An Electronic Carriage or a Horseless Book?

by Norman Desmarais

This paper discusses three models of "electronic literature" and variations on the theme. Each model originates from a different type of "electronic publisher."This, in turn, affects wholesale and retail marketing channels. The paper also discusses a literary movement known as "cyberpunk", virtual reality, and thepossibilities for virtual, interactive literature and interactive reference tools.

The publishing industry is undergoing a paradigm shift. As with all paradigm shifts, it proceeds from a known to an unknown. We describe innovations in terms ofwhat they replace. We modify existing terms and concepts to try to express a new or emerging reality. Consider terms such as the horseless carriage, the ironhorse, or talkies (now called movies).

Horseless carriage first described the automobile because it replaced the carriage, looked like a carriage, and moved at the speed of a horse. Decades later, theautomobile has transformed our landscapes, the pace of our travels, and our concepts of time and space. The television has replaced the radio, transforming ourevenings, the pace of our senses, and our concepts of news and entertainment. Only after decades have passed can we comprehend the pervasive impact of newtechnologies on our culture.

Computer once applied to people, not machines. It referred to people who performed calculations. The machine that took on the name, however, actually tookthe place of the function those people performed. The term for the machine replaced its original meaning.

The computer is basically a symbolic calculator; and, although decades have barely passed, it has already transformed our concepts of information andcommunication. We generally consider the computer as replacing the typewriter, desktop, and filing cabinet. Because the computer has yet to be understood forwhat it is of itself, we still view it from the model of what it replaces. Marshall McLuhan said that computers extend our central nervous system. Our centralnervous system is not a symbol processor; it generates our perception of the world, our personal realities.

If the computer can process symbols just as easily as calculations, then it opens up a whole new horizon: electronic publishing. Today, we refer to the electronicbook. Returning to the concept of the horseless carriage, carriage denotes the key concept, because that was the main conveyance of the day. Thehorselessness of Henry Ford's invention merely described a feature of a new carriage. People still thought of it as basically a carriage with an alternate source oflocomotion.

The principal concept underlying the electronic book is the book. Where the horseless carriage at least continued to resemble a carriage, our electronic booklooks and/or feels nothing at all like a book. If we talk about Sony's new product, the Multimedia CD player or Bookman, Apple's Power Book, the Dynabook, or anotebook computer, it is only about the size of a book. If we talk about a CD-ROM or a floppy disk, it looks like a disc. The word electronic adds nothing to theconcept, except that it uses electricity to operate. It speaks in no way to its advanced functionality, or its enhanced value over a book.

The book, until now, designated a format -- a group of pages of paper or other material bound together. In speaking about the electronic book, the concept shiftsfrom the form to the content. In this context, the book refers to the information content rather than the format or playback device.

In this paper, we want to focus on three principal models for what we can consider the electronic book and discuss their characteristics and variations. Each oneoriginates from a different viewpoint or industry.

The Electronic Book

The term electronic book conjures the image of a physical book with pages filled primarily with text and possibly with some images, photos, graphics, or diagramsto accompany that text. The principal element here is the text or "book". Many electronic books originate from the electronic files produced by word processorsthat, in turn, generate the printed copy. This usually involves converting the text to ASCII format to make it more universally compatible with the variety of wordprocessor or data retrieval packages on the market.

ASCII text has the advantage that the reader can search any word or combination of words. One can also export part or all of the text into a word processor forfurther manipulation. However, it remains an electronic version of the original. As this model represents the first step toward the electronic book, we can findmany examples of this type of literature, such as Project Gutenberg and the Library of the Future. However, these types of products have come under criticism asbeing uninspiring, more cumbersome, and less inviting than their print counterparts. (We must remember that the first books were also large and unwieldy, oftenthe size of attache cases and heavy from the wooden board covers and heavy paper.) They do not include formatting information, such as type face and pagelayout; so they do not produce the same "look and feel" as the printed version. Nor do they usually include charts, illustrations, and advertising.

An alternative to this approach uses a scanner to capture the image of the printed page. This preserves the "look and feel" of the original. Readers can see theappearance of the type face and page layout as well as charts, illustrations, and advertising. The drawback to this approach in an electronic environment is that theimage usually requires three times or more storage space (1MB or more) than its ASCII equivalent. Also, users must rely on the indexing terms used at the timeof creation or conversion to search the text. Consequently, it becomes less flexible and accessible than its ASCII counterpart which permits searching of any word.

A variation of this model allows readers to manipulate the text much the same way they would with a printed copy, without having to export it to a wordprocessor. Some products, like Voyager's Expanded Books, permit highlighting or marking portions of the text; placing bookmarks, "paper clips" or dog-ears on apage; or making annotations, marginal notes, or end notes. Readers may progress through the "book" page by page or jump to a specific page. Hot links orhyperlinks allow jumping from a single word, concept, or note to related material. Some products may incorporate pre-defined links, while others may allowreaders to create their own. They may also include the ability to change font, size, style, and line spacing to accommodate individual preferences. With laptop ornotebook computers, these products become readable more easily and seem more user friendly.

