digital content, physical book

bluebookThis week has seen the first O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in San Jose, California, with much coverage in the blogosphere, including on Print is Dead.
Wednesday’s keynote speaker at TOC, Manolis Kelaidis, presented an intriguing mash-up of the physical and digital worlds. He received a standing ovation as he described his project to integrate digital content into physical books via circuits printed in conductive ink on the same page as the text. From the description of his session:

Books have inherent qualities that make them an irreplaceable medium, even today. They have survived unchanged for centuries and are one of the most familiar and bestselling products we know. For a particular type of user experience they simply have not been bettered. Digital media (portable devices, touch-screens, etc.), however, has been offering seductive new possibilities to readers, especially in terms of interactivity. Can these two worlds, the digital and the physical, co-exist in a product that would offer the benefits of both? Manolis Kelaidis demonstrates his elegant ideas for next-generation books.

This isn’t breaking news. The blueBook previewed at the Royal College of Art’s 2006 Show. Here’s the science part, from booktwo, which also has more information and pictures:

The blueBook created at the RCA and pictured here is a traditional book over-printed with conductive ink. This conductive ink creates hyperlinks on the page which, when touched by the reader, activates a processor concealed in the cover of the book. This processor then connects via bluetooth to a nearby computer, triggering different actions.
For example, a children’s book on animals might activate sounds and videos on a screen when the printed picture of the animal is touched. Reference books may contain inline glossaries linked to Wikipedia or Google. Keywords in novels trigger incidental music. Buttons on academic papers connect to discussion forums or send feedback to the author.

Can you sniff the pages? Can you read it in the bath? I don’t know, and this seems an intermediate technology to me – albeit an exciting one. A step on the way to the Minority Report moment. If there was a device that looked and behaved like paper, but which had truly interactive features within the device (rather than requiring an external computer), that would be really exciting. Portability, wireless connectivity and interactivity are key here. As is the future integration of computing into our daily analogue lives. From O’Reilly Radar:

What the BlueBook teaches us, along with some of the electronics-infused craft projects that Dale Dougherty of Make talked about in the keynote right before Manolis, is that we are moving towards a future in which the physical world will be infused with computing. It’s not a story about the future of the book so much as it’s a story about new ways to integrate digital and analog. It’s the other end of the same string that brought us the Nintendo Wii as an innovation in gaming. Manolis is asking us to think about a future when a “computer” isn’t just something with a keyboard and screen.

This really is Minority Report stuff. Chips in clothing, that sort of thing. Much of the technology is there, waiting to be refined, developed and have a business model applied to it. The challenge for publishers is to be aware of these developments, and to be able to take advantage of them when they arrive. Many have already created vast digital libraries of their content, for example. But it will also require a shift in attitudes and ideas about what counts as content, value – and a book.

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Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a content writer, author, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger - and the founder of Publishing Talk. He was previously a publisher for 10 years. Publishing Talk aims to help new and emerging authors write, publish and sell books. Advice is available via the blog and our masterclasses and membership programme. More...

One thought on “digital content, physical book

  • 23rd June 2007 at 11:45 pm

    The book in the bath dilemma is one that I face on a regular basis.
    I long for the day where bath-time reading doesn’t run the risk of sodden paper, or minor electric shocks!
    Speaking of which, I had a definite ‘Minority Report Moment’ when browsing youtube, and stumbled across what Sony have been doing with OLED technology.
    Exciting stuff!

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