bridging the digital/physical divide

October 14, 2011 by  

A few days ago we deployed a simple but exciting design change to bookleteer.com, namely we have added QR Codes and Short URL links to every Diffusion eBook’s back page. These link directly to the online bookreader version of the eBook – a web-based version that makes it possible to read the eBooks directly on mobile devices such as smartphones (Android, iPhone, Blackberry etc), tablets (iPad, Galaxy tab etc) or any computer.

What’s so exciting about that you may ask? Well, we have been thinking about ‘tangible souvenirs‘ for a few years now – exploring ways of capturing and sharing aspects of ‘digital experiences’ into physical forms such as the Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes. This might be data visualisations or digital assets such as photos, tweets etc arranged to act as mementoes of ephemeral experiences which are primarily mediated through digital technologies. Conversely we have also been thinking about how to share these ‘tangible souvenirs’ digitally as well as physically. This thinking originated in a small project we helped take place between schoolchildren in a village in rural Nigeria making and sharing eBooks with schoolchildren in Watford, north London. In parts of Africa computers, printers, paper and internet access were (and remain) scarce – yet mobile phones were proliferating fast. If people who had never before had access to low cost publishing technologies through the simple tools we had created (Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer.com) could use these to publish their own knowledge and experiences how then would they share them when the means of production (computers, printers, paper etc) which we take for granted in the industrialised world, were still scarce?

The answer was to find another bridge between the digital and the physical – enabling people to share their Diffusion eBooks not only through the PDF files and printed formats, but also via mobile phones. In 2007 I wrote a post on diffusion.org.uk (our free library of eBooks and StoryCubes) speculating on how we might in future use visual barcodes to make sharing the eBooks simpler. At that time we didn’t have the online bookreader format, so there was still the problem of how someone with a mobile phone could print out and read the book. However, with the implementation of bookreader (a fantastic piece of open source software created by the Internet Archive) we have been able to realise this in a remarkably simple but potentially crucial way. If someone has a printed or handmade copy of a Diffusion eBook then they can share its content with anyone else simply by letting them use their mobile device to scan the QR code (there are multiple free QR readers for most types of phone or tablet device). Or they can take a photo of the back page and email it or send it via MMS to someone who can then scan it in themselves.

By placing the Short URL link alongside the QR code we have also provided a human-readable alternative to the QR code. This way anyone can simply type the URL into a web browser on any internet-connected device to begin reading the eBook. The URLs are also short enough to send via SMS, Twitter or any other social messaging system.

Over the years we have described the concept behind the hybrid digital/physical nature of Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes as being about creating ‘Shareables‘ – things which can float between these states, which can exist in more than one place at a time as both physical and digital objects. We have collaborated with friends, colleagues and partners to explore the affordances of capturing unique handwritten and handmade books and StoryCubes and being able to share them directly with others, almost without restriction. This simple addition linking the physical PDF/printed versions to their online bookreader versions amplifies this rippling effect between the physical and the digital in ways we can only begin to imagine.

We think this could be a step change in the uses and usefulness of bookleteer.com and the Diffusion eBook format – we’d love to hear what other people think too.

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