Since its release, the iPad has added fuel to the growing interest in digital books and sparked many new innovative book applications and projects. Description and reviews of some projects, many of which are applications for children’s books, can be found in places such as Publisher’s Weekly, CNET, and iLounge.
In April, Atomic Antelope released their new application Alice for the iPad, which is a whimsical interactive version of the Lewis Carroll classic “The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland.” The video and screenshots were absolutely stunning, and were widely reported and discussed online (here, here and here, for example) and on Twitter. Google trends showed the buzz in the days following the release:
Watching the video of the application made me want to try it, and I recently had the chance. While it is a beautiful application and the use of interactive animations lends itself well to the story, adding a playful touch, I did not find it profoundly transformational, nor had I expected to.
In my last post discussing the failure of recent ebook efforts to lead to radical changes in the medium, I mentioned Vook as one of the few projects with the potential to bring about such changes. Around the same time, I saw the EBookNewser report that 17 of the top 100 iPad book apps were Vooks. When I downloaded and read the Vook Sherlock Holmes Experience (including “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and “The Speckled Band”) this past Christmas, I took some audio notes about the experience with the intention of writing a review. Although I didn’t get around to it sooner, I thought it would be useful to document my impressions for what follows.
Other reviews of this application exist, such as the one from eBookNewser, and Vook is now available for the iPad, which is a more compelling platform for ebooks than the iPhone application that I used in December. I have not tested the application on the iPad, but eBookNewser also has a review of that, and while Vook may have addressed some of the issues mentioned below in more recent releases, unless the content is compelling, it is not my intention to acquire newer titles with the sole objective of measuring progess.
My initial impressions of the Vook were good. The introductory video was well-done and set the tone for the story to come. However, I was quickly dissappointed by the lack of integration between the enhanced material and the story. In the words of eBookNewser,
… all the bells and whistles finally distract from the text itself, where the real action still takes place.
Overall, the videos are well-done and provide mainly complementary material to the story. Clips include background material about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the London of his time, a discussion of the use of behavioral observation in criminal investigations, and cultural and human interest clips where passersby are interviewed about their knowledge of and opinion on the Sherlock Holmes character, for example.
Well-read fans would no doubt find many of these videos tedious and kitsch, but I thought they were well-produced and on the whole do a good job of providing something for all audiences, from the serious fan to the casual reader. Unfortunately, such videos don’t add anything to the story narrative and just don’t work as introductory segments at the beginning of each chapter.
Although the name Vook seems to stand for Video-enhanced Book, Vooks also include links to additional material that can be found on the Internet and which is intended to enrich the textual elements of the story. This material is essentially presented in the form of hyperlinks, just as those found in typical web pages.
In contrast to the video enhancements, the linked material consisted almost exclusively of content created and existing independently of the application. Links were added primarily for subjects deemed likely to be unfamiliar to readers and for geographical locations, giving the impression that they had been selected by hand. Typical pages linked to were wikipedia and the online free dictionary, however the choice of links was not consistent. For example, following a geographical link would sometimes lead to wikipedia and sometimes to dedicated sites with comprehensive information about the place in question.
Clicking on a link opens a mini-browser within the application that loads the site in question, and closing it returns to the story text, in order to continue where the reader left off. Following the links disrupts the story flow, but no more so than would consulting a dictionary or encylocpedia during a traditional reading experience.
The main drawbacks are the lack of information on the site being linked to before it opens and the time to load the referenced site, which can be quite slow on the iPhone. The user experience could be improved by providing a hint describing the type of supplementary information furnished by the link, as well as pre-loading and caching the linked material to improve performance issues.
The editorial choices give the impression that the links were prepared by hand, in which case more thought could have gone into choosing links that would significantly enhance the understanding of the story, instead of just general sites describing places or things. Maps could be used to good value to enhance understanding, especially when the action takes places over multiple locations. However maps are handled especially poorly. Without warning, one link closes the Vook application and opens Google maps. To return to reading you have to close Google maps and re-open the Vook application. Google maps features could have easily been used to prepare a specific map with drop pins representing important locations in the story, but even this was not attempted. The map opened was simply a generic map of the area in question.
In one case, a link to encyclopedic information about the British pound is included. Here again, an opportunity to make the story meaningful is lost. One of the main characters in the story is in debt for a certain sum. Instead of using the link to provide general information about the pound, it would have been more enriching to provide a link to a tool that could calculate this character’s debts in current currencies or place the sum in context with respect to typical monthly wages of the epoch. Such a link would have added real value to the story for many of today’s readers.
Finally, the overall experience was dissappointing. The application was a little buggy. Scrolling using finger swipes worked inconsistently, sometimes it was necessary to tap to change the page. An Internet connection was required to access the links, and no time-out or error message was displayed if the application could not access the reference page, for example.
These bugs were not fatal, but gave the impression that the application had not been created and reviewed with sufficient attention to detail. There was even a typo in the table of contents.
Overall, I remain rather pessimistic after the experience. While I’m sure a good deal of work went into preparation of the application, given the decades of experience publishers have with enhanced CD-ROMs and desktop/laptop e-readers, I am genuinely surprised that more thought was not given to creating the story experience.
I find myself confused about the audience that Vook intends to address with a work such as this one, which makes abundantly clear the vital importance of good editorial decisions regarding supplemental matieral. While such additional material may make much more sense for some of Vook’s other titles like “The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen” or “Canyons of the Colorado,” or even “Lincoln Letters,” all of which sound like they would make excellent Vooks, for fictional works, we are still far from seeing fundamental changes in the digital book experience.