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The Future of Books Could Be Somewhere Between a Game and an App

Visual Editions are experimenting with the digital books form, not function.
Editions at Play want to hack the book's digital form. Image: Visual Editions

In the not so distant future, reading might feel more like a cross between gaming and watching a film.

Visual Editions, a London-based publishing company has teamed up with Google Creative Lab in Sydney Australia to create Editions at Play—a series of "unprintable" books viewable on your mobile phone. They want to enhance the standard ebook by creating immersive and interactive experiences where readers can scroll through multimedia-loaded e books much in the same way they'd look through a website.


"We wanted to think about what we could do online that we couldn't do in print. How could we make books that still feel bookish—so they are books that you would read— but that you could experience as well given they are visual," Anna Gerber, the co-creative director for Editions at Play, told me over the phone.

The experiment—which has been in the works for two years—culminated today with the publication of the first series of these books. Readers can, for example, experience a book that mashes up its text with imagery from Google Street View in order to conjure the feeling of being lost in the same virtual location that is described in the narrative.

A paper version of the "unprintable book." Image: Visual Editions

"Rather than building new technologies and creating new applications, this project is about using tools that are already out there," explained Iversen over the phone. "There's nothing in the books themselves that you can't get from the internet and HTML."

Since the project is generally first of its kind, and with no pre-existing template to rely on, both Gerber and Iversen found they needed to strike a balance between driving the narrative forward and making sure that the user experience was perfect.

"There are a lot of different people involved in this project so there's more toing and froing—there's a dialogue involved as a writer might write something, then a programmer might say there's no way of doing that."

In recent years, the publishing industry has been forced to re-evaluate its business model as digital books become increasingly popular. Interactive literature projects such as "Go Set a Watchman," spearheaded by the Guardian, demonstrate a move towards this trend. Gerber and Inverse envision that more reading will happen on mobile phones in the future, given how much more intimate we feel with those devices compared to, say, our computer screens or larger tablet devices.

The duo, who are currently working with Penguin Random House UK, said that their experiment was partly in response to wanting to build a richer reading experience than the present slate of digital and physical books on the market.

"You couldn't have a character that gets lost in Google street view and replicate that in print so that was what we were really excited about," said Gerber.