The Frankfurt Book Fair, which took place in Germany last week, feels like an airport (gift shops, people movers, high ceilings, ample bathrooms, the anxiety of missing something), except you can’t go anywhere. That’s because almost everyone—everyone who is someone in the publishing world—has come here.
“I’m here therefore I am,” Richard Nash said, who brought his Web site Small Demons for the second year in a row. More than seven thousand exhibitors showed up and paid a lot of money for the privilege: big publishing houses, smaller independent ones, makers of illuminated manuscripts, calendars, comics, cookbooks, art books, children’s books, postcards, erotica, not to mention Amazon, Kobo, Samsung, Sony, Rovio, and Nintendo. The juxtaposition of game giants with paper products seemed an accurate—if slightly disorienting—reflection of today’s publishing landscape. The book publishers are doing digital products and the video-game makers are doing books. This is the awkward adolescence of interactive media. The book is in transition.
In one corner was Sony, previewing the Wonderbook, its foray into book publishing—sort of. Due to be released in November, it looks like a physical book, but it it’s filled with digital code instead of words or pictures. That’s because it’s not meant to be read by people, but by the PlayStation’s camera, which projects illustrations of flames and flying horses onto the image of the book that’s seen on the TV screen. The working title for Wonderbook is “Book of Spells,” a volume that could originally be found in the library at Hogwarts, and now kids everywhere—at least those with PlayStations—can cast Harry Potter spells in their living rooms. The user appears onscreen, too, rendered in augmented reality (A.R.), meaning that certain parts of the scene, the player, the carpet, the couch, appear as they are while other parts, the book and controller for instance, are digitally transformed into an antique spell book and a wooden wand. In real life, the user holds a plastic controller over the Wonderbook like a conducting baton and practices spells from the book, like a real student at Hogwarts. Why is the user shown onscreen? My mind immediately went to the fan-fiction porn opportunities: naked onscreen, holding a seamlessly integrated magic wand, lewdly orchestrating spells in a half-real, half-digital landscape.
But this product is targeted to children, and it is children who will want one for Christmas, children who will learn to swipe across tablet pages before turning paper ones, children who were spotlit at this year’s fair, which had around fifteen hundred publishers dealing with their market exclusively. So far, “Book of Spells” is the only book one can “read” on the Wonderbook. Some text does appear onscreen, a history of the spells and instructions for casting them. These words are advertised as “new writing from J. K. Rowling.” I asked a Sony representative at the booth if it was a book or a game, but he dodged my question and said that you create spells and earn points. It’s as much reading as Guitar Hero is guitar playing.
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