The social + interactive media centre (sim) helps BC companies tap the design, creative and technical expertise of Emily Carr faculty and students. Funded by a 5-year grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), SIM supports a wide range of applied social, interactive and design projects. The Centre’s research program engages BC companies as collaborators in uncovering new ways to use social technologies and tackle interactive design challenges.\

The applied research capacity of the SIM Centre gives BC companies direct access to the innovative thinking, design skills and research expertise of BC’s most creative faculty and students. Our partners span the technology and creative sectors, including everything from web and software developers to film publishing companies. SIM Centre projects have included:
For web developer Work at Play, testing the potential of their DEQQ social software tool by using it to support online conversations in an English class. The insights Work at Play got from this test helped them position DEQQ for its successful launch as the social platform for all the Canadian teams in the NHL.
For broadcast producer Paperny Films, developing the concept for a web and mobile app to support their Food Network Canada show, Eat Street, and connecting them with Vancouver’s Invoke as a development partner. Together, Paperny and Invoke received significant funding from the Bell New Media Fund, and have made Eat Street one of the top Lifestyle apps on the Apple iOS app store.
For the web mavens at Mozilla, creating an ebook version of Learning, Freedom & the Web, a book about the future of learning and education. This enhanced ebook was designed and largely built by Emily Carr students, with technical support from Steam Clock Software.
For web developers Affinity Bridge, partnering to build Participedia, an innovative research platform that convenes world leaders in the research and practice of deliberative democracy and democratic innovation.
For epublishing startup BookRiff, developing a set of ebook prototypes that represent the eclectic possibilities for ebook ideation and design.
As the SIM Centre grows, epublishing has emerged as one of our core areas of research. The advent of tablet computing has opened the doors to new kinds of books that integrate rich media, touchscreen interactivity, nonlinear storytelling and social interaction. Companies in a range of industries, including not only publishing but also software, film, and gaming, are moving toward ebooks as new medium for their work. But the creative and implementation challenges of creating enhanced books requires a diverse set of skills and expertise. Emily Carr’s varied strengths, which run from print and interaction design to film and animation to illustration, are helping BC companies explore this new medium.

Interview with Alexandra Samuel by Celeste Martin

January 12, 2012

We are here today with Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre (SIM) at Emily Carr. The SIM Centre has been engaged in eBook development in the last year through a wide range of projects involving design students and industry partners. How would you characterize Design’s contribution to the future of the book?

The whole idea of the book is breaking down because of this evolution from the printed codex to the digital book, first through e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Nook, and now with the advent of tablet devices, most notably the iPad. We are really opening up the possibility of what a book can be, and introducing all sorts of interactive elements, multimedia, and social elements that challenge our conventional notions of books. And once you start bringing in those kinds of media elements and those design possibilities the design of the book becomes so much more than just font selection or layout and becomes really part of the way a book is conceived, developed and even written.

Can you illuminate us a bit on the ebook ecology? Who are the major stakeholders and what do you see them gaining access to?

Sure. To create an enhanced ebook you need a much wider range of expertise than what it takes to publish a traditional book. With a tablet book you are starting to blur the lines between book and app, so the team of people it takes to create a title might include a software architect, a software developer, an interaction designer, a communication design team who are thinking about how the book will look but also how it will function. You may have various kinds of media artists; if you are incorporating video, you might have a videographer, a director, a whole film crew in fact, going into the process of building that title. Illustrators, sound engineers, it is almost limitless.
And the other part that changes is the role of the reader; we are used to the reader as this passive vessel into whom the book’s content is poured. But when you look at a title that includes interactivity, or even just collaborative annotation, the notes that I read, the highlights somebody else has left, are able to become part of the book’s content. So, I think it’s reasonable to think about readers as partners in the creation of the book and in some sense co-authors of that book or that reading experience.

Interesting; so, within this context, how useful is the term ebook? Should we instead being talking about (digital) device-based reading, digital literature, new media literacies, or some thing else?