Another variation of this model complements the text with graphics (photos or drawings) and possibly sound. This type of "literature" may incorporate many or allof the elements previously discussed. It allows a young or new reader to see pictures relating to the text or to read along with a pre-recorded sound track thatmay include music and sound effects.

Particularly appropriate for learning a second language, this type of product often teaches proper pronunciation for words and picture elements or in-╝contextexplanations of words in the text. It may also include a translation in the reader's first language. Links to other learning tools, like a dictionary or thesaurus orquotations can reinforce the learning or reading experience.

Data Games

If we consider that many games follow a basic story line that simulates reality or creates a fantasy world, we can draw analogies with what we call a book. So oursecond model comes from the computer game industry. Media with low data storage capacity and a large installed base of slow computer systems with lowresolution monitors prevented the development of sophisticated games for the consumer market. With increasing purchases of '386 computers and larger harddisk capacities, game producers no longer face the same obstacles they did only a couple of years ago. They can develop longer, more sophisticated games thatmake use of richer color, animation, and sound effects, thereby making them more attractive and realistic. Producers of some of the earliest products in thismodel focused on their richer color capabilities and marketed them as 16-bit games. This means that they can use 32,000 colors instead of the 4, 16, or 256colors commonly used until now.

A variation of this model uses a larger amount of data than most computer games on the market. This allows for increasing the number of variables in the game,thereby expanding the number of player options or possibilities for correct answers. This makes the game more challenging. A broader data set also permits morerealistic simulations which can be used to advantage in educational settings. With a generation of students that has grown up on video games, products that"Nintendize" information stand a better chance at attracting their attention and appealing to their senses to facilitate the learning process.

Examples of products that use this approach to their advantage include Mammals: A Multimedia Encyclopedia and Time Almanac which both include a game toquiz readers on their understanding of the contents of the encyclopedia or almanac. Games like the deluxe editions of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?include a broader set of clues, suspects, and situations than their low-end counterparts. They also use more and richer graphics, animation, and sound effects,making them more entertaining. Children learn by playing, often unaware of the education they're receiving.

Another product, which Quanta Press and Compton's New Media recently released, uses military data based on the Gulf War. USA Wars: Desert Storm includes agame, Coalition Command, which allows players to configure military units, missions, supplies, and tactics to fight the Gulf War. They interpret intelligencereports, evaluate political situations, set media policies, and compare their results with what actually happened. This should become the mother of all war games.

While many games permit user interactivity during play, this interactivity is limited to movement and actions and, sometimes, sequence of movement. They donot include interactive plots. In other words, they follow a linear story line. The player must accumulate a certain number of points or perform certain actionsbefore moving on to the next level or scene or before completing the game. Few, if any, games have an interactive story line that changes based on playeractions or decisions. At best, they randomize the variables so that the game sequence changes with each play; but the player must complete the same set ofactions each time. The first game, to my knowledge, which will include multiple endings will be the second edition of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

Interactive Literature

Our third model comes from the television and entertainment industry. While literature provides one form of entertainment, some types of literature were notmeant for reading. They take on whole new meanings and have a different dimension when acted out on stage or film or television. In these productions, theaudience generally remains passive, observing the proceedings. Participation is usually limited to applause, laughter, or changes of emotions.

The computer permits audience interactivity. Time-Warner's Warner Audio Notes series teaches musical appreciation by allowing users to read the history or storybehind a musical piece, or to read the score and/or the lyrics while listening to a performance. A similar product for drama could let users study Hamlet's soliloquyas interpreted by Richard Burton, John Gielgud, or Mel Gibson.

Coupling the computer with appliances like videodisc and videotape players lets the "reader" take control and interact with the media. Some "books" have suchdepth and richness that we should not read them once and put away. Rather we should savor them, as each reading uncovers something new. Other books arenot meant for reading from beginning to end. We consult them for particular bits of information or to read chapters or small sections.

Allowing the reader to determine his or her own path can open new horizons. Examples of this type of literature include IBM's Illuminated Books and Manuscriptsand Columbus: Encounter, Discovery, and Beyond. These products use ASCII text, audio, and video in a variety of media: hard disk, CD-ROM, and videodisc toprovide over 180 hours of interactive learning.

All of these models use the computer as a tool to involve the reader with "literature." Recent years have seen the development of a literary movement called"cyberpunk". This branch of science fiction concerns itself with the intrusion of the computer (technology) into our lives. It deals with the synergy betweenhuman and artificial intelligence and pays particular attention to vividness and texture.

