An E-Book UI That Lets You Flip Digital Pages, Just Like A Real Book

Why can’t we thumb and flip through e-book pages as easily as real ones?

An E-Book UI That Lets You Flip Digital Pages, Just Like A Real Book

If a book is good, you should be so immersed in it that you don’t care how far you’ve read or how much further there is to go. Does that sound like a good rationalization for the generally terrible navigation schemes that we put up with in our e-books? I love my Kindle, but using percentages instead of page numbers makes me feel like I’m reading a calculator instead of a book. And god forbid if I want to casually flip around in a short-but-sweet book like this one, looking for interesting passages to blog about–no, I have to query it like a database using search terms. E-books are great in many ways, but serendipitous they ain’t.

What if there were a way to tactilely navigate through an e-book in the same intuitive way we do with paper pages? Some folks at the KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence cooked one up:

This won’t help me with my Kindle issues, but iPad and tablet users, rejoice and flip to your heart’s content! If Apple implements something like this prototype, your problems will be solved.

Or will they? KAIST’s prototype, which relies on literal visualizations and implementations of page-turning behavior, will surely send detractors of skeuomorphic interfaces into apoplectic fits. “There are no pages,” they’ll shriek. “Why am I being forced to use a crappy simulacrum of a physical object?! Have these idiots not read “Pictures Under Glass”!? This is the 21st centu–grrk…” (That’s the sound of arteries in their brains exploding.)

I don’t have quite that level of contempt for interfaces that dare to use metaphors from the physical world, but there is something uncanny-valley-ish about KAIST’s idea. It’s gets too close to physical-book-like interaction without being an actual book, which may actually be worse than the clunky navigation UIs that e-books already have. Yes, you can flip virtual pages with your fingertips, even several at a time, and other pseudo-papery interactions. But you can’t do everything you would with paper pages–like dog-ear them, buzz the corners like a flip-book, or whatever else a dead-tree book affords.

And that’s the trouble. Not that the ideal e-book nav interface would let you do something as silly as buzz the corners of virtual pages–but that it wouldn’t, in essence, lie to you. That’s the trouble with hyper-skeuomorphic UIs like the one KAIST created: They overpromise and underdeliver. They present the appearance of a full set of physical affordances when only a tiny fraction of them are actually available (because the designers programmed them in). Which means you have to guess, and inevitably get things wrong.

A page-flippable interface like KAIST’s isn’t going to let you do everything you expect it to, which means it’s just another language you have to learn. Like the fact that swiping with three fingers turns three pages. (Does your paperback do that?) Or that swiping slowly with one fingertip turns one page, but swiping quickly with one fingertip turns four pages. (Wha…?) The irony is that if KAIST’s interface were actually “intuitive” in the way that skeuomorphic UIs are meant to be, it wouldn’t require a two-minute-long video carefully explaining all of the different gestural commands on offer. What’s annoying about this kind of UI isn’t that you have to learn what it does. It’s that you have to unlearn what it doesn’t do.

So what would a genuinely “intuitive” navigation scheme for e-books look and feel like? Something familiar enough to be easy–which is where a touch of skeuomorphism comes in handy–but “alien” enough to not send us down blind alleys of preconceived notions that no longer apply. This guy seems to have figured it out for typing on the iPad. Before long, someone else will figure it out for reading, too.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.