Gray Areas: ‘The Elements’ Of Good Book Apps

Among several products Theodore Gray has produced relative to 'The Elements,' the Periodic Table Quilt is a collaboration with Nina Paley. Image: PaleGrayLabs.com
Among several products Theodore Gray has produced relative to ‘The Elements,’ the Periodic Table Quilt is a collaboration with Nina Paley. Image: PaleGrayLabs.com

‘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 designer Theodore 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 features Incredible 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 of The 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.

‘A Wider Range Of Skills’

The Elements came out originally in print, in 2009. Why? Gray:

When it was published there did not exist any platform on which it was possible to publish an ebook of the kind I wanted to and make any money on it.

Gray hardcover coverIn fact, it’s safe to say that paper and traditional ebook options were eventually exhausted. There is a Kindle edition, a paperback, a calendar, and a boxed “photographic card deck” edition on offer. When Slocum asked if the print or ebook edition had come first, Gray answered, in part:

It’s more accurate to say that both the print and ebook versions started out as a website. I have been collecting and photographing these objects since 2002, and all the photographs in the book are also online (along with a couple thousand more).

And is the app to be understood as a completely separate product or an extension of the book, Slocum asked? Gray:

Both are extensions of the same raw material. They have all the same text and mostly the same objects. But they are completely different layouts and navigation because the different screen sizes don’t really allow it to work the same way in both places.

Embedded in Gray’s conversation about The Elements is an important fact that continues to bedevil publishing people of the digital persuasion: nonfiction works better in digital. For the most part, and as far as we can understand this so far, it seems a lot harder to try to slice and dice fiction in a meaningful and helpful way — one that doesn’t feel like just another interruption for a video or a piece of music” — in the narrative constraints that are primary to storytelling. Gray to Slocum:

The Elements is a book about objects: Physical things that I have in my office and you don’t. This fact drives everything about the design of this particular ebook. Because the objects I talk about are three-dimension objects that don’t really do much other than sit there, I thought the best thing I could do to communicate their nature was to let you turn them around like you would if you were holding them in your hand, and see them in stereo 3D, as you would if you had them in front of you.

So in the case of The Elements, the key interactive feature is real-time rotatable 3D objects that can optionally be displayed in stereo 3D. But ebooks about different kinds of topics might want to contain completely different kinds of interactivity.

“Just adding something that rattles around on the page does not mean you have enhanced the reading experience or added to the user’s understanding of the subject.”
Theodore Gray, Touchpress, 2010

And, while it seems a statement of the obvious, the skill sets required to develop something of the kind that Touchpress makes are not resident in a typical traditional publishing house:

You need a wider range of skills than to produce a conventional print book.

That reality has led some publishers to try to bolt-on a “digital department,” a new layer parallel to their existing operations. But as the departures of several houses’ digital directors suggests, “it’s all digital now” and trying to safe-room “digital” as an exotic side-product is counter-productive. Digital thinking and processes need to pervade and inform entire publishing-house operations.

Mistakes Have Been Made

Authors may find an ironic point here, considering what some are doing to argue for reforms in publishing contracts.

Asked by Slocum “what mistakes are traditional book publishers making?” in multimedia and interactivity efforts, Gray said:

It will be interesting to see all the mistakes they make over the next year or two. So far the two mistakes I’ve seen are (1) not understanding that programmers need to be treated as top talent, just like authors and (2) mistaking gimmicks for meaningful interactivity.

Just adding something that rattles around on the page does not mean you have enhanced the reading experience or added to the user’s understanding of the subject. The interactivity in The Elements is very minimalist, and this is one of its strengths. There were a whole lot of ideas for interactivity that we didn’t put in, because they didn’t pass the test of actually making the book better.

Gray predicted “a cliff” for the adoption of digital textbooks, a moment that hasn’t a yet arrived as dramatically as the Mp3 “cliff” he recalls when downloadable music overtook physical media CDs.

He referred to it as a “massive, nationwide switch to electronic textbooks from one year to the next. The situation with print textbooks is ridiculous on several levels, just as the notion of physical media to distribute music became ridiculous to many people over a very short time span. Once students have the option of carrying one small, lightweight device that costs no more than a single print textbook did the year before, they are not going to waste any time switching.”

And while there hasn’t been as fast a turn into the digital alley for textbook usage as he and some foresaw, the pace of interest in instructor-curated e- course packs, for example, does seem to be gaining traction now.

The Rush for Digital Gold

Tellingly, Slocum asked Gray whether he defined Touchpress “as a book publishing company”? Gray:

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

And it’s hard to argue with that definition of the multi-disciplinary directly that the bookish world has to go. Gray gives a lot of attention and credit to print books, in fact, admiring them as a sort of self-contained communications module that does not, like an app, depend on another device to work.

“The common thread is that these technologies must be approached with the eye of an artist and a dreamer.”
Theodore Gray, Touchpress, 2015

As he says, “with books it is possible to have a completely self-contained physical object that you can hand to anyone anywhere in the world, and that will have lasting value to them over a period of many years,” not made obsolete as, say, a vinyl record now can be made without a turntable for it.

Paper “will continue to exist as a publishing medium for quite a while,” he tells Slocum.  But, he says, founding Touchpress became the clear path ahead five years ago when he asked “if anyone was interested in working with us to create new ebooks. “The answer [was] a resounding yes.

And today, as he reminds us at The FutureBook, he may be even more committed than before to the aesthetic and intellectual elements of his work, “the art” of his own “science,” if you will:

Whether the future is in flat things you hold in your hand, or nearly invisible things that inject three-dimensional worlds directly into your eyes and ears, the common thread is that these technologies must be approached with the eye of an artist and a dreamer. TC mark

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