Tech Desk

From the Tech Desk

Virtual Reality: Gimmick or Key Tool for the Future of Publishing?

At this point, it’s probably a good idea to take any statement anointing something as “the future of publishing” with a grain of salt. After all, eBooks were supposed to be the future, and sales there are lagging, with print books showing a surprising amount of life. The latest technologies to earn the “future of publishing” tag are virtual and augmented reality, and you’re definitely not alone if you look upon both with a hefty dose of skepticism.

Still, there’s no doubting that virtual reality in the publishing world is growing. At the recent BookExpo 2017 event in New York City, VR was one of several topics broached by the Future of Publishing Panel. David Ewalt, a contributing editor for Forbes and a writer who primarily covers technology and video games, talked about how virtual and augmented reality offer “a whole new way to process information and tell stories.” In February 2017, Publishing Trends writer Samantha Howard looked at the possibility of using VR and AR in books, inspired by the BBC’s interactive VR fairytale, The Turning Forest. And last year, BookMobile’s Don Leeper identified three examples of VR and AR already being used in book publishing—including a Disney coloring book and the then-most-recent edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Certainly, the discussion revolving around virtual and augmented reality within the publishing sphere shows that there is promise in the technology. Indeed, some of the ideas already being implemented by publishers sound pretty cool. The Turning Forest combines narration with a 3D virtual reality film, to put users right in the middle of the story. The aforementioned Disney coloring book allowed kids to color in an elephant and then used AR to animate the animal in their chosen colors. And the Guinness World Record feature put readers right into a key spread, allowing them to experience what it would be like to stand side-by-side with the tallest man on earth.

These are neat ideas, and they’re becoming more accessible as virtual reality becomes a more affordable technology. Sure, Google’s VR headset—the Oculus Rift—still carries a $600 price tag, and some other options, like the HTC Vive, are even more expensive. However, there are also affordable options out there. The Google Daydream goes for $79.99, while the Google Cardboard is just $15. Generic VR viewers, meanwhile, cost $10 or $15 at stores like Target, Staples, and Office Depot. Those lower-cost options aren’t full-fledged devices. Usually, cheaper VR headsets are just shells into which users can insert their smartphones. The smartphone, then, does most of the legwork. Since smartphone adoption in the United States is so high, though—about 77% of Americans own smartphones—this factor is unlikely to be much of a barrier.

There are other barriers to virtual and augmented reality becoming commonplace technologies in the book world, though. For one thing, producing VR or AR experiences is likely an expensive proposition for publishers. It’s notable that two of the aforementioned examples—the Disney coloring book and the Guinness Book of World Records—only offer bits of augmented reality. These books put AR features on a couple pages or spreads, but don’t feature full AR or VR functionality from start to finish. Producing a full-length VR project—an audio book with an immersive visual or cinematic experience, for instance—is likely to remain cost prohibitive for most publishers for the foreseeable futures. Independent publishers, especially, will almost inevitably be late adopters of the technology, simply due to cost barriers. Furthermore, since statistics show that only about 6% of Americans owned VR headsets as of last year, there isn’t much promise of ROI for books that emphasize virtual or augmented reality—at least not yet.

The other issue is that VR headsets, while they offer inventive functionality, don’t look cool at all. Tablets and smartphones have seen widespread adoption by users in part because of their sleek aesthetics. You can read a tablet on an airplane and not worry about anyone judging you, or walk down the street listening to an audiobook on your headphones without anyone else even taking notice. VR headsets are clunky, cumbersome, and ugly. They don’t look cool, are likely to draw raised eyebrows if you use them in public, and can’t be used at all while you are doing something else, like walking or driving. Sleeker headgear options aren’t guaranteed to change the stigma, either. Just ask early adopters of the now-abandoned Google Glass.

So what should publishers and authors do about virtual and augmented reality? The best strategy for now is probably to wait and see. There may come a time when these technologies are instrumental to creating an engaging reader experience, and there are certainly cool things that publishers can do with them if they are so inclined. However, since we’re still a way’s off from widespread VR adoption—in the United States, at least—it’s likely that there won’t be a lot of money in VR-enabled books for the foreseeable future.


Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953@gmail.com.


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