Touch Press, the iPad, and the New Golden Age of Multimedia

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companies like Touch Press returning to this kind of historical material, which represents a huge part of the intellectual legacy of the Renaissance but is usually hidden away in archives.

Will the anatomy app become a blockbuster on the scale of The Elements? I’d be astonished if it did: the material is harder to grasp, and I wonder how many readers are as fascinated as I am by the fact that Leonardo almost discovered the circulation of the blood (a breakthrough that would have to await William Harvey’s work more than a century later) or the way his observations forced him to abandon the classical idea that muscles are pneumatic devices inflated by air stored in the nerves. But I have to congratulate Touch Press, which was co-founded by Elements author Theodore Gray and Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica fame, for taking a gamble on these arcane subjects.

Touch Press and its ilk are taking advantage of two fundamental advances in the publishing business. One is the iPad itself, whose speedy processor, beautiful screen, and touch-based interface are opening up exciting new ways to present educational content. The other is the iTunes App Store, which provides a zero-friction marketing and distribution mechanism. Touch Press CEO Max Whitby, formerly part of the BBC’s Interactive Television Unit, told The Guardian in a December 2011 interview that the CD-ROM developers of the 1990s did some “fantastic” work but were handicapped by the presentation and distribution technologies of the time. “The platform [the CD-ROM] was presented on—the desktop computer—was not quite right,” he said. “iPad has it right in the form factor and performance of the machine, but most importantly in the channel for distribution. You don’t have to gamble by having a warehouse full of things any more.” (His point was that CD-ROM publishers had to print thousands of physical discs, package them in shrink-wrapped boxes, and get the boxes onto store shelves, which is why their titles usually cost $30 and up. Now they just have to submit their apps to Apple—and pray, of course, that they’ll be elevated above the half-million other apps through a mention in store’s New & Noteworthy section.)

If you’re into English literature, you should check out Touch Press’s amazing app The Waste Land, which includes numerous commentaries on the famous poem as well as a full-length video performance by the riveting Irish actress Fiona Shaw. The company says it’s working on a similar app based on Shakespeare’s sonnets; I await it impatiently. For natural history buffs, the company has apps on gemstones, skulls, dinosaurs, and planets. There’s also a compendium of X-ray images of everyday objects, and a children’s world atlas from Barefoot Books. In short, Touch Press is turning the iPad into the modern equivalent of the Renaissance-era cabinet of curiosities. I think Leonardo would have approved.

Here’s a Touch Press video featuring Martin Clayton, curator of the Leonardo exhibit.

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

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