Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
As Pottermore moved from beta to open system over the last few months, it revealed only moments of interactivity alongside static screens and unlockable text fragments. But the real promise of Pottermore wasn’t in the “interactive book” itself, but in the promise of future storytelling given this level of commitment of resources by Rowling & co. Now, it looks like Harry Potter will be among the first franchises taking a new step towards book as augmented reality, thanks to this week’s E3 announcement of Sony’s Wonderbook platform. Is this another gimmick, or a genuine glimpse of how augmented reality technologies and traditional storytelling might begin to converge?
The video trailers for Sony’s Wonderbook evoke technology that is still beyond us, with players holding open a book (that is really just a coded target point for the game’s camera) that spills out a world of magical creatures in full 3D, directly invading the living room. This image is already familiar to those who watched the Pottermore trailer, which similarly evoked the idea of characters spilling forth out of pages in a futuristic pop-up book. Given the trailer, it’s not hard to imagine that the Pottermore team has been thinking about the Wonderbook project all along. This might be just another step along J.K. Rowling’s personal experimentation with the limits of the book in a digital age, as she’s inarguably still an unstoppable force in print.
The reality of the Wonderbook is slightly different, though familiar to anyone who has played with early AR: while the player might interact with the “book” in front of them, their gaze would remain fixed on the screen, where the living room would be reflected back with the addition of the 3D world. The interface for the Wonderbook will be a strange combination of physical and digital, as the player might be wielding the standard Move controller only to see it reflected back to them as a wand. The addition of augmented reality glasses or headsets could take this a step further, and certainly the marker-based system could translate beyond this first incarnation.
The trailer for the Harry Potter “Book of Spells” deserves credit and attention for more than just what’s seen in its own pages. Fundamentally, the “Book of Spells” is a textbook—even if it is instructing the reader about something that only exists in the world of magic. It’s a book by Miranda Goshawk that actually made an appearance first on Harry’s required reading list, and thus marks yet another transition of Harry’s textbooks into our world. (The previous books, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, were published as traditional texts but would also fit well on this platform.) The same technology for practicing the motions and “casting” of spells could be applied to other learning situations, and certainly the hybridity of the physical and digital (the “book” and controller versus the screen’s magic mirror) makes for an interesting successor to current eBook platforms such as the iPad. Imagine a biology textbook, or astronomy reference, rendered using this combination of interface and media.
The iPad already upped demands for interactivity and creative approaches to texts, and this is perhaps a logical next step. There are already plenty of examples of attempts at those types of augmented reality books, particularly in education, but there’s hope that Sony’s involvement and the inclusion of powerful gaming hardware in the mix might make the Wonderbook a particular stand out.
Ultimately, the first step for this type of device is drawing interest, and Sony couldn’t have planned higher-profile collaboration for their starting content. The slogan of the Wonderbook announcement—“One Book: a Thousand Stories”—refers to the properties of the peripheral itself as an empty slate awaiting projected content. But will the content follow? Devices like the iPad have a distinct advantage over this peripheral, as a mobile interactive book can be taken anywhere. The Wonderbook requires the commitment of the living room and thus must win out against every other diversion available on that same screen. Also, an author without their own technical team is unlikely to release something for the Wonderbook—each project will require the same type of production as at least an indie game. Compare that to the iPad or Android tablets, where novices can easily break in to the market and publishers can port their titles to playable modes relatively quickly. At the same time, this requirement might mean a smaller selection of quality titles at first, followed by tools to ease the production process as augmented reality becomes a more familiar part of our everyday media.