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

5/11/12Follow @wroush

Back in 2008 (exactly 180 columns ago, in fact) I wrote an elegy for the CD-ROM. If you’re under the age of 30, you probably won’t know what I’m talking about, but there was a brief span of time in the mid-1990s—after the emergence of personal computers powerful enough to handle multimedia content, but before the rise of the broadband Web—when CD-ROMs were the only available medium for rich interactive storytelling. Publishers like Corbis, Dorling-Kindersley, Voyager, Broderbund, and Flagtower put out a huge number of boxed “edutainment” titles during this period, in a massive test of the notion that PC software could just as immersive as a good book. They often failed the test—but some of the titles were so skillfully produced, I argued back in ‘08, that they’d never really been surpassed, even in the era of YouTube and JavaScript and 30 megabits-per-second home Internet connections.

But that was before the iPad.

There’s something about Apple’s tablet—presciently described by New York Times tech columnist David Pogue back in January 2010 as “a 1.5-pound sack of potential”—that has reawakened developers to the power of multimedia software as a tool for education and entertainment. Today it’s looking as if my elegy was premature. There’s a new crop of publishers putting out great iPad apps in the casual learning category, with names like Moonbot Studios, Vook, Inkling, Push Pop Press (scooped up last fall by Facebook), and my current favorite, Touch Press.

If you own an iPad you’ve probably heard about Touch Press’s blockbuster title The Elements. This brilliant interactive tour of the periodic table has been downloaded more than 280,000 times, which is pretty amazing considering the app’s subject matter, with its heavy whiff of high-school chemistry, and its relatively steep price ($13.99). But Touch Press has eight other lesser-known titles that are just as worthwhile—including one released just last week called Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy. I’m such a Leonardo freak that my Xconomy colleagues made me promise some time ago to keep the da Vinci references in my articles to a minimum. But the new Touch Press app, released in conjunction with an exhibition of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in Britain, gives me a great excuse to break that promise this week.

It’s good to be the queen. Thanks to her acquisitive predecessor Charles II (1630-1685), Elizabeth II is the proud owner of more than 600 Leonardo drawings and manuscripts, about half of them documenting the proto-scientist’s exploration of human and animal anatomy. This summer, hundreds of those drawings have been removed from their cases at Windsor Castle and are on display at Buckingham Palace as part of an exhibition called Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. The show runs through October 7, if your plans happen to take you to London.

If they don’t, the Touch Press app is an excellent substitute. It’s mainly an interactive book, explaining in 11 chronological chapters how Leonardo got started as an anatomical investigator and how, over time, his dissections and drawings allowed him to push past many (but not all) classical misconceptions about how the human body works. Much of the text is standard exhibit-catalog fare, but in the Touch Press version each chapter is augmented with expert video interviews and Touch Press’s signature 3-D, rotating models. Comparing the drawings to the models demonstrates the uncanny accuracy of Leonardo’s eye, centuries before anatomists developed conveniences like autopsy rooms, embalming fixatives, and scanners.

In addition to the interpretive material, the app includes a digital archive of 268 drawings from the Royal Collection, reproduced in extremely high resolution. On the 3.1-megapixel screen of the third-generation iPad, the art is stunning. Martin Clayton, the senior curator of prints and drawings at the Royal Collection and the organizer of the exhibition, claims in this video that the details are “easier to see in the app than in the original drawings themselves.” I can buy that, given that the journals Leonardo used often had pages smaller than the iPad’s screen. (The page with the sectioned skulls, shown here, measures only 18.8 by 13.4 centimeters. The iPad’s screen is 19.8 by 14.8 centimeters. Which begs the interesting question: what might Leonardo have accomplished if he’d had an iPad?)

As an added bonus, the Touch Press app can be toggled to show English translations of Leonardo’s mirror-script notes. That may be an homage to a 1996 Corbis production called Leonardo da Vinci, which had a similar feature called the “Codescope.” In my estimation, the Corbis title—which included a reproduction and translation of the Leicester Codex, a Leonardo notebook owned by Bill Gates—represented the apex of the whole CD-ROM movement. It’s great to see 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.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • TE

    Re: your rhetorical question “what Leonardo might have achieved had he had an iPad”: at least in the graphic department, not much, given the sad state of stylus input on the iPad, and other contemporary tablets, and their general optimization towards comsumption, not creation, of information. Intellectually, though, if Leonardo’s iPad had come with a complete 2012 internet, well that’s a different story. (OTOH perhaps he would simply have got totally lost trying to read and understand all of it.)

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

    TE: Thanks for the comment. Granted, the granularity and control you get with a typical rubber-tipped stylus on the iPad is nowhere near what Leonardo achieved on paper with chalk or pen & ink, so I wasn’t really arguing that an iPad would have been a great capture device for him. But on this score, I’ve heard good things about the Jot stylus from Adonit (http://adonit.net/product/jot/).

    Generally, I don’t buy the argument that the iPad is optimized for consumption rather than creation. On the contrary, it’s great for all kinds of creation, including writing, sketching, photography, moviemaking, and music composing, just to name a few. Of course professionals will always gravitate to more specialized tools. But you can do pretty amazing things with an iPad at an amateur/hobbyist level, which is all that most people need.

    And best of all, you can publish most of the stuff you create straight to the Internet. This alone assures that today’s Leonardos don’t have to labor in obscurity. (The historical Leonardo published almost nothing in his lifetime — we know about his work only because so many pages of his manuscripts have survived.)

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