We Haven’t Even Started

This is only the beginning, folks. Very few people appreciate where this is going. Projections for the future of e-books are wrong, and it’s because the people making these projections lack imagination. They seem to think all the advances in storytelling have already been made, and it’s just a question of how much current technology will scale.

But the advances have barely begun. I’d like to take you on a brief tour of our reading future to give you a glimpse of how much growth and possibility are left. When we look back on the advent of the e-reader, we’ll realize that in 2014, we were using the music equivalent of a Sony Minidisc Player, that the click-wheel / black & white iPod hadn’t been invented yet, and certainly not the iPhone and all that came after.

It is often said that e-readers can’t replace physical books, because books have a certain heft and tactile feel and even a smell to them. Well what if those people are eventually wrong? We will one day build an e-reader that’s indistinguishable from a physical book, and I believe people alive today will live to see such a device.

Google recently applied for a patent for a contact lens that contains a camera and a screen. These devices might be a decade or two off, but they will come. When they do, they will transform our lives as soundly as the smartphone has. These devices will create a science fiction world that’s difficult to imagine, but will come as gradually and be just as readily embraced as the science fiction world in which we currently live.

The above is an example of Augmented Reality. It’s a blend of our world and a virtual reality one. We already see these examples of books that can come alive on our tablets, but the true power will be unlocked first with glasses that cover our vision and later with contact lenses and finally with surgical implants. Anywhere you look, information can be laid atop what you are seeing. An arrow in the sky or on the sidewalk can lead you to an address or business you are looking for. A blinking icon will appear over real-life people in your contact list, so you can spot friends in a crowd. Advertisements will fill our visions and be catered to us, so we only see the ads that apply to us and only those we choose to see. Again, many people alive today will witness this world. It’s in the lab, being built as we speak.

What does this have to do with books? The marvel of this technology is that the overlay device has a camera pointing out at the world we are looking at. This allows our head movement and the movement of objects to be tracked, so the augmented reality overlays neatly and tracks physical items in our vision. That’s how the book in the video above works. When you shake the book or move the tablet, the animation sticks seamlessly in place. Otherwise, the illusion wouldn’t work.

Now imagine you have a book in your hands. A beautiful hardback with faux leather and a silk ribbon bookmark. There is no technology in this book. It’s just paper, the finest quality paper and binding money can buy. And every single page is perfectly blank. There is nothing written in the book. But you carry it everywhere you go.

When you open the book up, what do you see? The last page you read. Text is overlaid in your vision by your glasses or your contacts or implants. The quality of the text is just as high as a printed book. The words stick to the page. Even when you curl a page to turn to the next one, the text bends and warps just as you’d imagine. There is no way to distinguish this book from the printed kind. And yet it has many of the benefits of an e-book. Unlimited storage in the cloud. Immediate purchase of any book you want. Scalable fonts. And more.

You can watch video on any page if you like. You can look up words and make highlights. You can even write with your finger, and the camera captures the text you are drawing and adds the notes in the margin. You can turn footnotes and endnotes on or off. And if the book you’re reading is longer than your printed tome, it’ll direct you to turn back to the beginning when you run out of pages. Two people could read on the same book simultaneously, even if they were different books. You could read on a wall or on the ceiling. The magical uses are endless. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

We won’t have to wait for this end-game of implanted contacts for book buying and reading to be affected by looming technology. There will be a steady stream of marvels before then. Color e-ink will make for a huge leap. As will waterproof e-readers and those with better refresh rates and form factors. The technology is in its infancy. There will be a bump every time it is significantly improved.

Other developments will come from outside the book world. The biggest one on the immediate horizon is the self-driving car, which is less than a decade away. Consider how this will change our media habits: All of our commuting hours will now be open for the consumption of entertainment. Sure, most people will use this time to improve themselves and their lives with Candy Crush and all sorts of inanity. Others will watch TV or films. But many people will do what you see subway and train commuters doing: They’ll read.

Self-driving cars will bring the next quantum leap in reading. Sales will spike. The development of high speed trains will likewise impact our industry. And the moving world will favor books that can be delivered instantaneously while taking up no physical space and weighing nothing. The spread of literacy and wealth around the world will be another source of amazing growth. You better believe all this is going to have an impact.

