Verso Ebooks prototype slides

Open Wide: Ebook Prototypes with Verso Story Engine

NSERC funded research project with Loud Crow Interactive. Spring 2014
Research Assistants: Emanuel Ilagan, Jacquie Shaw, Matthew Pierce and Adam Cristobal.

This ebook research project was developed in collaboration with industry partner Loud Crow Interactive, a leading interactive publisher/developer for children’s ebooks and entertainment for mobile platforms.Their Verso toolset is a 2D-physics engine that allows readers to manipulate objects on the screen with the most realistic physical effects in the market; the framework uses standard web technologies (Flash, CSS, Javascript) for crafting story apps and has an excellent capacity for richly animated visual content and tactile interactivity. The objective of this project was to further refine and expand Loud Crow’s ebook development engine, Verso, for industry usability and enhanced participation from readers of a given ebook.

Enhanced ebook design is a growing industry but a limited range of development tools is currently available for wider use. Focusing on qualitative solutions, a team of students and I worked with the Verso engine to design a series of book chapters for genres beyond children’s fiction, and used these prototypes to establish criteria for the improvement of Verso as an expanding platform. Further, these prototypes served as working examples of Verso’s capacity to foster deeper and alternative modes of user participation. This allowed Loud Crow to further prepare their platform for wider commercial use by partners, to grow its interactive capabilities for commercial users, and to explore other book genres beyond their current industry focus.

This partnership continues to make our curricular work and research manifest using cutting-edge industry tools in a collaborative environment, and contributes to solidify Emily Carr’s and the Social + Interactive Media (SIM) Centre’s leadership as we establish a collaborative network with other local development agencies, interaction studios and publishers to further expand the possibilities for ebook design.

Outcomes. This project resulted in three ebook concept prototypes that expand current uses of the Verso engine to enhance user participation and a final qualitative report on usability of the platform by designers. The three ebook concepts included: “Fish Families,” “Open Closets” and “The Red Pony”

Open Closets

The Open Closets Interactive Lookbook is a screen-based catalogue that rethinks the function of the lookbook: a standard in the fashion industry. Similar to a paper doll toy game but with multiple “dolls”, two models (sprites) and a piece of clothing are dragged onto a stage which then triggers a photographic or video outcome. The application asks its users to draw connections between different members of a communal “open closet” through a shared piece of clothing.

Catalogues represent a category of ebook that is currently unexplored by Loud Crow and their Verso story engine—but remains an area that they can feasibly expand into. Lookbooks and catalogues, like children’s books, have a similar focus in terms of prioritizing images over text with parallel opportunities to elevate the reading experience when translated from traditional print applications. In print format, a catalogue is read passively. In contrast, the interactive catalogue has the potential to create active engagement with the content—facilitat- ing an experience with the product instead of a static representation.

Through gamification, the lookbook acts as a form of entertainment while also engaging its users in the culture and lifestyle of a brand. They are given rewards as they explore the content of the app; these outcomes celebrate the relationships and narratives between the two people while also putting the clothing into context. The rewards (in the form of a picture or video) are unique and unexpected from one another—by keeping the results unpredictable, users are encouraged to keep on playing to discover all of the possible outcomes.

The Red Pony

To expand the possibilities within Verso’s current navigation methods, this prototype takes inspiration from early nineties role-playing games, and their 3D worlds within 2D illustration. The Red Pony is an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella of the same title about a boy’s adventures in the family farm. As the book is written episodically, it allows for an open telling of the story, as it may be read out of order, or freely explored. The app encourages this exploration by allowing open movement within the setting of a Salinas valley farm; the reader may click on buildings or doorways to move between scenes, each of which is a 360 degree panorama. Every play-through reveals different content as users may choose to interact with each scene or character in a different order or manner.

To create additional immersion the user navigates the story in the first person perspective. The setting encompasses the user’s view, and they must act as the protagonist. The navigation is inspired by computer role-playing games of the nineties such as Might and Magic; while Verso is not a 3D engine, it may still deliver a 3D environment in a similar manner to that of these successful classics. Scenes in the book are illustrated as 360 degree panoramas and readers may swipe left or right on their vision to see the surrounding space. As this model of story-telling draws on the interface of older games, it does begin to gamify the classic story. Users engage in dialogue with the setting’s inhabitants and each conversation has multiple outcomes depend- ent on user selection, as well as the order in which the conversations occur. This multi-linearity leads to continued play as users may wish to repeat their story for all possible endings.

Fish Families

This prototype explores a non-fiction ebook app explores the depths of the ocean and the families of marine life who inhabit them. It is a playful book that teaches readers about marine life and alternative family structures. Through a simulated z-axis, the use of the parallax of x and y axis and animated sprites, the reader moves through the depths of the ocean to interact with sea creatures such as seahorses, parrot fish and angler fish. These touch-based interactions trigger the reveal of additional textual infor- mation about the marine animals.

The simulation of the z-axis works to create senses of depth and motion further into, through and past a scene. This simulation was accomplished through the animation of layers ‘zooming’ towards the viewer. The aim was to experiment with alternative navigation struc- tures to a horizontal swipe and page turn, which is the Verso standard.

Fish Families explored Verso’s abilities for delivering longer textual content and was aimed towards an audience aged 7–11 who are able to work with longer texts and to reveal visual information through text- ual cues as well as visual ones. This prototype explored content forms that could extend Loud Crow’s current target audience of pre-k to early elementary aged readers.

These explorations provided Loud Crow with a set of prototypes that delineate potential applications and uses of the Verso toolset in new genres, such as instructional materials, and also the potential for alternative navigation structures. The feedback provided by our team also helped advance their tutorials to make Verso more easily accessible to designers with little coding experience. More importantly, they were able to progress the Verso toolset by including video technology support, improvement of drag and drop techniques, and font fixes and rendering improvements.

Student Involvement & Training. Our team of student RAs trained on the Verso platform in order to produce a large portion of the prototypes themselves. They worked alongside the partner company intheir offices, experienced first hand the processes and workflows in the production of mobile book apps for children and were able to contribute to their improvement.

A total of 4 students were involved in this project: 3 undergraduates and 1 graduate student. A graduate student was involved to provide support for the team based on his previous experience with Verso. The three undergraduate students were each responsible for the development of a unique prototype book chapter concept to expand on the capabilities of the Verso engine.

Development platforms of the calibre of Verso aren’t readily accessible to designers in general and they pose a very challenging technical learning curve. This project helped our students gain expert training that is not typically available at most post-secondary institutions; they produced and documented working prototypes to demonstrate cutting edge ebook design concepts in their portfolios.

Ebook design continues to evolve at a rapid pace in communication design; this applied research project provided the students with an immersive learning experience that will be the basis for their expertise as they continue to innovate in this field. This allows students to competitively position themselves and stand out for their acquired technical, methodological and conceptual skills in ebook design and development.