AR Books. How They Came to Be and What They Are Created For

The global AR/VR in education market has been showing rapid growth rates over the past few years. By 2023, ABIresearch predicts it to reach $5.3 billion.

The numbers are impressive, although it is clear that this year, after the world lockdown and last year’s pandemic, they will clearly be adjusted. Today, students are already returning to classrooms and gradually going out, but the economy is in no hurry to recover. Therefore, we expect to see an adjustment in the allocation of funds for the implementation of VR/AR technology in schools in the near future.

In addition, virtual reality helmets and the creation of 3D videos for every single lesson of every single subject cost millions, and so far national programs are only selectively implementing them.

So today we are going to talk about another segment of the market, accessible to most families.

The 4D-book boom

In past years, the average circulation of traditional books published has been between 3,000 to 5,000 copies. This is the standard figure for most large and medium-sized publishers in Europe — and often even these small print runs take several years to sell out. The exceptions are authors well known to readers. Against these figures, the circulation of AR books for children is surprising. At DEVAR, for example, each book for Eastern Europe has an average circulation of 45,000 copies per year. Moreover, the most successful encyclopedias of the company have absolutely fantastic print runs of up to 500,000 copies (although, this is the total world circulation). For the European book printing market these figures are record high. But where did such popularity come from?

How it all began

It is difficult to trace when the first book with augmented reality appeared. Apparently, the pioneer was the MagicBook project, which was presented to the scientific world in 2001 by scientists Mark Billinghurst from the University of South Australia and Hirokazu Kato from Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology.

The creators described the prototype (and that was exactly what it was — the MagicBook never went on sale) as a mixed reality interface that helps readers move through the book from the real to the virtual world.

The basic principles of MagicBook were the same as those of modern AR books: image targets are located on the pages, which are recognized by the device, which then displays a three-dimensional image on its screen. But now a smartphone is enough for this “trick”, while in 2001 the readers had to use special glasses with a screen resembling a modern VR-helmet.

Nine years later, in 2010, viewers of the Korean program KBS witnessed a “miracle” — they saw the first AR-book published domestically. Again, the development was done by scientists — this time from the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology.

According to Project Manager Kim Sang-Chul, it took the team three years to develop the software. The books were collections of Korean national fairy tales, from the pages of which characters jumped out at the audience — and then again, you could only look at the pages through special glasses.

Soon the books (they were then called Digilog books, not 4D or AR books) went on sale widely.

Another interesting example is the augmented reality video game Wonderbook: Book of Spells from 2012 for PlayStation 3, based on the Harry Potter universe. You needed a console to run it, along with a PS Move controller, a camera, and a folded cardboard with tags. The camera reacted to movements and to the location of the book and children “read” chapter after chapter while looking at the TV screen, casting spells with the controller and passing through the game.

Finally, in 2012, Digital Tech Frontier opened Popar Toys, a company that began producing AR books that were quickly gaining popularity. And while in 2012 you still needed a computer and a webcam to read, two years later the bestselling Princess and Her Pals 3D and along with it an iPad app are released.

New tools and features

In 2021, the technology used to create AR books is not standing still. Usually in augmented reality books, a page or small elements on it are called markers, i.e. triggers for the app, which should see special marks and understand what exactly and where to animate.

Moreover, it is now possible to interact with animated objects or characters. DEVAR’s books, for example, already widely use “portal” — when in augmented reality any space can be shown in 360° mode.

The user scans the space around them — the room, the walls, the furniture. Once loaded, they click on the screen and see through the device’s camera not their room or office, but a new space, as if they were in it themselves. The user, walking around with the device, will also move within this location. For example, while in their room, they can download a gallery with a gilded statue of Zeus (Wonders of the World Encyclopedia). Walking with the tablet through their room, the user also walks inside this gallery and can get closer to the statue. When they raise their head and the device, they will see the sky, and when they lower it, they will see a tile or the ground.

Another example where a portal is used is in the WOW! encyclopedia series. A huge whale can appear not on the page of the book, but in any space — and its size will be close to the real one. The result is a full immersion in augmented reality — but without a VR headset.

Why do children need augmented reality?

The first, and most obvious, is the wow effect. Although most modern children are familiar with gadgets from preschool age, they usually do not face the collision of the virtual world with the real one. Therefore, when a character jumps right out of the page of a quite real, printed fairy tale on the smartphone screen, children 3–5 years old are trying to find the animated character behind the screen.

The second important factor is usefulness. In modern AR books the characters are animated, you can play with them, they react to the child’s touch and hear him. For example, in the book Live Dinosaurs Encyclopedia from DEVAR, the reptiles can be controlled, viewed from different sides, fed and compared in size. The company combines AR technology with game mechanics. The more a child receives visual, kinetic, and auditory information about an object, the better they remember it.

All these theses are confirmed by the research in the field of AR learning, which was conducted in recent years. Thus, the American investment-consulting firm JFF published the results of their experiment: AR and VR improve the perception of information by 50%. Mindshare Futures together with Zappar also confirm this data: according to their research, augmented reality helps teachers increase children concentration by 45% compared to conventional reading.

The third important factor is to only use engaging content. Publishers like DEVAR collect huge amounts of feedback from users. By tracking information about what a child is interested in, which pages they spent the most time on, or which tasks they found easy and which they didn’t, publishers can adjust content in future books.

How popular AR books are

The global market for AR books continues to grow, but the pace and volume is no longer as impressive. For example, there are now only 313 children’s editions with augmented reality for sale on Amazon.com.

According to Anna Belova, the CEO and co-founder of DEVAR, the company spends 2–3 months to create one AR book. At the same time the company always has several projects in the works.

“The most difficult and expensive part is to develop 3D models for each edition. If we publish a book about dinosaurs, we create it from scratch, based on our technology, models of each animal for each page. Then they have to be animated. All this takes time, but we don’t want to produce books for the sake of quantity. However, due to the high demand, we can afford to order large print runs at once, which makes printing several times cheaper. DEVAR’s sales volumes look impressive too, with over 10 million children books sold to date, and 70% of revenues (including the sale of copyrights) come from foreign markets.

What virtuality awaits children

There are already toys that come to life through the app. With their help, preschoolers learn the alphabet and counting, and develop emotional intelligence. There is more to come. In the near future, children in virtual reality will have clothes and furniture that come to life, and maybe even a virtual friend with whom they can learn to talk and socialize. At the same time, AR assistants, which use artificial intelligence and neural networks to match a particular child to a specific training program, already exist. And, obviously, this direction will also evolve, neural networks will become more and more complex, and the training will be even deeper and more interesting.

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Anna Belova

Anna Belova

Co-founder and CEO DEVAR. Forbes Under 30