I saw an item in the news today about Google contemplating using augmented reality (AR) to turn old-school paper books into dynamic pop-up books.
This is a fascinating idea. Physical media are part of the real world. If you can augment reality, you can also augment physical media. This would give you augmented physical media.
The benefits of augmented reality come quickly to mind. We could “see” what new buildings will look like, in place, before they are even built. We could “see” what new furniture would look like in our apartment, before we purchase it and go to the trouble of having it moved in. But why would it be beneficial to augment something that isn’t the world we live in – why would we augment a piece of physical media when the content itself could be digitized, giving us all the content with none of the real-world physical baggage?
Why not just use the mechanism that augments the book to render the book as well?
I think the best answer to this is – people like books. Any number of people have spoken of the aesthetic magic of a physical book. We love the way they smell. We love the way they feel on our fingers. We love their physicality.
Margaret Atwood, who writes books, and darn fine ones at that, once said “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
To anyone who has ever enjoyed gardening, this is a powerful quote.
Gardening has become more important to people, emotionally and spiritually thinking, since it has become an alternative to shopping in a store. It used to be just a necessary labour. Now, people can wax poetic about how it gets them in touch with the Earth and the cycle of life.
A similar shift has taken place in our feelings about the wilderness. Hundreds of years ago, people weren’t able to see untamed mountainscapes as gorgeous – if they were laying their eyes on one, it was to be perceived as nothing but an extreme challenge, a threat to life and limb, and something to be tamed. But now, we actively preserve such wilderness areas because they have become important to people, as a way of getting in touch with what the world is really like. Beautiful, inspiring, grounding – all modern ideas regarding untamed wilderness.
But coming back to books – and the idea that it would be just as good to virtualize the book itself and render it with the mechanism you were going to use to render the augmentation of the book – I would hazard that our love of books will push that possibility farther into the future.
And as industrial revolutions past have attuned us to the beauty of gardening and the wilderness, perhaps current industrial revolutions will inspire a similar poetic sentiment to grow around books. And whereas in the deep past, people felt burdened by growing food and intimidated by the wilderness, people have always loved books.
Much as we can get all the food we need from a store, we can get all the media we need from the web. And yet, people grow things. And read books. Especially with their kids.
The idea that we can use augmented reality to enhance books follows naturally from the desire to use augmented reality all over, well, reality. We’re not going to give up reality. And books, like streetscapes or museums, are integral parts of that reality.