And these are just the things I can foresee. How many others will surprise us? I’m guessing many more. And I can’t wait.


38 responses to “We Haven’t Even Started”

  1. Can’t tell you how much I love this. Brilliant and so close… :)

  2. I do not see your idea of an ‘overlay’ coming in my lifetime, but what I do see is e-book screens that are flexible being uselful. Imagine something like a cigar, with a flexible screen rolled up inside, just pull it out and have a book anywhere. Or a book cover that is a soft e-book screen? Use it as a cover for a journal, or a binder, the inside of the cover is an ebook reader. An ebook screen you can also write on with a stylus.
    Imagine it being 5 inches wide and worn like a big wrist watch, held around your arm with magnets, but it pops open flat when removed.
    The flexible screen has a lot of uses, if anyone ever invents one.

    1. If you live another 15 years, you’ll see much of this.

      1. I remember Popular Science from the 50’s, they promised flying cars by the 60’s, lol. What I have learned in my 47 years is that if ti doesn’t come in ten years, it rarely ever does. There have been ‘smart’ glasses technology for almost that long now, which is why I do not see it coming. To put on glasses to read a blank page, I think the image is too close to the human eye to be comfotable, I know video glasses give me a headache after 30 minutes. I think the future will always be a ‘device’, something we hold in our hands because we can control the focus by changing the distance.

      2. Actually, there already is. Google “Paper Tab”. It’s been a while now (still in its infancy), last year if memory serves.

    2. These overlays already exist. Boeing famously started using them a decade or more ago to show people who were wiring up aircraft what connections they need to make. BMW have a prototype augmented-reality system to help mechanics fix cars. It won’t be long until these sorts of things come into the mainstream, probably running on something like Google Glass.

    3. Overlays are already in existence. 1-5 years for seeing them to perfection.

  3. Awesome! I’ve always wanted to live in the future. Now I am!

  4. As a mental health clinician, I’m especially interested in this. i think we are now literally rewiring our brains, and this will only increase, and its such a rapid change. I love the luxe blank book idea. I want one NOW, and as a hard contact lens wearer, I’m ready to beta test!

  5. I love the idea of combining the physical book of today with the e-reader of the near future.

    The future debate (I think) will be how the “book” of that time is presented, designed, feels, and how the content delivers its entertainment value.

    For example, when I’m reading, I don’t want to watch a movie etc… I want to read, I want the experience of reading and learning and digesting content. Video (even future holographic video) engages senses that I’m not a fan of when I’m reading.

    But, I guess I’ll just sound like one of those “grumpy old men” when the book as we know it begins to take on a new format… and perhaps even acts like a different media altogether.

  6. I think the tactile “feel” of a book is overrated. The e-readers we have now are pretty darn good, and of course you can get a perfectly fine reading experience on a tablet or phone. I used to buy a lot of physical books, but I’m fully on-board will the e-reading experience, and the only time I buy physical books now is if it’s not available for the Kindle or if the Kindle price is crazy for a book available for a few bucks used.

    The 1st-gen e-readers were kind of junk because you had to buy books on your computer, hook the reader to your PC, and only then could you load the book. With the e-readers now all having at least WiFi access, you can buy the book from anywhere, load it instantly, and read it anywhere. I don’t see “augmented reality” as being a huge improvement (or necessary.)

    I don’t doubt there will be some interesting things done with books on tablets, but I don’t see the traditional chunk-o-text book becoming any less prevalent.

  7. Wow. I can see this too, but it’s still weird. But I guess ebooks themselves were once considered in the same light.

  8. All I could think about was Harry Potter, and the words appearing in the Tom Ridgely Diary as he was reading it. Books that write the story and ending depending on our emotions as we read it. Maybe that’s what are lives are. Maybe that’s how God and destiny create it. “What Dreams May Come”

  9. I was one of those who scoffed at people touting Kindles. Then one day, it dawned on me. In an earthquake, the several hundred pounds of books in my bookshelves could kill me! I don’t think a smartphone with a Kindle app or a Kindle itself will ever acquire that lofty status of death dealing. At least not in this sense.

