The Future of Books

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.

17 responses to “The Future of Books”

  1. Hm… What I like about a book without illustrations is that I can go full blast with my own imagination. The same is true for movies that are based on books. Extrapolate it to AR for books and one might end up with the same limitation – the people who made this are not in my head. Each person’s imagination is different.
    But that would also be an advantage – my own imagination would be enriched by seeing a book through someone else’s eyes. Just remember the mind-blowing first Matrix movie.
    And to the question as how books would look in a 100 years from now? Looking back 100 years might give us a glimpse: A Kindle would certainly send the pre-World War One generation into utter madness.

  2. While this technology is spectacular, I hope to heck what you describe doesn’t come to pass. I’m sure you’re right and this technology _will_ become widely available, but one of the strongest and best reasons to read is that books allow you to fill in your own details. You take what the author gives you, and you build upon it. When you say this is: “just about the most unimaginative response anyone could possibly have,” I say, “Please tell me the type of birds you imagined in the trees when Bilbo first crossed into Rivendell,” or “What did Susan’s chainmail look like in Narnia?” Readers encounter words, and they use these words to create the rest of the world in their mind. Good worldbuilding establishes an environment; good writing inspires the reader to imagine the details to fill these environments.

    The technology you’re describing might as well be akin to a film adaptation. It is a single view of a world. It is absolutely no less a form of media than either a book or a movie, and it is certainly something that will come to pass in the future, but I’d argue it’s not the future of books, as these are not books.

  3. Ok, that video was awesome… :) I want my AR contact lenses now!

  4. WOW. This is totally trippy. I need my AR copy of Wool now, please. :-)

  5. Honestly it sounds a little distracting. The fictive dream is a trance-like almost hypnagogic state. For this to work it would have to be incredibly subtle… almost subliminal, unless it was intended to be a separate experience from the act of reading itself.

    Do we want products that deter us from reading them?

  6. Love it. Our environments continue to evolve around us, adding more and more “content” to enrich our time. Yes, some may say it dulls our own ability to imagine ourselves, but I don’t believe that. Movies have only had SOUND for 86 years…and we’ve gone from grainy jittery film to crystal clear digital recording and CGI with 3-D so real you can literally feel the depths of space. All media will transform as we move at break nick speed into this new age. The purists will hold onto their paper…for now…until costs for production of smaller and smaller quantities will become exorbitant.

    We will become more and more accustomed to “distraction” and “personalization” of the world around us. My brother-in-law works in creative IT (shiver) for Disney here in Orlando. Their new wristbands are built to customize every experience to the user seamlessly…you will be greeted by name, offered things you like (by tracking where you spend most of your time and money, of course) and interacted with by the attractions themselves.

    The best thing Hugh? The way books will look in 100 years is almost irrelevant to me. The way EVERYTHING will look in 10 YEARS…20 YEARS…is blowing my mind in a positive way right now!

    Great post, thanks for sharing :)

  7. Hugh, I think this tech will be available much much sooner, albeit a slightly different form.

    Arthur Clark had, I believe in “Richter 10” the technology of the “soft-screen,” essentially a roll-up, centimeters thick computer that could be tacked anywhere and display whatever was necessary.

    With the advent of better construction and use of fullerene nanotubules, I can readily see the future of books also being made from “smart-paper” like Clarke once envisioned, allowing the author to actually craft scenes on the pages or allow interactive diagrams, etc. We already have an amazing grasp of touch-screen technologies and I think the future of books might be a physical book that in reality is an e-reader but looks like any “antiquated” (the future’s word, not mine : p) DTB that we make today. Hell, you could have one of these and just load multiple books on them and call up whatever one you wanted to read. While admittedly not as cool as 3-D AR phenomenon, I’d love to see this come to fruition.

    One can dream.

  8. […] Howey: The Future of Books. “What you see above is Augmented Reality, or AR. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which replaces […]

  9. I honestly am not crazy about someone getting between me and the imaginative world of my book. How many times have you watched a movie based on a book you really like and thought “But they got it wrong! The character/scenery/voices just weren’t like I imagined them!”

    I don’t think this is going to make much of a dent in text.

  10. Imagine the applications for something like this in a biology class. Not just when it comes to dissection, but flying around inside a cell and checking out the organelles. HUGE applications for eductional works.
    As far it doing anything to squelch my imagination….bring it on. My imagination will trump a picture or even the exact written description of a character by the author, if it so chooses. Case in point, in my head, Jules will forever have dirty blonde/light brown hair; it’s just the way it is.
    The same arguments about imagination could be made in regards to the comic book version of WOOL. (i refuse to say “graphic novel”)

  11. AR for story-telling… yes. But we must also watch out for less-than-ethical uses. You know, like on the inside of cleaning suits. Ahem.

  12. As fate would have it, I was in the mood for something comfortable and fun to read a few days ago and loaded up “The Plagiarist” onto the Kindle. It was the 2nd HH book I ever read after Wool 1 (snagged it up when it was free one weekend a couple years ago) and it remains one of my favorite stand-alone tales.

    Spoiler Alert – Minor Plagiarist plot spoilers may follow – Yes, its a VR tale, but at the speed we are traveling I suspect the clarity between VR and AR will blur beyond distinction over the next couple of decades. The concept of AR is that the computer images are interacting on top of our reality, but as we learn…what defines reality?

    1. Check out THE SKIES ARE BLUE by Matthew Mather for an incredible AR story!

      1. Loved the entire Atopia Chronicles series! Totally warped my mind.

  13. […] Back in the more technical realm of possibility, author Hugh Howey—no stranger to futurist thinking, with his Silo Saga running out to more than 300 years ahead of us—touches on the issue this week in his essay about the potentials of augmented reality for storytelling in The Future of Books: […]

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  15. Hi just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the pictures
    aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same

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