“What if...?” is a question that has fascinated me for years. Time travel, alternate reality, identity swap – I’m a sucker for a book or a film that even hints at any of the above. Let’s put ourselves in neanderthal man’s shoes (or hairy feet) for a second and take a step backwards on the communications evolutionary ladder...
So we’ve just returned from a hard day at the swamp, ready to skin the sabre-toothed emu, or whatever’s dish of the day, feet up in front of the... what? fire? Well, there’s nothing interesting on (it’s a repeat) so our cave-dwelling chum decides to send a quick smoke signal to Clive, two doors down – “coming over for a crafty pint and a game of rocks?”
OK, I’m highlighting the fact that our ability to communicate and entertain is dictated by a combination of the technology of the time, the willingness to accept progress and the imagination of society’s key influencers.
Let’s suppose the natural evolution of communication was somehow skewed and our stone-age man (let’s call him Nigel) didn’t follow the route of smoke signal, cave paint, carving, scripture, etching, keyboard... hold on there, we’ve reached the first real mechanised interaction.
Up to this point we’ve had a fairly hands-on relationship with the messages we convey – hand painting, carving and writing all require the ‘user’ to form the symbols or letters themselves.
Along comes the keyboard, an array of physical buttons that require the user to push each one in turn to have the machine stamp out every letter to form intelligible prose. Now, Nigel decides he doesn’t want to play the game so he’s going to avoid the constraints of a physical keyboard and address the more pressing issue of communication.
No keyboard, well we still need to get our words onto a screen (or display of some kind) so Nigel opts for a stylus input as his quickest, simplest and most expressive way of recording his thoughts, responses and list of favourite cave women.
My handwriting is pretty illegible at the best of times so it’s unlikely Nigel’s hairy monkey-hands are going to produce anything more useful. Now he wants the best of both worlds by utilising effective handwriting recognition software capable of translating stylus input into text files.
Voice control annoys me, so let’s assume Nigel’s not that fond of it either. This technology is fine for in-car use (although my last car thought I was German) but you try shouting at your iPad in an airport lounge without being hauled off by security.
Let’s add a digital scrapbook to drag and drop content from all other sources: apps, web, documents, email, you name it, Nigel can add it complete with reference to the original source. We say ‘drag and drop’ as it’s an action we’re used to performing, usually with a mouse. We’ve become more accustomed to touching a screen to drag icons, sliders and gaming content but Nigel wants to wave his arms around (he already does that a lot when he’s trying to attract a mate or stop a cab).
Time to recap. Nigel seems to have made the conscious decision to eliminate the physical keyboard, adopt the stylus as his preferred method of data input and is quite happy to gesticulate to navigate.
What I’ve attempted to achieve here is highlight the evolution of communication free from the constraints of accessible technology at any one space in time. Cue reality check...
There isn’t anything above that couldn’t be implemented tomorrow, in fact it all exists in one form or another, its just that the world isn’t quite ready to be told to drop what we’ve become accustomed to and adopt something far more user-friendly when it seems revolutionary, rather than evolutionary.
Audi’s new A8 features a touchpad that allows the driver to enter sat-nav commands by just tracing a destination letter with their finger. No keyboard there or convoluted scrolling through the alphabet, just simple interaction.
Multitouch technology is here to stay and, thanks to the incredible success of the iPhone (a mix of simple ergonomics, a desirable image and a faultless user experience), revolutionary technology is finding its way into the very fabric of society by replacing unremarkable products with something altogether more endearing. A mobile phone’s only real purpose was to allow you to make a call, but that’s never going to be enough now, is it?
Without the iPhone, the iPad wouldn’t have found over a million homes in four weeks because the market just wouldn’t have existed. “It’s just a big iPhone”, no it’s the first step on a journey that will deliver so many platforms into the digital domain that you’ll all wonder why it’s taken so long to make sense.
Publishing is facing a digital revolution where everyone has an opinion about where the industry is heading but it’s the transitionary period that is most crucial. A genuine understanding of the way people consume the written word is essential. This is not about making a straight transference of all printed material to the digital domain, although many will be happy to sell a service that just converts one to the other.
Publishers and Book Developers have to successfully manage content expectations and pricing levels. In an ideal world (where Nigel resides) every periodical should be available on the day it launches, with embedded video, live web links and intuitive navigation. This will come, but let’s be content to move over to cost-effective time-critical digital publications that offer ‘mere’ page turners until the exciting stuff turns up.
GQ have learned the hard way that iPad and iPhone users are not wiling to pay a premium for a digital version of their magazine – especially when the printed edition’s 12 month subscription sells for $9.99 yet the digital version sits on the App Store for $2.99 each.
So that’s magazines and newspapers. We’re happy to convert books to a straight eBook format, right? Actually no. Page turners work for adult fiction, but we’re only getting half the picture (or story) if the audience pursues a static linear journey for reference material or entertaining or educational childrens’ books.
At Brandwidth, we’re developing interactive pop-up books for children, taking the traditional animated reveal with each turned page but adding a gaming element to certain spreads. This now moves the genre on from a straight conversion of printed page to digital content and actually adds genuine value.
Our Guinness World Records iPad app begins to set the scene for digital reference books with dynamic spreads and interactive content. This will be further enhanced for the next stage of the paid-for app with the addition of seamless interactivity that plays on the iPad’s accelerometer and multitouch capabilities.
Graphic novels are also under our microscope with a new take on the frame-by-frame appeal of the current format. We will be adding subtle animation to selected frames but the key addition will be the option to select a number of different journeys throughout the story with decisions made at various stages and alternate endings. Again, this is all about added value rather than a straight conversion, whilst remaining sensitive to the existing audiences for each genre.
We’ll be demonstrating all our iPad app design, development and futurology in New York at Book Expo America from May 25th – 27th.
So where to next? Apple are already researching 3D screen interaction, looking to provide an unobtrusive virtual desktop that allows the user to ‘grasp and push’ as well as move content around on a flat plane. Touch + touchless for iPad 2?
Brace yourselves for a bright new gestural world but for now you’ll have to integrate a lot more touch screens into your lives. I’m already adapting an old iMac to act as an unofficial Apple iPad stand (see below) but it’s only a matter of time before we see housings for iPads build into kitchen cupboards, coffee tables and dashboards. Nigel’s going to love it.