‘Today, we have 2.5 million users’
Five years in — and with a new $5 million round of Series B financing in place — the New Zealand-based Booktrackis at that point at which a start-up begins to show staying power.
Late last week, it was announced that the company has become a partner in the Google for Education programme for its Booktrack Classroom that allows teachers to set up accounts in which their students can create soundtracks for the books they’re reading. With University of Auckland and New York University tests indicating that sound enhancements can increase comprehension by 17 percent and reading retention by 30 percent, this is the kind of student-proactive approach that many school settings can use. The company says the program is in place now in more than 12,000 classrooms, internationally.
But it’s big kids, too, who are signing up as users of Booktrack. Lots of them.
“Eighteen months ago,” c.e.o. Paul Cameron tells me, “we had 250,000 users. Today, we have 2.5 million users.”
This may be yet another indication that forms of digitally enhanced reading have more of a chance of making headway now.
In Arcadia’s vision for a new way of reading,” The Bookseller’s Philip Jones wrote of the long march to release the new iOS app from Touchpress and Faber of the Iain Pears novel. “I’d like to think Arcadia could change the game again, just as Faber did with The Waste Land, Jones wrote. Coincidentally released on Thursday as Booktrack’s Google partnership was being announced, the Pears app tells its story through a reader-driven weave of 10 character “strands” or storylines.
As Theodore Gray and his Arcadia developers might agree, Cameron is adamant that a digitally enabled offer has to be made to work properly before getting it to market.
“We started five years ago,” he says, “working on all the intricacies of ‘How do we measure someone’s reading speed to seamlessly deliver a multi-layered soundtrack?’ Multi-layered being a combination of music, ambient studio and sound effects, so that when you’re reading something, the right sound is played at the right time.”
No, it’s not just the sound of an orchestra vamping along underneath Chapter 5 if you’re a slow reader, I learn as we talk. The music is not being slowed down to sound like what Camille Saint-Saëns did to Offenbach for the “Tortoise” movement of Carnival of the Animals. Cameron’s secret? If you’re a slow reader, you’re hearing more music than a fast reader will. There’s actually more scoring delivered to a slower read-rate by his algorithms.
“The best way to think about it is as a dynamic soundtrack,” he says. “It’s not a matter of stretching one music file. It’s a bit like having a conductor sitting there, ‘Hold that track, now pick that one up.’
“Let’s say you read twice as fast as I do,” he says, “30 seconds, not a minute” for a passage. “We change the duration of hundreds of tracks at a time. We don’t stretch sound. You’re actually hearing less.” To make this happen, Cameron says, “We know more about eye-tracking than anybody. But it’s not enough. We measure your reading speed, we know every time you turn the page. If you get distracted, tap on a word. We can tell if you’re speeding up or slowing down. And through these educated assumptions, we’ve tailored the soundtrack. We’re estimating where you are.”
‘We want to immerse, not interrupt, you’
Reading purists might like Cameron’s approach more than they expect. While he’s intent on wrapping the reader in a sonic evocation of a book, yes, he also speaks frequently about his respect for the essential immersive reading experience. He takes the word “enhance” seriously. It’s more important to him than “show off.”:
“The one thing we realised,” he says, “is that this is a new category we’ve created, and a new category is hard to give away. And so we had to be sure that this is just like reading a normal book but it adds this extra dimension” as a supplement, not competition, to the text.
“Most enhancements stop you reading,” he says. “We don’t think of this as enhancement because we keep you reading. We want to immerse you, not interrupt, you.”
By Porter Anderson Follow @Porter_Anderson