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BW Businessworld

Push Pop Publishing

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Today, I accosted an education writer friend of mine and told her I had something very exciting to show her. "What?" she asked, exceedingly curious. "It is an amazing interactive book…" She interrupted me quickly, saying she had seen interactive books before. "Really? Where?" I asked her. "Well, I have read about them. I know about them. You can get pictures and sound," she said dismissively. I think she expected some kind of children's pop-up book. I had a job and a half persuading her to sit down for five minutes and just take a little look. With considerable reluctance, but not wanting to be impolite, she sat.

I fired up my iPad and touched an icon. And then watched her face as the magic began. Her eyes became round (rather alarmingly, I might add) in wonder as she watched me demonstrate an e-book that was no ordinary e-book, but is what I hope will be the educational book of the future.

Al Gore's Our Choice, which takes the Inconvenient Truth message further to explore solutions to environmental problems from all over the world, is jaw-dropping right from the start. You can best think of it as an app-book rather than an e-book. It opens to a spinning globe and audio message from Al Gore. You can choose to view a demo and tutorial. And then come the chapters and pages — swipe-able screens of stunning photographs. A strip of miniature pages runs along the bottom of each screen.

To get into these, all you have to do is flip them open with your fingers. On the book's pages, there are videos, photographs and infographics, all of which you can pick up with your fingers, unfold, move around and pop back into place. Pictures unfold with a sensual 3D movement and when they open, they sometimes include a voice over. Every photo is also geo-tagged so you can click a tiny globe to move to a world map with the location and relevant information. You flip open videos and size them to watch full or in a small window.

The infographics are stunning and usually "do" something, such as let you slide your finger along a timeline to see world population, see changing pictures of events related to the price of oil across the years, or go into animation explanation of how something works. The good ol' graph becomes live and responds to your touch with further information. For example, touch the bar on a bar graph and it could split into smaller bars with a breakdown of the overall figure. In Our Choice, you also get to see how input to the microphone can create interaction: an animation of a windmill goes into action when you blow on the screen, causing the windmill to begin turning and cranking up electricity to power up a little house.
Taken individually, each feature may sound like a gimmick. But packaged together, with a speed and slickness that rivals other formats, it is an experience. This package is the creation of ex-Apple engineers Mike Matas and Kimon Tsinteris and it is called Push Pop Press. It isn't just a one-off digital book: it is a publishing platform that others can use as a creation tool to make similar books for the iPad and iPhone.

Apparently, no programming skills are even needed, it is as easy as drag and drop. Of course, you have to create the material rich and attractive enough to leverage the platform's capability. Now, publishers can choose to fight it all tooth and nail — or go with what is an exciting new trend in touch-books. Many do indeed seem to be. Our Choice isn't the only book app, though it is probably the most amazing so far. There is a Gems And Jewels that lets you pick up objects and interact with them. There's also a book on the Solar System, and another on England's Kings and Queens, featuring David Starkey. There are also some interactive books for children.

The platforms used are already varied. So far, these books cost a little; for example, just under $6 for Our Choice, but $14 for Gems And Jewels. It is going to cost a lot to produce such books. And for the near future, not enough profits may come in from selling them. But if e-books were a step-change from paper books, then the app-book or touch-book is an equally dramatic, disruptive development. I can understand die-hard bookworms are hardly clamouring for a new format, digital or otherwise. But with resources to create "dead-tree" books becoming more scarce, some change of habit will have to happen.

It isn't just about reading, but also about learning and interactive books such as Our Choice would motivate anyone to be curious and learn. I only wish they had been around to save me from many a spanking for not studying hard enough at school.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, @malabhargava on Twitter


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-06-2011)