Rewind back a few years and we were being told that people were reading in dramatically reduced numbers and those that were still reading were all soon switching to digital print. New research suggests the contrary and indicates that these predictions have fallen way short of estimates to date. We still seem to enjoy reading. For example, 72% of respondents surveyed in a recent Pew Research study claimed to have read a book in whole or in part over the past year. This remains fairly consistent with surveyed results from prior years. Also, despite the anticipated meteoritic rise in eBook popularity, eBook sales have stalled out at around 20% of the market. The vast majority of books sold in the USA today are still published in print. Further Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29 - the very population we’d expect to be switching to digital. In fact, a University of Washington study found that a quarter of students went out and bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free! Why do so many readers prefer the printed page? For many it’s the feeling of holding a printed book and the physical act of turning the pages. Some researchers have proposed that printed books support the reader’s ability to build a physical map of the content they’re reading. Readers are better able to orient themselves in a physical book and recall content by its location and page. Researchers suggest that this plays a key role in comprehension. Of course, another major factor cited by many that prefer reading in print is the ever constant flow of distractions posed by digital devices.The distance between Atticus Finch and the Lakers basketball game is an unnervingly short hop in the age of the Internet.
Recent developments in the technology of augmented reality offer the possibility of an exciting new middle path between printed and digital text. You’ve probably heard of the concept of virtual reality. It’s when you place yourself in an artificially created digital environment. Several companies are releasing headsets that place the user in a computer simulated, virtual reality. Augmented reality is the lesser known cousin of virtual reality but may actually promise more widespread applications. Augmented reality places a digital layer over something you’re actually looking at. You may have seen it in action without even realizing. Have you ever watched a football game and noticed the first down lines drawn across the turf? That’s a simple example of augmented reality. It recognizes the position of the ball on the field and adds a digital line to the display. That same concept of superimposing a layer of digital data over something you’re looking at has far-reaching potential. An app by furniture retailer Ikea allows you to use your mobile device to place digitally rendered furniture in your room. Point your device at the night sky and get information on the stars in your field of view. You can even use augmented reality to see what you look like wearing digital versions of clothes you’re interested in purchasing. And of course, augmented reality can be used to add new digital dimensions to printed text.
Augmented reality experiences are generally triggered by geographic location or image recognition. In the latter case, apps can be programmed to recognize specific images and then take a series of actions when those image are encountered. For example, when looking at a car engine an augmented reality app may identify where and how to top up fluid levels. Of course that trigger image can also be a printed image in a book or on a wall. Imagine walking around an art museum and pointing your device at a painting on the wall. A video pops up immediately displaying an interview with the artist and explaining the nuances of the painting. Tap on the screen and it shows you other works by the same artist. Another tap and you can order a print. The art becomes a digital doorway to an augmented experience that enables you to explore and learn more. Now consider a similar scenario with a printed image in a book.
You’ve just purchased a how-to book with chapters on everyday home repairs. Each project comes with extensive details and explanations. However, if you’re anything like the majority of learners then you know that you learn more effectively when information is presented visually. If the book has been enabled with augmented reality then you simply point your device at an image of that leaky faucet and a video will play showing you exactly how to fix it. The chapter on replacing a light switch is very helpful but it becomes a lot clearer when it comes with a video showing you exactly how to wire it. Think of all the textbooks that seek to teach new concepts to students. Information that’s communicated with visual cues is better able to be retrieved and remembered. Wouldn’t it be helpful if that science book could be triggered to show short, simple animations that actually showed processes such as photosynthesis or the water cycle? How valuable would it be if a medical textbook could actually demonstrate a surgical procedure to the reader? Any biography would be far more compelling if the images in the book could trigger short documentary clips and interviews.
Simply put, we still love reading in print but we’re all drawn to watching and learning from digital content. The technology of augmented reality can become a valuable vehicle for merging the benefits of digital content with the comfort of physical books.
Sam Gliksman is the author of Creating Media for Learning, one of the first “augmented print” books. Refer to www.CreatingMedia.org for more information.
1. "Slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new ..." 2015. 25 Feb. 2016 <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/19/slightly-fewer-americans-are-reading-print-books-new-survey-finds/>
2. "Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that ..." 2015. 25 Feb. 2016 <https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html>