Augmented reality and books, together at last?

Four vastly different projects marry augmented reality with publishing.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder’s Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Most people — certainly readers of this blog — know about “augmented reality,” whereby camera-powered computers gussy up the real world with extra layers of info. A popular example: point a smartphone’s camera at a crowded city street and watch a bunch of labels appear onscreen indicating bars and restaurants. (The restaurant-finding Yelp app does that trick; just tap Nearby and then Monocle.)

It didn’t take long, of course, for publishing types to scratch their heads and wonder: You know what? We could use the same trick in our products. And, man, have people come up with some pretty neat examples. Already we’re starting to see models from human anatomy books “jump” off the page and become animations on nearby screens. Or dusty architecture tomes whose fragile and one dimensional drawings get charmed into 3D versions on a computer.

AR-powered architecture book

Here, then, are a few examples I’ve run across during my research, each of which illustrates how books and other publications are starting to use AR to power their pages.

Dorling Kindersley’s 3-D books

Publisher DK is known for its visually lush books. Whether it’s intricately designed page interiors, pull-out maps, or even a die-cut cover that lets readers peer inside at body organs — this crew likes to make books that are fun to look at and play with.

So it’s no surprise they’re experimenting with new ways of bridging print and digital. The initial titles in its just launched “3-D series (“Human Body,” “Dinosaur”) feature AR extras that spin animations off the print page onto a nearby computer screen. Getting it to work does take a bit of work, but the results are novel enough to justify the setup effort, which goes like this:

  1. Buy the print book
  2. Download and install the free software on any computer with a webcam
  3. Open the book’s pages and point any of its six “AR spreads” at the webcam. The webcam/software duo spots the special AR logo and the visuals begin. Onscreen you see a live shot of you holding the book, which now bears a superimposed animation of a walking human skeleton, a flexing dinosaur, and so on.

AR-powered architecture book

The result is a visual extra that depicts motion in a way that’s obviously not possible in print. Now an equally obvious question: Why force readers to go through all this book/software/webcam hassle? Couldn’t DK simply print a web address in the book and have the reader visit that web page to see an animation? Sure. But by staging the action quite literally on the print pages, there’s at least a fighting chance the reader’s journey is going to continue within the book rather than wandering off onto the web. It’s certainly a valid question as to why DK chose to create PC-based software versus, say, a smartphone app. But these kinds of print/digital joint ventures are a fun glimpse of how print can do what it’s good at (rich interior layout, large spreads) and digital can bring its special sauce to the party.


Let’s face it: plenty of mainstream consumers are never gonna jump through all the steps the DK books require. U.K.-based Aurasma recently released a tool that makes the whole process a bit easier. First, the software is part of a smartphone app (iOS and Android), which eliminates the need to crack open, say, your laptop while on the bus. And they’ve figured out a way to eliminate those special on-page codes that only a geek could love.

Using image recognition technology, the app automatically recognizes on-page and on-screen visuals like logos and photos. Launch the app, point your smartphone or tablet camera at the target, and watch the extras spring to life on your display. For example, the company has put together some demos that use logos from USA Today, the New York Times, and other papers.

Aurasma has even rigged up the app so you can create your own AR extras. Want to thrill your kids with a video of them running on the front of a Cheerios box? It’s pretty freakin’ cool.

Star Walk

And yet, let’s be realistic: even something like Aurasma requires a chain of participants lengthy enough that — no matter how innovative the results — it may never go mainstream. That’s why the genius of the Star Walk app is less about the way it uses AR than how its users never even need to know about that geekish term, much less how to assemble its component parts. All that’s required is to launch, point, and marvel.

Say for example you’re trekking in Nepal and want help deciphering the night sky’s star fleet. Fire up Star Walk, point your iPhone or iPad wherever you’re curious and watch the screen alight with labels. Without having to do a lick of work you immediately see constellation names and the outline of those sometimes obscure objects (do you know what a Cetus is?) that boggle the imagination of many amateur sky watchers. As you rotate the device around, the labels change, reflecting whatever you’re now pointing toward. Even better: the app lets you “watch” the sky from any location worldwide. So you can be in your windowless basement in Boston and see what the astronomical outlook is in, say, Sydney. All you need to do is use the built-in Google Earth-style map to pick the viewing location and up pops the relevant view.

Total Immersion’s AR Magic Mirror

Woman with illustrated headgear composited on her face by Magic MirrorIt’s worth noting that AR is not all about science and newspaper experiments. Sometimes it’s just about being plain silly. Magic Mirror is an app that lets you futz with faces. Use your iPad’s front-facing camera to frame your mug, and then add a wacky pair of sunglasses, a crazy hat, and so on. It all gets added to the live version of you.

For now the fun lasts about five minutes or so. In other words, it’s a nice party trick. But the ways that a tool like this could be incorporated into publications like fashion catalogs, electronic greeting cards, and instruction manuals (think: hair stylists and beauticians) doesn’t take much imagining.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what’s best, what’s easiest to use, and what’s worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT

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