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This one time, at Book Camp…

Me, pointing

Yesterday I broke out of my ordinary Saturday routine (the one of waking up too early and sitting on my arse complaining about said early waking) and woke up early to wander over to the wilds of Kings Cross to attend Penguin’s BookCamp09. My eReader evangelisation has got me into a few conversations about the joys of the future of books and reading, and I was pointed towards BookCamp as somewhere where people’s eyes wouldn’t glaze over as quickly as those of the random punters I was collaring in the street.

So, I wandered along, having proposed a shiny-toy related session on the wiki, and (to sum up what I’m going to say next) had a rather good time.

It was held at The Hub Kings Cross, one of the regenerated, formerly falling down buildings down the side of York Way, which is a fantastic venue, even if my tiny brain took a while to get used to the overlapping staircases and caused me to get lost while trying to get to the second floor. It also had wifi that worked throughout the day – a feat that I have never experienced at any conference of any size before.

Seeing a group of people gathering around the small pile of eReaders on one of the tables, I decided to co-opt the group for my session, stuck it up on the grid and barged in to announce that they were all now my minions. Readers of various types were passed around and tinkered with, with the Kindle being quite neat but overall plasticky and nasty, with an awkward UI (although the silver indicator thing is very cool, if out of place, and its implementation inspired more conversation than anything else about the Kindle) and the Nintendo DS having obnoxious page turn animations on the recently released ‘100 Classics’ book collection. Various different ways of consuming texts were also discussed, with Cory Doctorow pointing me at speed reading apps (this is the first one google flashed at me) and Steve Lloyd (I think…) taking my thoughts about RSS to ebook conversion (building personalised newspapers) and wondering whether they could be automatically converted to audio, for listening on the move when you can’t read. Speaking to blech later on in the evening I heard that Apple are meant to have some speech synthesis software that is way ahead of their current KITT-like offering that is the default when you type ‘say’ at the command prompt.

I did a bit of pimping of the apps I like and I reckon I should be on commission – at least one copy of ComicZeal was downloaded on the spot, and there were a few mumbles about how soon Sony Readers where going to be bought. Stanza and Classics on iPhone OS where prodded to varying levels of delight and the standard eReader app was mainly ignored as too heavy – an accusation I can’t answer as I’ve not tried them that much yet due to trying to get value for money out of my (still lovely) Sony Reader. Other types of content were also discussed, with Instapaper coming up as a useful tool for reading documents offline, and most of my functionality complaints being dismissed by their being solved in the non-free version.

I picked up a bunch of rather interesting ideas from the crowd, with @suw‘s explanation of how the book industry is very similar to the building industry now lost to my feeble memory, but very sensible at the time, and Hugh McGuire discussing a bunch of things that I hadn’t thought about before:

  • The joy of obnoxious page turn animations – the time taken for the page animation to take place is just enough time for his brain to do a quick “what else is going on around me” refresh before he continues reading.
  • iPhone readers are great – not only are they almost always to hand (he’s reading War and Peace in 2 minute pieces while waiting in queues) but the screen size is such that it chops the book up into easily digestible chunks that can be consumed quickly and provide many convenient boundaries to stop reading.
    • That’s also rather good if you’ve got a small attention span, as Hugh and I both do…

The main thing I got out of talking to the crowd was that everyone wants to consume reading material in different ways, whether it be flashed at speed, divided into small chunks, poured continuously through a browser, printed on a page or whatever, and people are coming up with new ways of doing so every day. While the book-like e-reader craze is starting to bubble, the possibilities that the electronic distribution of text offer are a lot more than simple page by page reading on a familiar looking device. With iPhones, iPod Touches, big screen mobile phones, netbooks and the rest of the portable computing device pile rapidly making their way into the public consciousness we’ll hopefully get a matching response from publishers of information, putting out their data in ways we can use. However, it’s not only the publishers that we need to educate, many authors are also scared of the New Way Of Things, and rightly so. We’re not at an adapt or die stage of things yet (the cultural anvil of books hangs heavy around the neck of progress and things will drag along slowly for a while yet, I reckon), but a focus on educating both readers and producers about the possibilities outside of traditional book usage is a place to start.

The day didn’t stop there of course, although I did end up playing with toys during the second session as well, and stopped in at discussions about user generated content and creating socialised books, both with notes written up by Suw, as well as one on new stuff coming out of Violet, the Nabaztag people.

Me and Derek

I rather like Nabaztags – I may consider them to be totally pointless pieces of technology, with almost every task they might do easily achievable through less tortuous means, but I still love them. So moving on from the, as boasted by Violet’s Kai, ‘first wifi enabled rabbit’ they’ve now jumped into the world of RFID, printing sticky tags and making mini Nabaztags embedded with RFID chips. Wave your tag/bunny in front of an RFID reader (either their own Mir:ror reader or a big bunny) that’s attached to your PC and it will do ‘things’ that you’ve specified. Many of the ideas brought up during the day had the caveat of ‘for kids’, and the commercial side of the Mir:ror seems to be currently pointed in that direction, with RFID tags embedded on the covers of children’s books that call up a ‘read-along’ audio version being the primary outlet for now, outside of people coming up with their own uses. For most it’s a long way around to get any of the potential things you might want to do done, but it has a strange clunky elegance that appeals to the physical object obsessed side of my character. My new friend, Derek Samuelson III (pictured above), and I may not yet have an RFID reader to play with, but he will be my computing companion for now and my occasional partner in trying to confuse a Oyster card pad.

Running alongside BookCamp for the day was PaperCamp – a seperate but attached ‘Camp’ all about papery things, set up around a big table on the top floor. Billed as seperate events and with a pile of very different content it was surprising how much of a crossover there was with BookCamp, with the user generated content and socialised nature of books popping up all over the place. I missed all of the PaperCamp streams (by generally turning up out of sync with their schedule and then wandering downstairs again due to spotting someone I wanted to talk at) and now I read back on it am rather peeved, as there was a pile of very cool stuff. The talk about guide books, which I think I saw wrapping up from across the room, especially appeals to me, with my pile of notebooks, including some Moleskine city guides, and guide books getting bigger by the moment (despite my crapness when it comes to actually going to the places), and my memory rapidly moving to a mix of wiki, paper notebook, blog and text file based storage.

My thoughts on print are still mixed – on the one hand I feel that for many things the printing out of information rather than digital delivery is a waste of time, effort and resources but the inherent coolness of having physical objects is a piece of ancestral memory so heavily buried in my lizard brain that it won’t be shifted any time soon, and I really don’t want it to go. This is the place where most people sit and my line of ‘worth being in print’ and ‘better in digital’ wavers around depending on time of day, phase of moon and amount of junkmail. However, whether it’s books as fetish items or a 3d paper graph, having a physical representation of data that would well be delivered better through a digital form has a lot going for it that we won’t be giving up any time soon.

My most random meeting of the day was realising that the chap I was sitting next to was Tim Wright, the storyteller behind the Telectroscope, who I was able to thank for his kind comments about the photos I took of the project. I loved the Telectroscope and speaking to Tim found out a load more about the work that went into creating the story, including the creation of imaginary relatives and the enforced denial of the existence of Tim’s real brother, as his namesake was a character in the story who was to remain unseen…

Anyways, top day, a load of new people met, some faces attached to already known online nicks and a bunch of stuff to think about. Most annoyingly I now think I want to play with an Arduino, despite being someone who can get an electric shock out of a rubber chicken. Time to start writing down ideas.

Top photo by Alex Ingham
My photos on flickr

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