the paper e-book 06.29.2007, 8:40 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Manolis Kelaidis, a designer at the Royal College of Art in London, has found a way to make printed pages digitally interactive. His "blueBook" prototype is a paper book with circuits embedded in each page and with text printed with conductive ink. When you touch a "linked" word on the page and your finger completes a circuit, sending a signal to a processor in the back cover which communicates by Bluetooth with a nearby computer, bringing up information on the screen.
(image from booktwo.org)
I've heard from a number of people that Kelaidis brought down the house last week at O'Reilly's "Tools of Change for Publishing" conference in San Jose. Andrea Laue, who blogs at jusTaText, did a nice write-up:
He asked the audience if, upon encountering an obscure reference or foreign word on the page of a book, we would appreciate the option of touching the word on the page and being taken (on our PC) to an online resource that would identify or define the unfamiliar word. Then he made it happen. Standing O.
Yes, he had a printed and bound book which communicated with his laptop. He simply touched the page, and the laptop reacted. It brought up pictures of the Mona Lisa. It translated Chinese. It played a piece of music. Kelaidis suggested that a library of such books might cross-refer, i.e. touching a section in one book might change the colors of the spines of related books on your shelves. Imagine.
So there you have it. A networked book - in print. Amazing.
It's not surprising to hear that the O'Reilly crowd, filled with anxious publishers, was ecstatic about the blueBook. Here was tangible proof that print can be meaningfully integrated with the digital world without sacrificing its essential formal qualities: the love child of the printed book and the companion CD-ROM. And since so much of the worry in publishing is really about the crumbling of business models and only secondarily about the essential nature of books or publishing, it was no doubt reassuring to imagine something like the blueBook as the digital book of the future: a physical object that can be reliably bought and sold (and which, with all those conductors, circuits and processors involved, would be exceedingly difficult to copy).
Kelaidis' invention definitely sounds wonderful, but is it a plausible vision of things to come? I suppose electronic paper of all kinds, pulp and polymer, will inevitably get better and cheaper over time. How transient and historically contingent is our attachment to paper? There's a compelling argument to be made (Gary Frost makes it, and we frequently debate it around the table here) that, in spite of all the new possibilities opened up by digital technologies, the paper book is a unique ergonomic fit for the human hand and mind, and, moreover, that its "bounded" nature allows for a kind of reading that people will want to keep distinct from the more fragmentary and multi-directional forms of reading we do on computers and online. (That's certainly my personal reading strategy these days.) Perhaps, with something like the blueBook, it would be possible to have the best of both worlds.
But what about accessibility? What about trees? By the time e-paper is a practical reality, will attachment to print have definitively ebbed? Will we be used to a greater degree of interactivity (the ability not only to link text but to copy, edit and recombine it, and to mix it directly, on the "page," with other media) than even the blueBook can provide?
Subsequent thought:A discussion about this on an email list I subscribe to reminded me of the intellectual traps that I and many others fall into when speculating about future technologies: the horse race (which technology will win?), the either/or question. What do I really think? The future of the book is not monolithic but rather a multiplicity of things - the futures of the book - and I expect (and hope) that well-crafted hyrbrid works like Kelaidis' will be among those futures./thought
We just found out that next week Kelaidis will be spending a full day at the Institute so we'll be able to sift through some of these questions in person.
Mark Thwaite on July 2, 2007 5:35 AM:
This is good fun, and wonderful to see, but -- to fall for the horse-race analogy fallacy -- I don't this this is likely to be the winner in the e/networked-book race!
However, it would be good to engage with Keladis. Any chance that he could be online to answer some questions when he is with you at the Institue?
Jill on July 3, 2007 8:47 AM:
You are mistaken in assuming that the O'Reilly crowd reacted that way due to anxiety levels. The fact was that Kelaidis' device responded to the emotional attachment users have to the book. No one really wants to get rid of that specific format. No one. It is too useful a format for certain purposes, but, granted, not all. The electronic environment is best suited to short time-constrained needs, dipping in and out to quickly find an answer, but for many reasons it is not well suited to following a linear process of thought. Manolis Kelaidis deserved the kudos he got because his device recognized that we want Safari's "quiet space" for reading and absorption of content but appreciate the capacity to rapidly check a reference in an electronic environment. Different behavior; different requirements.
Jesse Peterson on July 5, 2007 12:51 PM:
Very interesting concept. It's great to see technologies and ideas that support the paper book (for the reasons and more mentioned in Mark's comment). One obvious barrier to this technology is the physical change to the books which also places a limitation on the content usable by this approach - only books or documents printed/manufactured with the technology may use it. We think we've got some great ideas toward this end that would require no changes to the way books are printed/manufactured and indeed would work just as well with books that have already been printed. In itself is a very cool implication - digital interactivity of any existing or future paper document including, of course, books.
bowerbird on July 10, 2007 1:02 AM:
if a paper-book has "circuits embedded in each page"
and has its text "printed with conductive ink",
is it really still a _paper_ book?
and if you need to have a computer next to it
so that it can summon up web-links, then why not
just have the _content_ of the book online as well?
as an art project, this is an interesting piece of work.
as anything different from that, i guess i miss the point.
but hey, it got _a_standing_ovation_. wow!
alex itin on July 10, 2007 1:03 AM:
it was great to see his demo. I think there would be a huge market for this in advertising... touch an print add and go to the online market, or info web site.
For literary purposes, I would want it to be the book on tape/linked book that talks to my Personal electronic device when it's turned on and I can read it when I'm in the woods, or the batteries run out, or I'm on a couch and don't want to be anywhere but in the text.
I do think the book is "bound" to our bodies in some special way... but I guess cell phones and lap tops retain that proto bivalve we all are... pearls and oysters, etc.
Gary Frost on July 20, 2007 4:07 PM:
(posted for Nick Weir-Williams)
"Although it has come up tangentially in this week's conversation, I think the (SHARP) list should take note of the importance of this day, the global release of the last Harry Potter book. My question - can anyone come up with a more glorious day for book publishing in its history? A day when a book is released with almost two million copies already sold; a day when children of all ages will be up at midnight to obtain their copy of a book (not a TV show, not a video game, not an e-book) and spend the weekend reading 800 odd pages of said book; a day when the world's media are talking about almost nothing else? It puts the much-hyped I-Phone launch into the shade. In thirty years of immersion in the publishing industry, I can think of nothing remotely similar."
"And all else in the apparent shadow of the decline and impending death of the industry as it has been known. Allegedly.Ten years ago when the first digital book conferences were being held, if someone had stood up and predicted the events of this day, they would have been laughed out of the country and the industry."
crespo on April 2, 2010 2:08 AM:
aper is a practical reality, will attachment to print have definitively ebbed? Will we be used to a greater degree of interactivity (the ability not only to link text but to copy, edit and recombine it, and to mix it directly, on the "page," with other media) than even the blueBook can provide?