For the final project of the Core Interaction Studio course I teach at Parsons, I challenged my screenaged design students to re-imagine the textbook for the digital, networked age.
Here are some questions/observations that came out of the 2 month-long process:
How does the next generation value print? If I can extrapolate, print is not dead or dying to these 19-20 year olds. It’s just less of a commodity and more a luxury. For the most part they are sensitive to killing trees and at the same time intuitively aware of the power of print. Also, they see online publishing for what it is: fast, cheap, and hard to control.
Should textbooks be apps or will they be housed in a standalone device? Or a web service? Half of the students cast their lot with an existing platform (be it the iPad or the Web), and the other half felt the need to create their own, coincidentally reflecting the current e-reader market dynamic (Kindle/Nook vs Apple). (Strangely, Android didn’t even register.) Incidentally, 3 out of 18 students came with their own iPads, up from 0 last semester.
One group suggested a cloud-based Netflix-like subscription service called ShelfLife, which, for a $9.99 monthly fee, gives you access to ostensibly any book you’d need for your classes, synced and delivered to any of your devices. While in my mind they didn’t put enough thought into the “Now what?” question (ie, the reading and studying experience) it does play out an interesting position, a thought experiment also taken up by Tim Carmody in his post for kottke.org, A Budget for Babel. How much would you pay for digital access to every book ever published?
Transposing the Netflix UI to books makes some sense on the surface (access to a huge catalog of content) but the consumption of books is a far different animal than movies.
Prototype website for ShelfLife, a book subscription service
The curious appeal of dual screens
Long live the Courier! I’ll admit, I was a big fan of Microsoft’s vaporware concept tablet, but the prevailing form factor these days seems to be a single screen tablet. That didn’t stop The Owl team from making an intriguing argument for a two-screen, wood-paneled device.
The spine hinges so it can fold into single screen, one-handed mode
If you see a stylus, they blew it. Or did they?
One of our guest critics, David Brown, Editor at Melcher Media who was responsible for bringing the highly acclaimed Our Choice iOS app to fruition (oh, and also the dead tree book too), raised a key point about how we put content in being just as important as the quality or experience of getting content out. This is especially true of textbooks, which expect to be marked up and highlighted by their owners. And to that point we get into the argument still being had about stylus versus the good ol’ finger. Of the three iPad owners in the class, two owned styli, which went against Steve Jobs’ famous aphorism, who, when asked about other tablet platforms, remarked: “If you see a stylus, they blew it”. My theory is that in order to do any detail work (like drawing or adjusting Bezier splines) you need something with more precision than your fat 30px finger. The other argument for a stylus is more psychological, and it has to do with how note-taking and doodling engages our memory. The Owl Team included a stylus (in addition to responding to touch) which was thoughtfully chiseled to provide two different surfaces for mark-making — the sharp point for detail and a rounded long edge for highlighting. Nice touch.
Open or closed?
There was some debate as to whether the textbook of tomorrow should have internet access via a full browser. The Closed camp argued that the world is already too distracting and including access to the web would inevitably lead to a social media death spiral and no homework would get done. Who knew Generation Next was fully cognizant of how Twitter and Facebook are making them stupid? Does that mean these kids are actually more media savvy than the Executive Editor of the New York Times?
The Open camp argued the Web is ubiquitous anyways, to the point where it’s natural to want to Google a word or phrase you don’t know (instead of hoping that your built-in dictionary is any good) and not having that ability built in would be a huge omission. Google (and by extension, the Internet) has become a necessary context for information consumption.
Of course, once you open the floodgates to the entire Web, you will have to tolerate students checking their Facebook feeds in class (which I have actually tolerated grudgingly). I can only comfort myself by thinking this will prepare them for, say, all of the liveblogging they will need to do in the future.
A final thought about accessibility
If it feels wrong to expect students to pay $1000 a year in order to just participate in class, how fair will it be to require everyone to buy a Kindle/iPad/Owl? Though if Kevin Kelly is right, it’s not inconceivable that every student could be issued a Kindle for free at the beginning of the year. Chances are it’ll have ads, but hopefully they’ll just be ads for other books (and not, say, soda).
Under the Accessible Education Act of 2011, The Owl became the primary device available to students and teachers through federal funding. At the beginning of the school year, unique identification codes are distributed to schools and/or individual users, allowing them to place their orders for The Owl as a group, or as a single user.
The demos are getting more and more realistic (first Mag+, now this). My initial reax:
It took a whole team from Adobe partnering with the staff of Wired Magazine to do this demo. The tools aren’t there yet, but publishers, your newsrooms and staff need to look and work like this. Right now, I don’t think they’re geared for this type of production. Yet.
The question is what hardware is it running on? Can it run on any old tablet that supports multi-touch (not an iPad)? Who makes such a device?
Does the video have to play full-screen or can it play inline?
Can you resize the text? I don’t think you can. To me, it looks like they’re taking the assets from the InDesign layout and converting to Flash/Flex/AIR.
I foresee an app per publication, not per issue, which means for books, you’ll buy the Penguin app, and the Knopf app, and pay a subscription fee to get particular chapters of books. In terms of magazines, you’ll buy the Wired app and the GOOD app, e.g., and pay a subscription fee to get particular issues. The question is sharing…
UPDATE: from Wired itself:
The content was created in Adobe InDesign, as is the case for the print magazine, with the same designers adding interactive elements, from photo galleries and video to animations, along with adapting the designs so it looks great in both portrait and landscape orientation. This is a departure from the usual web model, where a different team repurposes magazine content into HTML, unavoidably losing much of the visual context in the process. Wired.com is not a re-purposed version of the magazine, but rather an separately-produced news service.
Read More http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/the-wired-ipad-app-a-video-demonstration/#ixzz0fjhurJU8
This is the short version of a presentation on online magazines we’ve been working on here at Redub. It ends with a link to an in-development demo that features content from GOOD’s Transportation Issue 015. Casey Caplowe (GOOD’s Creative Director) generously gave us the InDesign files for the entire issue and we re-figured some of the content so it fit on the screen natively. We even had to re-imagine the Transparencies because they just didn’t work just throwing the original (for-print) image up on the screen (which is what most publishers do sadly) — since we didn’t have the high resolution of print, we took advantage of the screen’s native attributes, namely, animation. I’d even posit that what the screen lacks in dots per inch it more than makes up for in dots per inch per second.
There are still features we are hinting at but that we’re still working on adding, like annotation (which is the biggie). We’re laying in the sharing stuff now.
Oh, and as far as search engine optimization is concerned, we’re working on a solution for that. Right now all of the content is stored as XML in a database (modeled on WordPress). We just have to build a front-end for it that spiders can crawl all over.
(IMHO, we’ve tried many of these grid generators, and while they all have excellent qualities, the Netprotozo grid generator has many intrinsic advantages, namely the flexibility and robustness that comes from having been empoyed in many real-world projects. Karl’s really done a great job of incorporating some critical elements which allow things like inter-column padding, and an underlying base unit which is an incredibly powerful concept not present in many other CSS grid systems.)