Gray Areas: ‘The Elements’ Of Good Book Apps

Image - iStockphoto: statu-nascendi
Image – iStockphoto: statu-nascendi



‘Programmers Need To Be Treated As Top Talent, Just Like Authors’

A funny thing happened on the way to digital books and ebook enhancement: We forgot that we knew what we know.

Theodore Gray
Theodore Gray

At the end of last week, we published an articulate essay at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook by developer and designerTheodore Gray. In Touchpress at five, Gray is writing on the fifth anniversary of the company he co-founded to create apps “that change the way you see and understand the world.”Touchpress, based in Shouldham Street in London, offers almost 30 apps now, some on poetry, some on classical music. One, Disney Animated — honored as Apple’s iPad App of the Year (2013) and winner of the BAFTA Children’s Award (2014) — is a stunning explication of how Walt Disney Animation Studios has created some of its most fondly applauded films.

But five years ago, we knew what Gray was working on to be science. Touchpress’ glowing inventory of apps now includes an Art of Science section that featuresIncredible Numbers, Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomy, Solar System, Moleculesand what has become the calling card for Gray’s oeuvre, The Elements.

Tools of Change, the O’Reilly Media digital-publishing annual conference lamentably no longer being produced, staged a keynote presentation by Gray ofThe Elements in February 2011. We were seeing something new. Each of the Periodic Table’s element’s image moved in lifelike 3D under the user’s control, spinning in a dramatic black field. It would be followed by The Elements in Action, focusing on chemical reactions that define “the weird, wonderful, and sometime alarming properties of the elements,” as sales copy has it.

“We are an ebook publishing company that works with partners from many industries, including traditional print publishing, television, film, music, and interactive media.”
Theodore Gray, Touchpress, 2010

Beyond the contributions of these iOS apps to educational interest, the publishing industry was sitting up — we were gaping, to be honest, at the beauty of The Elements on huge screens at Tools of Change in New York. On the march through the valley of the digital disruption, the bookish faithful knew they had to do something to get off the paper page and it needed to be more than the replication of a print book that was (and still is) the basic ebook. But with too few exceptions, publishers’ experiments in “enhanced ebooks” would soon largely collapse under high price tags and low sales.

And it’s worth noting to folks who admire the drive of a man like Gray that he did get way, way into the whole Periodic Table thing — this project has been a long and engrossing one for him. for that matter, he built a periodic table for his offices’ workspace. Yes, an actual table. And you can curl up under a “periodic table” of  your own, if you like, with his and Nina Paley’s $300 Periodic Table Quilt.

But publishing, right? To this day, the search for what’s really thinkable and doable in terms of a genuine digitally evolved “book” that might have commercial viability in a market dazzled by the kind of extraordinary effects of, say, Alec Garland’s arresting Ex Machina goes on. Publishing hasn’t yet fully cracked it and what we know of ebooks remains primarily what Olive Software’s Joe Wikert calls “print under glass.”

Mac Slocum
Mac Slocum

It was Wikert and Kat Meyer, in fact, who introduced Gray at Tools of Change. And when I went looking for something of what we knew about Gray’s work five years ago around the time of that conference, I found an interview with Gray by Mac Slocum, O’Reilly’s online content director. In What Publishers Can And Should Learn From ‘The Elements’.

What’s striking now about that article, the reason to revisit it, is that  Gray and Slocum, in August 2010, were saying things we’re still saying now when it comes to the concepts of interactivity and digital treatment of digitally evoked reading.

Even as my colleague at The Bookseller, Philip Jones, looks again at the print-vs.-ebooks controversy in the new opportunity of the Go Set a Watchman release, we can read Gray in 2011 mentioning to Slocum one of the biggest problems still facing ebook vendors: the gifting hitch. Gray: “A gift code for a copy of the ebook is really just not the same thing.”

Here’s a selective look at some of the most pertinent commentary in the Gray-Slocum interview.

There’s more to this story: Read the rest

By Porter Ander­son  

The FutureBook:  Gray Areas: ‘The Elements’ Of Good Book Apps

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