What you see above is Augmented Reality, or AR. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which replaces what we see with a new world, AR blends the real and the make-believe into one seamless whole. As young as this field is, it already achieves mind-blowing results. The first time I saw anything like this, it was in the Lego store in NYC. There, you can hold a Lego box set up to a monitor and watch the finished Lego set hover over the box. It’s freaky and cool. I think it’s the future of picture books.
But why not more than picture books? The end-goal for AR is to have the camera and screen mounted in front of the user’s eyes. This creates a paintable canvas out of everything you see. Your vision is completely blocked — much as the iPad in the above video blocks you from seeing the actual book — but it is replaced with a high-quality screen that shows you what you would be looking at. On top of that image, you can add anything you want. And what completes the illusion is that these added objects “stick” to perceived objects captured by the camera, which means they respond to all the jitters and shakes of the viewer’s head, lending the illusion that these objects are real. Look again at how you can wobble the iPad, and the graphic on the book follows along perfectly.
Donning an AR headset to read a picture book will be as common twenty years from now as putting on 3D glasses to watch a film can be today. But imagine this scenario: You put on a pair of AR glasses and grab a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. The glasses recognize the cover of the book, and it knows you’ve purchased the AR version of Gulliver. When you open the book, the story comes to life all around you.
Not just on the pages of the book, but on the floor in front of you. There’s Gulliver being washed up on the beach. You might pull your knees up to keep your feet from getting wet. There are the Lilliputians staking Gulliver to the sand. Maybe one of them asks you to place a finger on a knot while they tie a bow. Perhaps they look up at you warily as another giant to tame. The point is, you have to keep reading to find out.
Inward-facing cameras could track your eye movement (we already have this tech), so the book knows what word you are reading. A narrator could read aloud with you. Or maybe you just hear the dialog in the voice of the characters’ when you get to it, leaving you as the voice of the chorus. Or if you are in learning mode and you linger on a word for a long time, it reads the word aloud, flashes a pronunciation guide on your wall, and shows you examples.
Another idea: You will never dogear or bookmark a novel again. The camera scans each page you read, and it even knows what word or sentence you left off on! When you pick up the book, it sees the cover and announces what page you’re on. Even niftier, if you glance at the edge of the book, it can light up the approximate page location with a gold bar, like the first down marker in an NFL game. Start flipping the pages, and a green arrow will show you which way you should be turning. Maybe a little character is there on the page waving you along, telling you to hurry, raising the sense of danger and excitement.
Of course, because this is new technology, there will be complaints. People will say that reading is all about the imagination and that we shouldn’t add anything concrete to take that away from people. Which is just about the most unimaginative response anyone could possibly have. Audiobooks add professional voices to the page, and anyone who is addicted to them will tell you that for some readers, a great narrator makes a story even more enjoyable. I would argue that making books fresh and exciting in these ways can only add new readers to the fold. Those who don’t enjoy these features won’t purchase them or will leave them turned off. People like me, who grew up on The Neverending Story, will go bonkers over the chance to enter our favorite books and interact with the characters.
One quick caveat: Building these books would be very expensive and only affordable for the bestsellers and the classics. Graphic design doesn’t come cheap. The most practical use will be for learning, picture books, textbooks, and the like. But imagine a new edition of the Sherlock Holmes novels where you can walk around your room and look for clues. Or read on your bed while Holmes and Watson stand over a body, checking out a murder scene.
Despite the costs, some features like reading aloud in those ever-improving computer voices, remembering your place in the text, and looking up and pronouncing words might be universal features that even self-published authors implement. Turning to the back of a book would have more than an “About the Author” page. The author might pop up in the room with you and introduce themselves. Or dance a bit of ballet for you. Instead of an Acknowledgements page, the author would be able to thank people personally with video. Self-pubbed authors will of course come up with myriad affordable enhancements to their books once this tech is in place.
If it all sounds too science fiction, I urge you to watch the video below in its entirety and then go see Gravity in iMax 3D. Take these rough concepts and keep in mind that the video blow is two years old. Then look at Gravity and how far CGI has come in a just a few decades.
What will books look like 100 years from now? They’ll hardly be recognizable. But they’ll still be stories that we immerse ourselves in, which will never change. And they’ll only be bounded by our collective imaginations, which means not one of us can say where all of this will lead. I just know that I’m excited to get there and see it for myself.