Anything But Boring
Rich Gold modestly takes the podium at BookTech West. His keynote task is challenging. The mission? To talk about reading. With this crowd of book publishers and manufacturers, it may have seemed a little like preaching to the converted. Gold is the director of the artists-in-residence program, RED (Research in Experimental Docu-ments) for Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), and three years ago, he was asked to choose a research project topic and enact a technological revolution around it. Gold chose reading.
Rich in meaning
Gold recalls that when he unveiled his chosen quest, his colleagues were a little underwhelmed. A few sarcastically asked, 'Could you choose a more boring topic than reading?" It turns out, the future of reading is more profound and exciting than one might think.
Gold set out to compile a leading group of scientists, designers, engineers and artists to explore the expanses of "reading" as a definition. "We read about 1,000 times more than we write," Gold points out. "Reading surrounds us, labels us and defines us."
Reading is anything but static; since it's conception, reading has—and will continue—to evolve. In its early days, "Reading was done standing up, out loud, and in public places, usually by monks," Gold quips. "And what they read was from highly illustrated texts. But reading has changed."
Reading can be either voluntary or involuntary, according to Gold. It can be permanent or ephemeral and synchronous or asynchronous. There are two parts to a document intended to be read: the content and the media. We know that content has meaning, Gold points out, but can the media have meaning, as well? Certainly. "The medium carries a message of its own. The
message, 'You're fired,' means something very different if I choose to send it by e-mail, post it on the Web, send an e-mail or PowerPoint file, as a Hallmark card, or if I call the employee up on the phone," Gold added.
"When I was a child, I had a book about an elephant, and it was actually cut into the shape of an elephant," Gold marveled. "The creator made the shape and the content so that they could both be simultaneously, not separately, experienced. … You could never put the elephant book on an e-book and have it mean the same thing as the [print version.]"
As a result, the future of reading will involve creating a deep, resonant experience for readers, with attention paid to all aspects of the vehicle, the content, the medium and the function of design.
Following form with function
Gold's studies into reading gave birth to exciting new technologies developed by his colleagues, some simple, others wildly futuristic. "Infinite Books" employ a hyperbolic browser that allows readers to navigate through a narrative structure. In one example, the reader interactively chooses the path of the main character, Henry, as he walks through different phases of his day and world. "Sonic Books," like the Listen Reader, look like normal books, only the paper is embedded with sensors that allow the reader to conduct background music for each page with a brush of the hand across the page.
"Spoken Books" were born with the Reading Eye Dog, a several-foot tall robotic-looking dog that reads text aloud to its audience. The "Very Long Book" electronically projects on three 18-ft. panels that reveal asides and additional topical information as the reader walks the wall, so to speak. "Very Fast Books" are high-tech speed readers that fire single words at a time, allowing the reader to control the speed. Other technologies, like "Deep Books," offer "fluid stories," whereby the reading devices enable readers to touch on key words, initiating text breaks and bends, alternative sentence endings, jokes, asides or more information.
Taking to the highways
The new age reading technologies created by Gold's group began a U.S. tour at the San Jose Tech Museum in the spring. The tour will allows Xerox PARC to study how children and adults react and respond to these emerging technologies. "When we told the museum that we were bringing in an exhibit about reading, they too said, 'Could you pick a more boring topic?' In fact, what we found was just the opposite. They couldn't get people to move through the exhibit fast enough!"
For more information on Rich Gold's research, check out www.parc.xerox.com.
-Gretchen A. Kirby