MagicBook App Transforms Reading into an Active, 3D Endeavor

These days, it seems kids learn how to operate their parents’ iPads before they learn to read—and that can be problematic, says Marjorie Knepp, co-founder of Ann Arbor, MI-based augmented reality startup MagicBook. After all, how can a set of bound pages possibly compare to a gadget that produces colors, sounds, games, cartoons, and movies?

Knepp, a parent who has 15 years of experience working as a project manager at tech companies, is a voracious reader who grew up “devouring” books. Not long ago, she came across some research that showed kids are reading less and less, which negatively impacts their intellectual development.

“I recall my time [during childhood] in the library so fondly,” Knepp explains. “I wanted to give that back to kids by connecting the technology they use every day to books. I love paper books, but I also love technology. Our vision is to bring the two worlds together and help kids engage with books in a whole new way.”

To that end, MagicBook has created a mobile app that, in Knepp’s words, makes books come alive. Thanks to augmented reality technology, MagicBook consumers can use their phones or tablets as viewfinders and scan pages, activating interactive layers that include sound and 3D images. Most other products in this space require special books that have codes or other technologies that tell the phone what to do.  MagicBook works by recognizing an image or specific text. It’s so simple that even young children can use it, she adds.

“I was really thinking about myself when we created MagicBook,” says co-founder Christina York. “I’m an avid reader. I was reading sea stories and I wanted to learn more about boats. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could look at the page through a phone and have that information explode?’”

York says MagicBook is still in the proof of concept stage, but the company is already getting some fairly high-profile attention. (More on that in a minute.) If all goes according to plan, MagicBook users won’t need to buy special books to use with the app. Instead, the company will start with children’s books in the public domain—titles, like “Where the Wild Things Are,” that most parents already have on their shelves. Knepp says MagicBook will make money charging a subscription fee for its content or through single-book sales.

MagicBook was formed at Detroit Startup Weekend late last year, where it went on to win the People’s Choice award. From there, the company competed in the Consumer Electronics Show’s Global Startup Battle in January. MagicBook took top honors in the Startup Women track, and it came in first runner up in the Empower Education track.

The company was given free booth space at CES as part of its prize, which led to CNET stopping by and deciding to shoot a video profiling the company. It’s been a whirlwind couple of months, Knepp says. “We’re pretty happy with the way things are going,” she says. “The feedback we’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive.”

As MagicBook continues to work on building a prototype, the company hopes to work with teachers and librarians to get its app in the hands of kids and parents. Though the company hasn’t sought formal outside investment yet, it plans to close on seed funding from an angel investor soon.

MagicBook plans to release a closed beta version this spring, with a public version planned for late summer or early fall. (If you’re interested in helping the company test its app, go to the MagicBook website and fill out the “contact us” form.)

As for further out in the future, Knepp says, “I hope MagicBook can grow with the reader. The way we envision it, they’ll eventually be able to add their own content—an early form of fan fiction, if you will. We want kids to engage with reading as an active endeavor.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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