Sony announced its new peripheral the Wonderbook yesterday at E3. Wonderbook is an augmented reality (AR) platform, similar to the AR features of the 3DS, but displayed on the home television screen. Watching the demo I kept thinking, how is Wonderbook a “book”?
McLuhan of course taught us that the content of any new medium is another medium. During the E3 demo, presenter Dave Ranyard calls Wonderbook a “reinvention of storybooks.” The pad physically “opens” like a book — without pages, but still. Just to drive home the point, the first title released on the platform is BOOK of Spells, in collaboration with J.K. Rowling.
At this level, however, Wonderbook bears only a metaphorical relationship to print media. It is a “book” the way Apple’s Notes program is a yellow legal pad.Apple seems to believe we would somehow forget what a program does if we are not visually prompted to connect it to an analog equivalent.
Wonderbook in turn wants us to take its new platform as a revitalization of the print interface. Sony’s Andrew House introduced Wonderbook by saying, “it evolves one of the oldest interfaces that we know, the book.” He then segued to a video demonstration with the claim, “words can’t do it justice,” which ironically featured very few words at all.
The press release for Wonderbook calls it “the next step in reading and augmented reality gaming” suggesting that those media interactions are somehow on parallel trajectories. But for an attempt to reinvent the book, the demo didn’t show much reading going on.
Once open, the Wonderbook acts more like a stage. Using the Playstation Eye–a webcam peripheral, essential to make the Wonderbook function–the Playstation detects the Wonderbook’s open surface and projects to the user’s television three-dimensional virtual objects hovering above it. It then responds to the user’s movement in the space surrounding the Wonderbook stage, as well as the user’s incorporation of other Playstation peripherals, like Move motion-controller.
None of this requires reading or text. Its all propioception making use of visual feedback that extends the arena of interaction onto the screen.
The onstage demonstration exemplifies the difference. In the Book of Spells demo, text appears on the top of the screen, but is also spoken aloud by a voice actor. Already, this “book” has obsolesced reading. About halfway in, the demo participant tries to cast a fire-making spell apparently before the before the “book”–and its reader–tells her to do so. The demo participant recognizes the required gestures faster than the text could be read, and its reading now encumbers her interactions. She must repeat the zig-zag pattern until this evolution in interface is ready to receive her input.
So, how then do we justify Sony’s packaging of Wonderbook as a book? The cynical route is to say Wonderbook combines iBooks and 3DS in an attempt to situate Sony on the cutting edge of an elusive edu-gaming market. With all the resources flying around trying to justify this sophisticated technology as socially beneficial, I wouldn’t completely rule this out. But if we take Sony and Mr. House at their word, then something else is up entirely.
House explains in the presser that Wonderbook will make “traditional reading experiences take on a whole new meaning.” As we have seen from the demo, it basically eliminates “traditional reading” all together. What then is the “experience” that Wonderbook extends?
As far as I can tell, Wonderbook has little to do with the printed word. Instead, it is about perpetuating a relationship to the virtualities of fiction. As different means of accessing and interacting with the virtual, both reading and augmented reality gaming exist on the same continuum.
What is perhaps unique in this new interface “evolution” is the potential to overcome the “lost in a book” metaphors that have long characterized both compelling reading and “immersive” virtual environments. With only a limited demo its hard to extrapolate if and how Wonderbooks will handle the interpenetration of virtual and physical realms. For now I am at least intrigued by Wonderbook’s invocation of print literature as a forebearer of augmented reality platforms.