasso as part of Dust or Magic, the half-day children’s app development conference that precedes the Bologna Children’s Book Fair each year. “There’s VR, virtual reality—where you’re wearing a headset where your eyes are covered; AR, augmented reality—something that projects in front of you on top of your reality; then you even have MR, mixed reality, XR, extended reality... even RR, real reality. They are all part of what we talk about in the digital world. What can you make of it all?”
Prasso is Italian, but moved to California nearly two decades ago and spent 17 years working at DreamWorks, before founding children’s app studio Curious Hat. He joined Google two-and-a-half years ago to work on Daydream Labs. In Bologna, his message was straightforward: technology is going to transform the way children will be entertained and taught. One example Prasso cited is Google Expeditions being used in the classroom to take students on virtual field trips, and he noted that with increased machine learning, the software is only going to get smarter and the experiences will become more realistic.
Perhaps of more relevance was the revelation of Google’s increasing ability to manipulate technology to tell stories, rather than merely deliver information. Prasso showed off the 360 Google Spotlight Story: Pearl, which tells the story of a father/daughter relationship as it evolves through their mutual love of music. The film was so successful as a discrete narrative it was nominated this year for an Oscar in the category of animated short film. Elsewhere at Bologna, Google’s Toontastic 3D app won one of two overall Bologna DigitalRagazzi awards. The app allows children to create their own short narrative film using a set of preexisting avatars and storylines that can be customized using the phone or tablets cameras and microphones.
In fact, VR and AR projects dominated the digital programming in Bologna, and nearly all the exhibitors on hand were either fully committed to or dabbling in VR or AR tools and software. Many of these companies, particularly those from Asia, were working on textbooks. These ranged from Victoria Productions and Y Factory, both from Korea, to Singapore’s SnapLearn, which is working with textbook publisher Marshall Cavendish to augment a series of textbooks so they can be viewed through a wearable VR headset.
“If done properly, VR and AR enhancement of textbooks doesn’t break the flow of the reading experience,” said Gerald Cai, cofounder of MXRi Pte Ltd, which produced SnapLearn. Cai, who previously worked at Samsung on its VR/AR education products, says that publishers tried working with purely digital ebooks, “with mixed results” and added “lots of bells and whistles” as enhancements, but “the AR experience in particular is a slightly different play — this involves a real book, for example, and students must flip the pages as they go along to trigger the VR or AR experience.”
The melding of analog and digital experiences was also evident in several of the presentations. Elisa Gretter, digital marketing manager for Milan-based notebook manufacturer Moleskine touted the benefits of the company’s new “Smart Writing Set,” which combines a digital pen with notebook that automatically uploads images to a tablet or a smartphone. And Giorgio Fipaldini, director of Open Milano, spoke about how his hybrid bookstore and co-working space was fostering real-world interactivity for digital natives.
Still, much of this appears to remain on the fringes of Bologna’s core mission of facilitating rights sales and connecting illustrators and publishers. Neal Hoskins, the project manager in charge of the digital events at Bologna, noted the presence of more and more traditional picture book and nonfiction publishers investigating the stands and sticking around for talks in the Digital Hall. “In addition, we saw many more portfolio reviews of artists interested in working with digital companies. This combination of creative technology and art is something very much at the core of the Bologna experience and I expect to see this further develop over the next year,” he told PW.
Some publishers’ reluctance to engage with digital publishing is due to unsuccessful past experiments, when costs were exorbitant and projects often failed after significant investment. Today, a book can be digitized or made interactive for five, 10 or 15 thousand dollars, not 50 or 100 thousand as in previous years—and the price continues to plummet, said one developer. This may be good news for publishers, but not good news for the app developers themselves, many of whom are “merely surviving,” in the words of Valerie Touze, who runs Edoki Academy, a U.K.-based developer of apps for Montessori schools.
The promise of low-cost digital textbooks is enticing to many, but studies have demonstrated that students reading ebooks have lower comprehension scores than those reading traditional print books. When it comes to picture books, interactivity may actually be better for learners.
Speaking at Dust or Magic, Christiaan Coenraads, who runs Het Woeste Woud (The Wild Forest), a Dutch digital consultancy that works with Lezen: The Dutch Reading Foundation, noted that according to the recent research conduced at University of Leiden in Holland, students reading two digital picture books on the computer, two times a week for a month, significantly improved their grasp of language and texts. “But,” he warned, “you only get these kinds of results if the book is done right. You don’t want to make everything on the screen clickable, for instance, nor do you want too many features that distract children from the core story. If done well, implementing an interactive digital picture book in the classroom or at home – particularly for struggling readers – can have very positive results, from better story comprehension to stronger vocabulary retention.”
One example of a book “done right” was Mur, the winner of Bologna DigitalRagazzi VR/AR Prize. The project is an app/book hybrid that tells the story of a bear that doesn’t want to hibernate. The picture book is published by Finland’s Tammi and the app was produced by Denmark’s Step In Books, and allows each page of the book to serve as the portal to a virtual playground where you can embody the bear that follows a small bird as it travels through an enchanted Finnish forest. “We met [Bonnier] at last year’s Bologna during one of the workshops between developers and publishers,” said Aksel Koie, founder and CEO of Step In Books, which also won a DigitalRagazzi award in 2016 for its Wuwu app. The trick with converting the picture book into a VR/AR experience, said Koie, was adding music, “which allowed you to add an emotional narrative element.” For her part, Saara Tiuraniemi, publisher of children’s books at WSOY/Tammi, said that the app brought more opportunities than merely giving readers an “add on.”
“This essentially brings us another opportunity to republish or relaunch the book,” said Tiuraniemi. “And my hope is that this kind of app gives the book extra years in the marketplace.”