It’s still useful to talk about books as opposed to reading, because reading is going to fail to describe a lot of what might happen in an ebook. So, for example, if we were to talk about a traditional coffee table book that might be a collection of photography or a catalogue it’s not really accurate to describe that as reading when you are flipping through photographs. When you are looking at an ebook that includes elements of film or image, photography, illustration, interaction, reading may only be a portion of what you are doing when you are using that title and it may be actually totally beside the point, you might have not any text within the title at all.
Arguably for that reason you might want to dispense with the label of book as well, but I think that book is still a useful term because it helps us define expectations about what this experience is going to be. If you look at apps that are on the line between book and app, if they didn’t come with the label “book” you wouldn’t necessarily perceive them as a book: it is a collection of content, you may be navigating in a way that is totally non linear, but once you put the book label on it, certain expectations that we inherit from the codex.
That includes expectations about a book as something you are engaging with deeply, something that presents an idea or set of ideas, and something that, I would argue, has the potential to change the reader. Unlike a magazine or an app that presents content or headlines, when you open a book you have this sense that you are going to be having an experience that is coherent and that has the potential to leave you as a different person even if that just means a person with a different idea of the world, a different idea about a particular topic or a different set of knowledge.

If we were to think in a longer time line, subjecting ebooks to the historical perspective of the codex or even movable type, what do you foresee in this digital transition, transformation, translation?

I think a lot about video games. We are really on the early stages of recognizing video games as part of our cultural repertoire, we still think of them as gadgets or distractions. There a lot of folks out there making the argument that a video game is an important form of narrative, especially for younger people who spend more time with video games than any other media, and we are seeing examples of video games that really do tell a story, have a creative vision, and have challenging content.. If you think about ebooks as experiences that might converge with the way video games are experienced or the way some very interactive websites are experienced, we can anticipate a time when ebooks will become a part of our cultural repertoire, as one form of narrative that we may enjoy alongside film, gaming or traditional reading.
Right now the vast majority of ebook experiences are linear. Many people talk about the possibility for ebooks to become more like the “choose your own adventure” books that were popular for a while. That starts to bring us closer to video games: the idea that the reader would actually shape the experience of the narrative, the order in which the text is experienced or the order in which the content is navigated.

Would you discuss some of the major affordances you see developing around ebooks?

Ebooks open the door to engaging with so many forms of creativity and skill within the Emily Carr community, from illustration to film making, and from print design to interaction design. You might even get into thinking creatively about the ebook as an experience in a way that our performance art students and faculty will have very interesting ideas around.
Ebooks are amenable to all of those different forms of creativity because of the parameters of the devices themselves. With an Android tablet or iPad you can do anything you can do in a web browser, and actually more than that because they are gesture and touch-based. You can have simulated tactile experiences which engage us in a synesthetic way: you can have a title in which when somebody slams the door, your tablet physically vibrates. You can have a book where if you tip the tablet the text slides off the screen, because most of these tablets have an accelerometer.
The part that interests me the most is that you can have titles that are deeply social; we are now having an experience of the web through social media where interaction and conversation is an expected part of the web experience; that expectation is coming to the book. The idea of a book as a solitary engagement is really deeply embedded in our culture. Younger people who are growing up with this ubiquitous social layer in everything they do, because they are constantly facebooking and texting, are actually nostalgic or protective of that solitary quality of reading, the idea that reading is immersive. For many titles that will continue to be the preferred way of engaging.
But for a lot of titles it is also going to be deeply enriching and exciting to see a book as a community, to have your reading experience enhanced by your simultaneous opinions or asynchronous comments of other people reading the same text. To see the pages that most people have commented on or that most people have read rising to the fore of your text because presumably they are the most important pieces of content. To share in real time, so that if you are reading a passage that you think is amazing, you can take that paragraph and you can tweet it right away, or you can facebook it, you can post it to your online community site, you can put it on to your blog.
Conventional reading has been increasingly sidelined because people are putting their attention into the forms of content that are socially enriched, or that they are able to integrate into their own narrative by pulling it on to their blog. The idea that those reading experiences can now become part of my social stream and my fellow readers can be part of my community, really speaks in a very exciting way to the social power of reading. How many of us have had these wonderful conversations with friends where they just read the book you just read, and you really connect around it. Now that experience is easier to find because you’ll be able to see the people who are reading the same book as you and maybe even discuss it as you are reading it. Then you’ll also be able to take that experience of reading directly into the social networks where you are all being engaged.

