A little Penn and Teller

I had a number of influences for An Evening of Rough Science.  One of the most important was stage magic.

I have a larger and more detailed talk about how science demonstrations and magic tricks have a lot in common.  That’s a subject for another time.

Right now, here are a couple of clips of Penn and Teller that have influenced me over the past two years.

How slight of hand tricks can influence science demonstrations came to me while reading Derren Brown, but Penn and Teller have a brilliant act that lays out the (so called) rules of slight of hand.

Penn and Teller are also famous for telling people how their magic is done, and the cup and balls act with clear cups is one of their most famous. Interesting that in actually seeing how it is done in no way removes anything from the experience. (Interesting, too, how in this video the acoustics of the tomb they are in are so terrible, Penn has to really crank down his usual exuberance.)

Penn now explains human perception of numbers. No magic, but a great way to make an otherwise dry subject engaging.

Larger scale now.

Impressions of “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”

I had the opportunity to play/read “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” It is a beautiful, interactive book, with a story that looks and feel like a Pixar short movie with lots of heart.

The general layout is that each page of the book has an interactive picture that you can explore. Underneath the picture is the text for the story that is also read aloud by an American-accented narrator.

Each picture is a little different, so it really was like exploring to see what each could do.  (I particularly liked a piano-playing moment, where the note and the key was highlighted, suggesting new possibilities for learning music!)

It is a beautiful little app. Even so, I have some reservations.

I have had many people tell me that this is the way kids will read book, and I feel uncertain, even a little reluctant to embrace this future.

Firstly, when people mention the word “interactive”, my mind tends to flash to this 1999 essay by Douglas Adams, who reminds us that Twentieth Century media has tended to make us more passive, and that putting the adjective “interactive” as a selling-feature is ironic as entertainment for most of human history has been so interactive that we haven’t needed to call it such.

My second reservation involves a question: what is the ultimate goal for the producers of the app? Will adding an interactive capability to stories increase the engagment of readers to the story?

My son Gabriel had used the app before me, and when I asked him about it, I started by asking him about the story. What was it about?

“I don’t know,” he told me, before telling me in the same breath that I should turn to a particular page to interact with a picture.

It leads me to question the purpose of reading using tablets. In some interactive books, the words on the page take second fiddle to the other gadgets that the reader can play with.

Comprehension was something we did in English in when I was twelve years old, where we would have to answer questions about a piece having read it only once.

My research space of one (just turned five) suggests that comprehension of “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” after the first read is very low.

The user’s temptation (and natural inclination) is to ignore the text and focus on the awesome interactive pictures around the text. Ignore is perhaps the incorrect word here: psychologist may call it “perceptual blindness”, while magicians call it misdirection. There is so much happening on the screen that our brains will not notice the gorilla standing in the room.

As a larger comment on the “interactive story books” I have so far seen for tablets, let me step back twenty or so years. I remember computer games in the nineties was spent discovering and developing storytelling in this new world of interactivity. When CD-ROMs came out, the by-line “interactive movie!” was often splashed across game boxes. It was an explosion in the gaming industry with many titles forgotten, but a few still remembered today (Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island to name just two.)

“Interactive books” on tablet devices seem to have forgotten all the major lessons from that game story-telling hey-day, and focus on the technology rather than asking what is the outcome that they want for their app.

In the case of reading, my vote is for “comprehension” to be way up the list, and scattering the page with distracting gadgets slams that down.

It might be argued that repeat ‘reading’ of the book will mean the reader will get a better understanding of what the story was about. This is assuming that with all the other distracting apps on your iPad will let you get back to it. Once you’ve flipped through the pages and played with your favourite interactive six or seven times, will the reader want to return it the story again? I have no research to back this up, but having seen the demise of the graphic adventure game in the nineties, and knowing how my son’s limbic system is looking for the next dopamine hit, I would think the new levels of Angry Birds will win out every time.