The page-turning animations on iPads and e-readers can be cute and fun, but they don't replace the actual feeling of turning pages that e-book holdouts seek. To bridge the gap, a new prototype device looks and behaves more like the paper version, allowing the user to physically flip the page.
"E-books have grown in popularity, but we think they lost the physical features that real books have," said Yuichi Itoh, an associate professor at Osaka University and project manager for the new device, called "Paranga." Itoh worked with Osaka University students as well as Worcester Polytechnic Institute alumni to develop the hardware and software for the reader.
The device is a mixture of high and low technology. Inspired by flipbooks, the prototype has two facing parts resembling an open-faced book. Page turning is controlled on the right-hand side, which is made from a flexible rubber sheet covered in spongy cloth. Along the sheet's edge, a narrow cylindrical roller with page-like grooves connects to sensors inside the device.
he left side of the device has a small LCD monitor that displays content, including animations and text. As the user moves a thumb along the roller, the system is programmed so that the corresponding pages will turn on the monitor. A "bend" sensor along the center of the sheet detects flexing, so the more the rubber sheet is bent, the faster the pages will turn on the monitor -- just like in a paper book.
Paranga also allows users to flip pages infinitely and in order, Itoh said. That could be particularly helpful when someone wants to rapidly peruse a book to find a particular page, he added.
To create the right effect, the team initially observed numerous people flipping through a variety of real books. Then they created a series of initial prototypes by pulling apart magazines, Itoh said. Finally they settled on the bend sensor and rotary encoder as the best mechanism for determining the user’s page-turning intentions.
The device isn't aimed at sophisticated e-book readers. Instead, Itoh said that Paranga would be more useful for children and the elderly because it looks and feels more like a real book, making it easier to understand and control.
Currently the team thinks Paranga has the potential to become a children's toy, but several issues will need addressing before it could be commercialized, Itoh said. One is cost since the most recent prototype was made for about $260, including the monitor. Itoh suggested that turning Paranga into an attachment that connects to a tablet device through Bluetooth could bring the price down to under $100.
The original Paranga prototype was released in late 2010 at the International Collegiate Virtual Reality Contest in Japan. Since then, the device was updated for the 2011 SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques that took place in Hong Kong last month. Now the team is working on improving the page-flipping mechanism’s accuracy, Itoh said.
At SIGGRAPH, the Paranga team demonstrated a new feature of the device. The story shown on the pages changed according to the speed that the pages are turned. For example, in an animated story inspired by the movie "The Matrix," turning the pages slowly shows one character getting shot but flipping them quickly shows him twisting around, dodging the bullets.
"We believe it is a new way of enjoying e-books," Itoh said.
Thomas Coughlin is a senior member of IEEE and founder of Coughlin Associates, a data storage consulting firm based in Atascadero, California. He also chairs the annual Storage Visions and Creative Storage conferences.
Coughlin said he’s been trying out several e-book devices, including the Nook, the Kindle, and the iPad. He sees Paranga as part of a wider trend to give e-reader devices sophisticated capabilities and make them more interactive.
"I'd love to have something with flexible displays where I could flip the display and move to new pages," he said.
Coughlin added that he expects paper books to become obsolete in the next several decades. "Using a book would be like using an 8-track tape. In 20 years or so this will be, 'Gosh, people used to use these things?'"