Moving away from the technicalities and characteristics of ebooks, and thinking of them as a cultural artifact, why do we care about how we define them or about how they are received?

Books are one of the central artifacts of our culture, and they are important both in terms of knowledge creation and learning. The book remains the core of our model of learning; now, that model is changing, but if you can find a student that hasn’t had a book assigned throughout the course of their education I’d be very surprised.
Books are also really core to our notions of democracy. If you look at the history of the printed word and the rise of the printing press, they are very tightly intertwined. It was only with the advent of print and the ability to create books, and later periodicals, that you were able to create a sense of a common discourse: people reading, sharing and discussing the same set of ideas. When you start to chip away at the edges of what we understand that artifact to be you start challenging our notions of the role of the book as a core part of our democratic discourse. If people don’t engage deeply with ideas the way that you would in a book, what will fuel our democratic conversations?

You’ve participated in a number of projects through the “Art of the Ebook” program in the SIM Centre and you’ve worked with teams of designers and content providers. What would you identify as the major challenges of working with these teams?

One of the challenges that we face at this moment is that we are all excited about the possibilities for transcending the traditional book but we are also really bounded in our imagination by that experience. If you look at what has been done by publishers versus what is being done by software developers, I would argue that the most exciting work in the ebook space is coming from people who do not have a background in publishing simply because they are less constrained in their imagination. One of the sponsors of our first big ebook project was BookRiff, which is a spin off of a very eminent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and I think it is telling that it is a spin off because you do need to create that space for an epublishing project to be something of its own that isn’t too tightly connected to the way that publishers traditionally work. In the case of BookRiff, they are creating the kind of the iTunes of books; instead of a book being something that a publisher defines and binds and hands to you, a book is something you essentially create or co-create by finding the content that is relevant and packaging it up and reading it as a single volume either online or in print.

eBook or website? Where do we put content? Do we need ebooks?

One the more interesting projects we had a chance to work on here is the Learning, Freedom & the Web that we developed for Mozilla. Mozilla is known very much as a web entity: they are the folks behind Firefox and their whole mission is to support an open web and to support the technologies, the processes, the people that make the web such an extraordinary and vibrant place. So it is very appropriate that when we looked to create an ebook for a title they had authored about the future of learning that we wanted to do that in a way that was as open as the web that Mozilla advocates for. We created the title in HTML5 because that is open standard, it has the ability to run not only on the iPad but the Android and just about any tablet, desktop or phone. The irony of that is that the experience of reading Learning, Freedom & the Web does feel quite book-like in the sense that there is a linear order, a table of contents sort of turned into a navigation bar, but you would ultimately recognize it as a book. At the same time, precisely because it was built in this open way, it works beautifully as a website. You can access this title on the web and you wouldn’t necessarily feel that you were missing something by not reading it on a tablet.
That really points to the convergence of the web and the ebook, and both the limitations and the value of ebook as a label. Using the title of “book” you are framing the expectation for how people are going to interact with it, and encouraging them to dig deeper, to engage with the content. I hope the word ebook will persist, because I think it speaks to a really important need in our culture, which is for people to engage deeply with ideas.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether people are deeply engaging on a laptop screen or a tablet screen or a phone: if they are having that experience of diving into the text or into a collection of content, they are readers. They are experiencing a book.

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