    To think, I go everywhere today, with 90 books in my back pocket. That’s pretty impressive!

    Just sayin’, old-school here woke up.

  10. I’m sort of hoping they don’t make an ebook that’s exactly like a printed book because I think my Kindle PaperWhite is already superior to printed books in every way possible.

  11. I don’t think an electronic book that requires having a camera on my head and special glasses is quite like a printed book or will ever be a direct replacement. I see where you are going with the thinking, I see the way the world is moving, and I agree that electronic books will definitely be the standard, if they aren’t already. I disagree that because you have a similar physical object in your hand, the experience is the same. For many people it will be “as good as or better” but I can’t see how it could capture the elements of a physical book that still attract me to that reading experience. And why should it be? It isn’t necessary to be the same to make physical books disappear. I won’t be happy about it personally, but I know that is inevitable.

  12. I think even the readers we have now will be re-imagined. I think there’s a lot of potential for wearable computers, such as Google-glass or maybe even their contact lenses.

    Here’s a company that may be able to take advantage of that technology.


  13. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge describes this near-future quite well.

  14. With the advent of nanotechnology, I think we can go beyond augmented reality and get into realms that Arthur C Clark would call “indistinguishable from magic.” Imagine a real, actual book like you described above — paper pages, faux leather cover, the works. Embedded in that paper are billions upon billions of tiny robots, connected by wifi, able to rearrange themselves on the page to form letters, images, even moving pictures.

    The whole idea sounds absurd until you realize that IBM has already done things like write messages using Xenon atoms, so small you can only see them with an electron microscope. At Dartmouth, they’ve already built robots smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. The technology already exists. Now it’s all in the implementation.

  15. Man, I love reading your blog. What a forward-looking mind. I agree, only last night I was discussing with my 73yo father-in-law what amazing advancement have happened in his lifetime, from crowding around the village market to listen to the radio over loudspeakers on a pole, to a flat screen 3D internet-connected smart TV that’s as thin as a deck of cards, weighs less than a bowling ball and is almost entirely picture.
    Even on my phone I can carry hundreds of books in something that’s just a downtime distraction from the “real” uses of the device. Amazing.

  16. I have enough trouble trying to format my manuscripts for kindles and nooks. :-)
    Seriously, an awesome and fascinating post on the possibilities of the future. Although, I think there will need to be some type of industry standard before anything can happen. We still have trouble making certain gaming programs compatible for both macs and pcs.
    Thanks Hugh.

  17. “We are living in the future, I’ll tell you how I know, I saw it on a TV show, fifteen years ago…” (John Prine). Seriously, some thought-provoking and interesting ideas here. Has anyone mentioned scratch-and-sniff technology yet? One of the most appealing aspects of a physical book to me is the way it smells.

  18. As nice as it sounds… I don’t know how wide I’d spread my arms in welcome.
    “It is often said that e-readers can’t replace physical books, because books have a certain heft and tactile feel and even a smell to them. Well what if those people are eventually wrong?”
    I don’t think they are wrong. As someone who has had up to 116 books by her bed/in the room at some time, I can honestly say that in this present time, a physical book is better in some ways than an ebook, often by virtue of the smell, heft, and tactile feel. ;)
    I have 1960 editions of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, and while the covers scared me off a bit when I was younger (Those Cauldron-Born are creepy, so no judging. :) ), I enjoy them even more than I would if they were ebooks, because of their old-and-well-cared-for smell (Yes, that is a legit smell, folks), the wobbly text, and the almost woven look to the paper.
    As impressive as today’s technology is, and as impressive as it is becoming day after day, and as cool as it could be for research purposes (As you say, looking up a word, etc.) I don’t think I’ll be thriftshopping my physical books within the next fifty years.
    And Garret Dennis, yes. All the way, yes. Though I’ve never liked the smell of textbooks. Too waxy/plastic-y. :)

    1. I think the augmented reality video makes my post unclear. The sort of book I’m talking about would be indistinguishable from existing print books. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if you didn’t want to. It would in every practical way feel, smell, taste, and be the same thing.