Virtual Reality

As publishers provide more interactivity and greater modeling and simulation capabilities in their products, we approach virtual reality which reverses the intrusionof technology into our lives. Virtual reality takes our lives into the technology. It suggests that life, like film, video, and computer data can be edited so as tobecome "post human", radically reprogrammed through artificial evolution, or redesigned by technology.

One enters this artificial world by putting on special clothing wired to a computer. Gloves and suits with sensors and transmitters send and receive data. Theglove resembles Mattel's power glove for its Nintendo games. Goggles include tiny video screens. Headsets provide three-dimensional stereo sound. Helmetscould include both audio and video output. The computer generates sounds and images either of the real world or of an imaginary one that appear to the viewer inthree dimensions.

Novels, plays, and films attempt to create an artificial experience. "The new technology allows that symbolic world to become concrete" says Myron Krueger, acomputer scientist based in Vernon, Connecticut. Besides providing opportunities for experiencing alternative lifestyles or for exploring a variety of situations,whether real or imaginary, the concept could give rise to a new form of literature such as interactive novels.

The "reader" would control the action; and the plot would change depending on the reader's choices or actions. This will require writers to compose severalparallel plots that intertwine.

The technology permits mixing real life with animation or computer generated graphics. The computer could take photos or full motion video sequences andmodify them to create a variety of special effects such as we see in television shows and movies. Video effects such as superimposition and matteing can nowcome down to the user level.

Studies have shown that people who view films or play computer games can experience the same sensations and emotions as if the events were actuallyhappening to them. Virtual reality would take this a step further and bring audience participation to a new level. The individual now becomes the controlling forcebehind the story. The plot changes with every decision the "reader" makes.

For example, a reader could begin in the "real world" as a modern-day Alice and enter into virtual Wonderland. Here, she could meet the various characters whocould appear as her real-life friends and acquaintances. As Alice travels through Wonderland, she would encounter a variety of characters and participate in severaladventures. She could even experience different adventures if she returns to the same location more than once.

Travelogues and guide books can open new horizons by letting readers travel through time and space. One could "visit" modern London; and, with a singlekeystroke, see what it looked like in Shakespeare's time. Or one could study the stamp tax debates in the American colonies and immediately compare them withthe debates at the parliament in London. Such tools would allow readers to experience different countries and cultures and select points of particular interest.

"Visitors" to a museum or art gallery could select items that particularly appeal to them to pursue with more in depth study. Upon viewing a painting or sculpture,one could learn more about the artist or sculptor, the school, influences of and effects on other artists and sculptors. The armchair traveler could even take virtualvacations while getting a tan at the electric beach.

The cost of virtual reality technology and the accoutrements it requires will place it out of range for the average consumer for quite some time. One will have to goto special centers to get the experience, just as one goes to movie theaters or to arcades. Some afficionados of artificial reality have proposed the term "Cyberia"for this place. However, just as consumers can rent movies to view in their homes or buy arcade games to play on their computers, the day will come when theywill also be able to buy or rent virtual reality modules or virtual literature.

While the developers of virtual reality sytems begin with a serious purpose, the technology will have far reaching possibilities that will affect many areas of ourlives, including our "literature" and entertainment. Virtual reality signals the end of the infancy of computers which are no longer computational tools. Essentiallythey have become reality generators. And reality is in the mind of the participant.

Whether we now call it an electronic book, a 16-bit game, data game, or interactive television, the reality will surely change over the next few years. I expect thatelements of these three models will coalesce. We may even see new models arise. Undoubtedly, this emerging reality will receive a new name as it develops andmatures.


While computer outlets may carry products fitting any of the three models discussed here, most products will probably be sold in outlets that correspond to theproducer's outlook and the marketing manager's stance on positioning that product. For example, if a producer considers the product primarily as a book, he willtry to sell it through bookstores and traditional book distribution channels. Sometimes distribution may involve a vertical channel, such as an educational materialsdistributor.

Positioning a product for the consumer market may follow traditional channels for marketing trade publications or popular software packages. Some producers maywant to target an upscale market and avoid "cheapening" their product by giving it a popular image. They may make it available only through direct sales orexclusive dealerships. They may avoid bundling it with hardware, in the belief that buyers may consider such products cheap or "give aways".

On the other hand, as producers try to increase revenues by cultivating new markets, they may realize that their products may appeal to multiple audiences. Inthese recessionary times, some print publishers are trying to survive by cross-marketing their publications in markets which they previously did not tap. We willprobably find this the case with "electronic books" also. This will also present new challenges and open up new avenues of business for book vendors and librarysuppliers.

  1. Bowers, Richard. Eagerly Awaiting the Death of the Electronic Book. Nautilus. 2:7 (July 8,1992). (Developers Corner).
  2. Rose, David. Virtual Realities and Actualities. New Media News 6:2 (Summer 1992) p32

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