Wonderbook Hands-On (E3)
While Nintendo showed off the Wii U and a horde of games for it and Microsoft revealed Smartglass, Sony was much less forthcoming with hardware updates. In fact, with the recent release of the Vita, the company has already put out its major hardware and has no need or intention of doing otherwise. The Playstation 3 is still in its 6th year (of Sony’s purported 10 year cycle), but what they did show may prove to be the most important bit of hardware news at the show.
And it has almost nothing to do with gaming.
Wonderbook is a physical book, generally 10-20 pages long, that has no words or pictures. In fact, it only looks like a book; it actually more closely resembles a giant children’s book made of reinforced cardboard. You know, so it can survive a teething infant and not cause papercut tongues. And each of the pages, instead of words, uses a pictogram that acts solely as a bar code, and looks very much like today’s QR codes.
Alone, any Wonderbook is useless. Like any bar code, it requires special equipment and software to read. QR codes require a camera, and since this is Sony, that means the Playstation Eye (though the Senior Producer on Wonderbook said that any modern webcam can read Wonderbooks accurately) and the game associated with the book in question. That second bit is the big deal.
Because the books themselves are just a bunch of codes, there’s no reason users can’t make their own. In fact, Senior Produce Mike Rouse with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe told me explicitly that there’s no need for the physical books, the thick cardboard pages, at all. Users can print up just one of the two page pairs and the game’s robust software will know exactly what you’re looking at and display it on the TV.
And display it the PS3 does. The “joy” of Wonderbook is how it brings boring old books to life. Sure, it only does it in the virtual world of the PS3, visible only on the TV screen, but until Sony figures out how to make holograms, the magic will have to take place on screen. In theory, so long as you have the software and a decent webcam any computer will work. More importantly, because anyone can print up codes for themselves, in theory you can become your own publisher if you can code the books, print them up, and develop the software.
Right now, there’s only one book available, and that’s the Book of Spells, a Harry Potter magic book meant to teach kids how to cast magic from the books and films. I’m not particular to the Harry Potter series, but how the Wonderbook functions is sound in practice. I waved a wand around using the Move controller, but Move isn’t required. Players can use their hands, legs, whole bodies, or whatever the book/game in question requires.
The way I see it, with smart developers and if Sony makes the SDK for Wonderbook completely free and open to those developers, we may have an entirely new book revolution on our hands. Much like Amazon and eReaders revitalized the book industry (albeit while simultaneously causing it serious damage), we may find our kids and the next generation with digital-only books, with nothing but QR codes that they put in front of their PS3s and computers. And that future may be here before our kids. It’ll be real interesting if our bookshelves are suddenly filled with books that only a computer can read. What will later generations say when they find the remnants of our strange civilization? At least we’ll have completely digitized and made books interactive before the zombie apocalypse.