      1. Hugh, one difference that augmenting doesn’t change is when you are talking about more than one book. My books are hardbacks and paperbacks and mass market paperbacks. They have different numbers of pages. The older ones smell different than the newer ones. The hardbacks are not indistinguishable from paperbacks, how can an ereader be indistinguishable from all of them. Even more, part of the “experience” of physical books is seeing them on the shelf, browsing through them. How do you simulate that without living in a completely simulated environment?

        Another point is that one element of the experience of a physical book is its limitations. It can’t link to a website. There is a certain peace in that if that is what you want.

        No, the augmented reader will still be something different. Not worse, not better, but certainly different, just as a movie is not a book even if they tell the same story (although I admit the differences are less radical).

  19. Fascinating ideas. I always kind of roll my eyes when folks suggest the end of any age of innovation. There’s always more to discover, improve, and create.

    I do think physical books won’t really go away, though. Not because of heft/feel/smell/etc. but in part just because there’s still a frankly nonexistent model of interpersonal loans for ebooks. So while physical book purchases may eventually decrease significantly, without a more ebook-owner-friendly method of legal sharing, folks who love handing a friend a book when they visit or giving away a book one has already read and don’t need anymore will still want physical books. It’s still one of my biggest frustrations, honestly, because “you can read it when I’m done” is currently impossible unless I let someone else use my e-reader or share an e-reader account with them, which I’m not going to do. I’m not in any way resistant to the new tech. I love new tech and would love to see – and probably use – the faux-book multi-faceted e-reader you’re talking about or glasses that let you read on the ceiling in bed (*please soon*). Currently, I primarily use audio books and pick up ebooks sometimes if there’s no audio option, but if I really enjoyed something or found it useful, I get a hardcopy to have around for rereading, sharing, and gifting.

    Physical books will also matter for collectors (which I think most of the “but I like the smell” type folks probably are). Collectors aren’t typically about pure utility so much as aesthetics and a certain experience of ownership. For some sorts of readers, the faux-book e-reader may be just enough like an old-fashioned book to satisfy them, but to many collectors… even if it’s an excellent facsimile and/or very handy, they’re still going to want to handle their battered copy of Little House on the Prairie, sigh happily at the line of coordinated color on their shelf that corresponds with their favorite scifi series, and stack intriguing mini-collectioms on and around coffee tables as a gesture of intellectual openness toward visitors. For these folks, a faux-book that’s both static and dynamic in the way you describe would be like a meal at a major chain restaurant would be for most foodies – adequate, maybe even good, but never offering the unique experience they appreciate from gourmet supper clubs, high-end food artists, exotic foreign street vendors, and kitschy Mom & Pop hole-in-the-walls with a specialty to die for. I could foresee a trend toward personal collections of what one might consider heirloom books, even, books bought or otherwise gathered with the intention of passing them down. I love that I have my brother’s copy of Ender’s Game, my mother’s The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, a friend’s once personal copy of her best-selling book. I don’t want just any copy of those books. I want the copies with histories that matter to me. There’s still a visceral difference for me between the content itself, even its base packaging, and the unique ineffable quality a book takes on when I read it with my neice and then say she can take it home with her. It’s not just a story or even just a book then. It’s a treasure.

    So maybe it will be a semi-niche market, like scrapbooking or art collecting, but distinct physical books will likely stick around a good long while.


  20. I totally agree about the self-driving car making more time available for entertainment. At one time books and reading were not a niche market. It was limited only by literacy. Now there are plenty of literate people who do not read for entertainment. With the proliferation of games, music, video, and the new world of virtual experience, the book market share will shrink in proportion to other forms of entertainment. That slice of the entertainment pie will still get bigger as global electronic culture spreads to developing nations.

    With near-universal literacy, only a small percentage will ever write a book. However, the fact that almost anyone could write a book will only make the author’s job more challenging. In a world where anyone can write a book, the author will have to write outstandingly well to stand out above the crowd. That being said, not every writer has the expectation of making a living from it. Those authors will continue to grab a growing slice of the market because they have such easy and instant access to it.

    In terms of liberating technologies, presently I’m writing an online serial, and publishing it myself on my blog. That simply wasn’t possible twenty years ago.

