Is Virtual Reality the Future of Children’s Books?

Immersing yourself into a story may take on an entirely new meaning for children in the future. With developments of Google Cardboard and Samsung Bedtime VR stories, virtual reality (VR) seems to be the “next big thing” that storytellers are beginning to explore. And, as publishers have tried to engage children with reading through different mediums – from interactive ebooks to smartphone story apps – could VR be the next device publishers attempt to completely immerse children into their favourite stories?

Previous Claims of New Technology

© Per Palmkvist Knudsen/Wikimedia Commons, 2012

Before, publishers and people alike, have claimed the latest technological feats would kick its predecessor to the kerb. When the Kindle e-reader started stoking the fire of ebooks and bringing forth an interest for the digital book, many claimed that this would see the end of print. However, since that claim it seems that ebooks are the ones that have seen the decline: “eBooks: After peaking in 2013 at $3.24 billion, eBook revenue declined to $3.20 billion in 2014 and again in 2015 by 11.3% to $2.84 billion. Unit sales also declined by 9.7%, with eBooks now making up 17.3% of the trade book market.”

Nosy Crow children's story apps
© Nosy Crow/Nosy Crow Apps, 2016

Then there was the development of children’s story apps. Great innovation took place in this medium with the likes of children’s book publisher, Nosy Crow, that created apps like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood where a reader could click on certain parts of the story to interact with it further. Also, with the award-winning picture book app, Wuwu & Co., that achieved a balance of gaming and reading features and pushed the concept of a story app by making it a more immersive experience for the user that could explore the story’s world by the tilt of the screen. However, even with these developments, children’s story apps did not seem to take off fully. Writer, Simon Jenkins, explains “clearly publishing, like other industries before (and since), suffered a bad attack of technodazzle: It failed to distinguish between newness and value.”

So, will VR see the same fate? For now, like most things that are new, there seems to be a growing interest in it. Moreover, after the Pokémon Go phenomenon, in which users could catch Pokémon through the augmented reality view on their smartphones, there seemed to be a cultural receptivity for these altered worlds. However, the difference between augmented reality and VR is that VR takes it one step further to submerge the user into an entirely new reality to experience it as their own, rather than keeping them grounded in their current reality with some altered features. The increase of interest in VR has also shown in the market as The Bookseller depicted that one of the six consumer trends of 2016 is virtual reality. Also, in 2016 alone, more than $1.2 billion was invested in VR technology, and predicted that more than $52 million in headsets will be sold in the U.S. by 2020. Exciting new developments in VR have also unveiled themselves, with major companies like Google and Samsung that have started exploring the capabilities of this medium, not only regarding storytelling but also as an educational tool for children.

Developments in VR Storytelling

© othree/Wikimedia Commons, 2014

One major developer in VR is Google that released Google Cardboard in 2014. Google Cardboard is essentially a cardboard box that has VR lenses and a slot to place your smartphone into so that you can go on a VR experience. You can find VR apps in the app store and some stories are available, like The Three Little Pigs, which demonstrate just how immersive the VR experience can be in conveying a story. In the Three Little Pigs, the child gets to look around the world and help the pigs find the materials they need to build their houses. The pigs engage directly with the child, who then has to look for the materials around the story world much in the same way you look around a room. There is a natural fluidity of experience to VR storytelling that smartphone apps and interactive ebooks seem to lack. There are fewer distractions as the user does not have to tap a screen or any buttons, just open their eyes and look around which allows kids to engage with the story in a more organic way.

A shared VR experience
© Samsung/adweek, 2016

Another new development is the Samsung Bedtime VR Stories. This application takes bedtime stories to a whole new dimension where parents can read stories to their children via VR. The app’s primary use is for parents that are away on trips to still provide their child with a bedtime story experience. However, this does push VR a step further by removing the isolating experience that VR can provide and rather makes it a shared one between a parent and a child. The parent guides their child through the story, engaging with them and reading the text aloud, creating not only connection to the story but with the parent as well.

Also, even beyond children’s stories in the YA book world, author of the Fallow Trilogy, Amy Lankester-Owen, signed a VR book deal.

“A world first, where a book series has been licensed specifically for a VR production.”

To Play For, an interactive entertainment company, is adapting her story so that you can not only immerse yourself into the dystopian world of the books but also the minds of the main characters. In getting a sense of what this experience would be like, CEO and founder of To Play For, divulges “projects we have worked on in the past have combined video and games together in ways that make sense for the players, giving them a sense of deep involvement in the story and with the characters. To me, building up from interactivity is key, using game design techniques and overlaying video-style elements. It will not be a static 360 video piece at all.” This VR book deal may bring publishers to start considering VR as a viable medium for stories that people would not only enjoy, but consume.

Disadvantages and Advantages of VR

So will authors in the future have to consider VR book deals as well? Or, will the initial dipping of the toe into VR stories be taking classic children’s stories and turning them into fully immerse worlds? However, before we get lost in the incredible idea of VR, there are some pitfalls as of yet. Firstly, the technology is still in development, in which CyberEdge Journal editor Ben Delaney explains, “Virtual reality is where personal computers were in ’79. PCs back then were slow. They didn’t do much. They crashed a lot. But you could start to see the promise. Ten years later everything was changed. Virtual reality may have a little longer gestation period, but it has the same potential.” This developing concept proves accurate as Google, who pushed forward with its development with Google Cardboard, is still continuously refining the medium and coming up with new avenues to explore within it. And, Samsung Bedtime VR Stories are still in its developmental stages, only now starting to be tested with UK families.

Secondly, VR is expensive. The price of goggles ranges in the hundreds and sometimes the gear requires a particular PC that is compatible with the program, which can cost thousands of pounds. These purchases may not be an option for the average consumer and adds a step to the process of enjoying the product, making it elitist in some regards. However, there is a bright side, as Google Cardboard offers a cheap alternative to the expensive goggles and computers. The most affordable option costing only about $15. It is also utilising a product that the average user has – a smartphone. The only additional charge would be the cardboard (unless you make it yourself) and the VR lenses you need to install into the box.

Thirdly, VR may not be suitable for children. Many VR developers from Samsung to Oculus, have stated on their products that they should not be used by children under the age of thirteen. The claim seems mostly precautionary as there is uncertainty about the effects of VR on developing children. Digital Trends explores some possible risk factors like eyesight damage, motion sickness, and affected motor control when ending the VR experience.

However, despite goggles by Oculus and Samsung not being suitable for children, other companies like Google have explored the benefits of VR for children with the development of Google Expeditions, which is a virtual reality learning experience implemented for children in schools. Students can take tours of countries, to tours of the galaxy and beyond. Google noticed the significant advantages of VR regarding not only engaging children and exciting them about learning but also with helping them clearly understand the information presented to them. There have also been many studies in which they implement virtual reality to train or teach children, e.g. a study that took place at the University of Alicante in Spain that used VR system to improve and train the emotional skills of students with autism spectrum disorders. The program was designed for primary school students between the ages of seven through twelve and the immersive environment allowed the student to train and develop different social situations in a structured, visual and continuous way.

VR for Children’s Books

So, while VR seems to be mostly in its developmental stages at the moment, its recent progress in children’s stories and education foretells an exciting direction that the medium could take. Not only does VR have the capability to create powerful emotional experiences, but this connection could serve as a learning mechanism for children and to help them understand a story more deeply. However, while many are claiming that VR is the future and “has much potential when it comes to giving a remote consumer a detailed idea of what a physical space or product looks like,” the only question now is, how will they integrate this new medium with children’s books?



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