The very name of the Kindle Paperwhite, the latest version of Amazon’s e-reader, says a lot about the state of e-books today. Convenient though they may be, as far as our eyeballs are concerned, ink on paper still sets the standard. But even as e-ink gets more ink-like and display pixels continue to shrink into ocular oblivion, e-books will never be able to replicate the tactile sensation of reading a real book. A recent project by a Polish art student, however, shows how we might preserve that familiar experience while still exploring the possibilities afforded by electronic books–not by translating physical tomes into digital apps, but by transforming the books themselves into electronic interfaces.
Waldek Węgrzyn created his hybrid book, Elektrobiblioteka, as the final project for his masters degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, Poland. Inspired by a manifesto published by El Lissitzky in 1923, the project is a considerably more literal interpretation of an “e-book” than the digital files we download from Amazon. It is, first and foremost, a book–a bound volume with front and back covers and a number of pages in between. The text, in fact, is Węgrzyn’s master thesis.
But the book is also an interface for a companion website designed by Węgrzyn. When connected to a computer via USB, turning the book’s pages moves the reader through a supplementary digital experience, complete with animations, videos, links and quotations related to each physical page open on the table in front of them. In some cases, touching conductive sections of the page allows the reader to control the action on-screen, starting a video’s playback, for example, or cycling through a series of images.
But getting the book to work seamlessly with the website was a challenge. After testing a few solutions, he settled on a screen-printed silver conductive paint that allowed for several contact points on each physical page. A tiny circuit board in the back cover sends the input signals to the computer via USB.
As Węgrzyn explains it, Elektrobiblioteka was a chance to explore the intersection between two areas of interest: multimedia and book design. “The most important result of the project,” he told me, was “the experience of multiple disciplines, and the opportunity to experiment.” The fact that it was done in an academic setting gave him some latitude, he explains, to do something “totally non-commercial and a bit non-practical.” And it’s true: there aren’t a lot of projects that let designers hone their silkscreening, book binding, HTML and jQuery all in one fell swoop.
But in the remarkably polished final product, it’s hard not to see something that starts to transcend a typical experimental student project. The concept is as obvious as it is radical: instead of making readers choose between physical and digital, why not give them the best of both? Of course, part of the appeal of e-book readers is the ability to carry a backpack’s worth of texts on a device the size of a Pop-Tart. But it’s also about imbuing texts with the richness of the internet–the ability to share a snippet of text instantly, or look up an allusion on the spot. And while I don’t think anyone would argue that Moby Dick stands to benefit (much) from embedded YouTube videos, there’s enormous potential for enhancing non-fiction works with multimedia. Just think about how exciting it is to reach the stretch of glossy photo pages in the middle of a long biography.
Węgrzyn’s confident that physical books are here to stay. But instead of real books and e-books existing as two separate products–or, just as bad, making e-books that blindly copy the real thing, down to the simulated turn of the page–he sees the potential for cross-pollination. “Personally I rather think that multimedia interfaces and print design will influence each other,” he says. “And because of that, we will continue to change our reading habits.” After all, there’s no need to flip to the middle of the book for the pictures if they’re already on the screen in front of you.