Augmented reality offers publishers a half-way-house between the printed page and an e-book. Using AR, potentially any kind of web content could be added to a printed page. At it’s most simple level this might involve the ability of hover your iPhone over a page of War and Peace and get a reminder of who the heck Marya Dmitryevna is, or a dictionary definition of a word, a commentary on the chapter, an earlier draft, and so on. It might also be used to add at the end of the book some sort of “If you liked this book, you might also like . . .” button which could take you to a dynamic list of similar books; dynamic in that it could include books published after the book in your hands was printed.

The Book Industry Guild of New York’s monthly meeting last night was on the subject of augmented reality. We had two expert speakers, Molly Ungs from Sappi North America, tasked with encouraging the use of paper in the face of the development of digital applications, and John Puterbaugh of Nellymoser, experts as their website says “at bridging from print to digital and bridging the static and the social.” Lots of examples were on display and we got to go “Ooh” and “Aah” at a variety of publications with the three different software apps we had downloaded to our smart phones before the meeting.

I’ve done a couple of posts on AR before, on 14 February and 17 May. One of the things I learned yesterday is that there are at least three basic ways of doing AR. 1) using code printed “behind” the illustration, using the yellow printer only, resulting in code all over, readable by the device but invisible to your eye; 2) using a scannable logo on the printed page, which doesn’t have to be a QR code but would work in a similar way; 3) using image recognition, which doesn’t require any “modification” to the printed page, but just recognizes shapes using algorithms which basically calculate the edge-points in a picture and match them to the target shape in their memory.

The cost for creating the file for the printed page is quite moderate, and the fact that not many book publishers are using this technology is probably a result of a couple of things: a lack of familiarity with the concept resulting in an inability to think of applications for it, and secondly the cost of creating the additional content to which the AR linking would direct the reader. One obvious application, already being used in many cooking magazines, is scanning a photo of a great looking dish and being taken to a recipe for it. Of course in so far a cookbooks are collections of recipes, this might seem a bit disruptive, but one could certainly imagine a format change in which cookbooks became more discursive, descriptive, reminiscences — text and images, with no recipes on the page, but nevertheless “containing” hundreds of recipes via AR links. And these recipes could contain video showing you exactly how those whipped egg whites should behave when they are forming firm peaks.

Other applications of AR include NFC, near field communication, where you tap you iPhone against something to activate the connection, and electronic beacons which can detect your presence and send you a discount coupon or some other enticement to come into the store. These may not be suitable for books: imagine walking through a bookstore having every book scream at you “Buy me! Buy me!”

Many, many pages in magazines already feature AR applications. Apparently the two biggest users of AR technology are Victoria’s Secret and Ikea. Ikea has the ability to have you “place” a catalog item in your living room, to see how it will look in situ (see below). We were not told whether Victoria’s Secret has a similar ability to show you how your body will look in that underwear — but I’m sure it’ll be coming. For books the simplest applications, like those described in the first paragraph, are likely to be the first we’ll see, but gradually we will figure things out that haven’t yet been imagined. To my mind this really does give cause for optimism about the future of the printed book.