‘Magic bookmark’ revealed as key to augmented reality books

We’ve had ebooks, audiobooks, and of course good old-fashioned printed books – but could there soon be another way to read? So-called “augmented reality books” – dubbed “a-books” by their creators – are a step closer to mass-market production after a six-year project by researchers at the University of Surrey.

While ebook readers are used to being able to access background information and extra features, a-books would allow users to swipe their fingers across a line in a physical, printed book and have related content flash up on their phones, laptops or smart TVs.

The main commercial focus of the technology is likely to be useful with travel guides and educational books, but could also be adapted to fiction, says the senior lecturer at the university’s Advanced Technology Institute, Radu Sporea.

A reader could, for example, run their finger over a character’s name to get their backstory to pop up on their phone, or get a reminder of the storylines of previous books in a series.

While these features are commonly available for ebooks, the challenge has been finding a way to adapt the technology for a physical volume “without ruining the experience of reading a paper book”, said Sporea.

“Obviously books have a lot of appeal for what we might call their ‘bookness’, the fact they’re on paper and you handle them a certain way, but there is the limitation of this information being static,” he said. The challenge was how to integrate the extra information “in a seamless way” without “breaking up your reading experience”.

The research team has just unveiled its third generation of the a-book, having experimented with a number of techniques, including the use of inks that react to light and activate when you turn a page. That method proved not to be viable outside a laboratory because “there’s not enough protection from oxygen and moisture in the atmosphere”, Sporea said.

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The latest solution is to embed ultra-thin solar panels between two halves of a single sheet of paper, which activate the a-book’s properties when a “magic bookmark” is laid on to a page. The team are now working to develop the paper so that it feels less “unwieldy and thick”, Sporea said.

The project has so far been helped with £900,000 of government funding and the team is hoping to get corporate and book industry interest to help further develop and refine the technology.

One physical example of the book technology in action is the Climate Domesday Book, which will be exhibited later this year in the UK and Australia, and which plays video and audio on the nearest screen, relevant to the passages highlighted by the reader.