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.