  21. […] Howey posted an intriguing exploration of a possible – perhaps even likely – near-future in which our…. We’ll own physical book-like objects that are technically blank but will fill with words via […]

  22. In any conversation involving prognostication, it’s easy to get lost, especially when it comes to technological forecasting. Who wouldn’t be skeptical when we were promised Mars Missions and we got Facebook instead?

    We see the same pattern of disbelief throughout history, usually just before each new wave hits. We each experience it to one degree or another – it’s just a question of individual tolerance level. It’s natural, even healthy. It’s who we are. And we know whatever happens, the path forward will be anything but a straight line.

    Guideposts can be helpful when we navigate the future. The ‘three laws’ set down by the Grand Master Himself, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, are useful touchpoints. Clarke reminds us:

    1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
    3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Rule 3 seems particularly germane to this discussion. Evidence of Rule 3 surrounds us. We live in a Rule 3 world.

    There are a dozen rational reasons to dismiss augmented-reality e-books as nothing more than geek-porn. Of course, the same arguments were made at every step of our technological evolution, with stunning predictability.

    Our grandparents couldn’t have imagined the iPad. Their grandparents couldn’t have imagined radio, and theirs couldn’t conceive of manned flight. And so on.

    Hugh, thanks for using your platform to remind us to save some space for optimism.

  23. This is absolutely fascinating for someone who has been writing and reading as long as I have. I’m going to live long enough to experience these exciting times. Wonderful information.

  24. I’m so excited about these things too, Hugh! I’ve been wearing contact lenses for 20 years so I am definitely keen to stick something enhanced in my eyes :)

    I also visited a 3D printing shop last week and took my 16 year old god-daughter. We designed a keyring and then printed it together, so very cool to see it appear! I want to do a mystery novel where the clues are 3D printed in order to solve the puzzle, or to take it forwards in some direction … MakerFaire is just one enormous idea shop!

    We live in VERY exciting times!

    PS. I’m glad you enjoyed London so much – we enjoyed having you there!

  25. […] links: We haven’t even started by Hugh Howey – that sci-fi future kinda scares me, but I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. […]

  26. Self-driving cars might actually harm the sale of audio books :)

  27. If you want to know our technological listen to the physicists: Michio Kaku, Stephen King, or the show Cosmos (but the show isn’t about the future). I bet you already know them, but in case not then for those who are reading this.
    The technology of our world is getting faster that (as Mr. Kaku said) we can upload/download emotions, and yes, last year they already uploaded a memory, recorded a dream [could kill the sales of books if you ask me, or any savoring-time in reading books]. They talked about brain mapping (which origins came from the Brain Initiative by pres.Obama). And one day they said we can upload our sentient consciousness, nobody will consciously die… just bodily termination.
    The future is a curious thing, very curious. If augmented reality found its commercial demand, just wait a year and the companies would do anything to create a product more efficient than google glass [I want them to invest in holograms so badly…sigh, just can’t slow down photons, or attain parallax in still air].
    And yeah, 2020 is the year of self-driving cars… the estimation of commercial use I still don’t know.

  28. I swore I’d always want physical books, but I bought a Kindle anyway. Now, I rarely, rarely buy a physical book. I have HUNDREDS of books available on the Kindle, I can carry them with no weight at all, and within seconds of beginning to read, I lose the physical device and see only the words.

    The last physical books I purchased (AFTER I purchased the Kindle versions) were the two volumes of Mark Twain’s auto biography. I wanted those volumes sitting in the bookcase.

  29. […] We Haven’t Even Started | Hugh Howey […]

  30. Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be … Paper


  31. The high tech involved to make every book completely interactive, almost like a movie or video game, will require deep pockets to pay for all the special programing knowledge required to build them. This is definitely something the Big 5 traditional publishers should work toward. But I worry about the Indie writer/publisher who won’t have the technical means to compete. Will interactive books simply add to the “long tail” of entertainment?

    I’m hoping consumers in this brave new future will find they need a break from the constant video so that old school ebooks in some form will still be around and new writers can still have a chance to get started. Otherwise writers could end up as an even smaller cog in the wheel of traditional publishing than they are now, as stories are built to feature certain types of exciting video or special effects.

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