Thursday, July 12, 2018

What's the future of children's storytelling? Today's ReaditTorial!

Working at the 'sharp end' of information technology sometimes involves a tiny (nowhere near big enough) glimpse at things that seem so completely far-fetched, bordering on science fiction - that we can't imagine becoming part of our mainstream lives today.

In today's ReadItTorial I'm going to take a (somewhat frivolous) glimpse at things that have often been mentioned in the same breath as 'The Future of Storytelling'.

Attending a recent conference where several very inspirational speakers talked about how technology has enhanced, or in some cases become a vital part of their everyday lives, I started thinking about the whole business of the current way we convey stories.

Obviously as book bloggers the key way we absorb stories is through the book or comic. Pieces of paper latched together in an attractive cover, often with accompanying illustrations, that provide an entirely immersive world (well, in the case of a good book you really get into, at least) without the need for a bunch of wires, a clunky headset or a sweaty pair of headphones.

The conference talked a lot about the rebirth of Virtual Reality, now moved on from the 'hilarious' visions we saw in the late 80s and early 90s in daft movies like "The Lawnmower Man" but becoming an increasing part of an entertainment revolution that is offering a new way for folk to interact with an imaginary environment and its characters.

There's also augmented reality. Layering imaginary or fantastical elements over a real-world setting. I've always been far more interested in AR than VR for many reasons but have dabbled extensively in both (though VR still makes me feel wretched most of the time, I'm just not physiologically built for it, alas - and that's a point I'll return to later on). There's no doubt that with the increase in power in modern computing devices and the ability to shrink devices down to the size of a contact lens (again, more on that later on) that the possibilities for conveying stories is limitless, and provides new and exciting outlets for existing creatives to hone and expand their craft.

At the moment it all feels very fresh, exciting and new - and for me some of the best experiences I've had with VR haven't been with the flash-bang-wallop of action games, but with games that rely on a fabulous narrative, engaging characters and glorious world-building to carry through their ideas successfully.

Sound familiar? Well of course, because these are things that books have been doing for hundreds of years and still continue to do better than possibly any other form of conveying stories. BUT -  and this is the exciting part for me - I think there are ways where technology and storytelling can meet in the middle and really start to compliment each other far more than they currently do.

Let's dig into a few ideas that may point some way towards that.

1) Using Augmented Reality for more book trailers and promotions - and perhaps even in books themselves. 

This seems fairly obvious to me - and it's not even that new an idea. I remember the very first time I saw an Augmented Reality (AR) mechanism applied to a book promo, for Jonathan Stroud's utterly brilliant first "Lockwood and Co" novel. After downloading an app, you could scan the cover of the book with your phone and see something utterly brilliantly spooky to lure you in to reading further.

It was a fairly limited but hugely effective trick that worked really well. We're used to seeing book trailers but we don't really see many instances of AR being used in this way, nor do we see AR being used to enhance the 'paper book' reading experience.

Part of the reason for this is that there's no common standard for AR. All development takes places fairly individually, and it's a costly business (far more costly than your average promotional budget for a children's book at a guess) so hopefully within the next few years we'll see someone really push a standard that perhaps marries an already existing development environment (such as Unity) with a standard AR platform so folk don't have to download an individual app every time they want to view the content, because their phone, tablet or computer will already be ready for it.

2) Virtual Reality 'writing' getting better. 

In so few instances do we see VR games that have properly thought out plots and scripts. This seems odd, but then again when you consider that the Videogames industry in general is still trailing the movie industry (and is a million miles behind the book / publishing industry) when it comes to quality of writing.

In videogames, you very rarely see traditional authors lending their awesome storytelling prowess to games, and in some cases when you do get a game based on a successful book series, the end result is somehow distilled and diluted. Some games do successfully create a fantastic interactive world that can bring a book to life (remember those classic old Lord of the Rings text adventures? Or the Speccy game "The Hobbit" ?) but considering the number of years that we've had machines capable of storing huge amounts of information, and also capable of rendering realistic worlds we still seem to be in an era where most game scripts are B-movie / Pulp Novel standard or worse.

So it is with VR games but things are definitely getting better. PolyArc's awesome "Moss" for PS4VR is a great example of how children's stories could evolve in the VR arena.

Imagine some of your children's book favourites getting this kind of treatment. Will that ever happen? Again I think it's largely dependent on two things: VR tech getting cheaper / more mainstream, and standard platforms being developed rather than console / PC-specific standards meaning that developers and storytellers have to double-up on the work they do to produce their games / stories.

3) Moving beyond the mobile phone

As crazy as it sounds to phone-addicted folk, the mobile phone as we know it isn't the 'end game' of personal devices. In fact eventually folk you see glued to their screens listlessly tapping away as they scan their social media feeds for a mere smidgeon of a mention really will look like those hilarious stock pics of people carrying around their Motorola "Brick" phones in the early 90s.

Some companies have already taken steps to un-glue our eyes from mobile screens, and shift things to other devices that we carry around with us that all compliment each other.

Apple took a bold step in introducing the Apple Watch, wrestling away stuff like notifications and even simple interactions with apps away from your phone to your wrist.

Sony (in conjunction with other tech companies) is looking to remove the screen from the equation entirely with a contact lens that can not only record what you see, but can overlay information on the 'real world' in an AR fashion too.

As "Black Mirror" as that sounds, seeing a showreel for the technology instantly made me think about the way this could be used to convey stories. Obviously it'd be the sort of tech you wouldn't want to see pushed at children, but it would certainly be something that could change the way information is pulled from the real world into fantastical stories. Imagine reading something like William Gibson's "Virtual Light", looking across your local city skyline and seeing it remapped to look like a futuristic enclave from the book. It's mind-blowing stuff.

4) Instant localisation

This isn't really something that's science fiction any more, in fact we've seen instances where 'smart wearables' can be used to translate one language to another, or even read out information for visually-impaired folk.

Of the various things we've talked about here, this is probably the closest to actually happening. Imagine being able to read any book from anywhere around the world, having a method of scanning a page in real-time and having it translated for you - or perhaps even read out to you - in your own native language.

At the moment we've seen the process of localisation often meaning that various territories where international rights for children's books are sold being 'left out' until quite some time down the road of a book existing. Localisation takes place, and the unsung heroes of localisation (those translators who interpret and quite often rewrite huge portions of a story) work hard to give as close an experience in those territories as is humanly possible.

Humanly possible - but with the advent of AI and machine learning, those processes can only speed up and become almost seamless in years to come. As much as the alarmists may talk about AI developing its own sense of existence and enslaving us humans, the emerging use of AI will be to pick up the slack where we need a faster response to issues like localisation and interpretation.

(Sadly this isn't exactly great news for translators - but like we'll always have a need in the publishing industry for talented shadow writers, I think there will always need to be a human 'steer' from someone who can properly understand regional localisation in a way that perhaps computers and machines will never achieve in our lifetimes).

These are just a few ideas, and there are undoubtedly many more instances where technology will begin to play a greater part in the way stories are conveyed.

One prediction though, and I think this is the 'safest bet' of all. Books will not disappear and despite the big talk about the future being with e-books and digital platforms, I can still comfortably predict that children's paper-based books (or whatever we substitute paper for in years to come) will always exist, and the familiar format we know and love really won't die a death overnight. I'm prepared to be proved wrong on this one but given how long picture books have been around for, and how long they've survived and thrived beyond our digital revolution, I think it's lovely to know that this aspect of consuming stories won't change radically. Hooray for that.