The Age of iPad Superbooks? Not Yet

1/21/11Follow @wroush

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the work Atomic Antelope has done to animate the book’s original John Tenniel illustrations. Many of the pictures have touch-sensitive layers that wobble or bounce like cutouts in a pop-up book, while other pages are more elaborate, behaving almost like self-contained games.

At the end of the caucus-race with the dodo the other animals in Chapter 3, for example, Alice hands out comfits as prizes. (I had to look it up: they’re torpedo-shaped bits of licorice.) On this page of the e-book, there are a bunch of realistic-looking comfits floating around, as if in a miniature aquarium. If you tilt your iPad to one side, all the comfits slide to that side. You can also flick them around with your finger; they bounce off each other according to more-or-less realistic physics.

What’s the relevance of such high-tech effects to the story, you may ask? There isn’t much. It’s just a bit of fun visual nonsense. In one sense, the game-like effects are perfectly appropriate for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of the original literary nonsense stories. And in the book’s defense, the interactive visual jokes in the Atomic Antelope app go way beyond anything traditional book publishers have tried, mostly for lack of a platform like the iPad. If you’re looking for an entertaining way to introduce a youngster in your life to Lewis Carroll, you could do far worse.

But at bottom, the moving illustrations are just gewgaws. So much more is possible on the iPad. When I hear a word like “superbook,” I think of something that, at the very least, comes with a built-in glossary (so I wouldn’t have to put down the app to look up “comfits”), or videos from the many films and plays Carroll’s book has inspired, or links to critical essays. Some background on Carroll himself, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and the symbolism and mathematical references he larded into the text would be nice. I’m not asking for the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer here (that’s the immersive e-book at the center of Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic The Diamond Age—go look it up). I’m just saying that we should expect more depth and variety from the enhanced, Internet-connected books of tomorrow. Oprah was wrong: this version of Alice may change kids’ expectations about how books work, but it definitely isn’t going to change the way they learn.

Moving from the rabbit hole to the Internet (which may not be such a big leap): Why the Net Matters is a $7.99 app introduced last month by Canongate Books, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was written by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and designed by PopLeaf, a two-man app development studio in Cambridge, England. (The UK seems to be the current capital of interactive book design. Don’t ask me why.)

The app is, in essence, the iPad version of a TED-style lecture that Eagleman delivered in April 2010 to San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation. And therein lies the problem. Why the Net Matters is not a superbook—it’s not even a book. It’s more like a slightly extended text version of Eagleman’s lecture, supplemented by hyperlinks and background illustrations, in many cases the same ones from the slide deck for the San Francisco talk.

Eagleman’s thesis is actually more interesting than the container it comes in. When civilizations fall, he argues, it’s usually due to crises like epidemics, natural disasters, resource depletion, or the loss of collective knowledge (e.g. the burning of the library at Alexandria). Fortuitously, Eagleman says, the Internet provides modern-day societies with most of the tools they need to prevent or blunt such catastrophes. This is important stuff, and I mostly agree with Eagleman that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • JWilly48519

    “Cyperbunk” is just clever-complex enough that it might have been intended…but in context you didn’t intend it, did you?

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @JWilly48519: I put that misspelling in there to see if anyone was paying attention. You win the prize! Jk — thanks for spotting the error, which I’ve fixed.