July 17th, 2014 – Given that augmented and virtual reality were big topics at this year’s GDC and that new VR projects from Sony and Oculus were the talk of E3, it’s not shocking the industry is seeing a bump in the number of improved virtual experiences reaching the market. For Mike Montgomery, CCO of Ottawa, Canada-based tech startup Mercury Active (a sister company of animation producer Mercury Filmworks), it’s been a long time coming.
He says advancements in technology are finally catching up in the AR space, particularly for books, allowing companies like Mercury Active to push the envelope and create better value-add properties for kids.
“We’ve been following augmented reality for a while and part of the issue (in the book space) when we were looking to develop an AR idea two years ago was nothing had been done to progress it, or the tech wasn’t there yet to add interactivity, give it a purpose and create a story,” Montgomery says. “What we’re doing now, and what we’re seeing other companies do, is push the limits of what can be done.”
The end result of Mercury Active’s latest innovation is Incredebooks—a self-funded brand of hardcover, interactive storybooks linked to free apps that incorporate augmented reality technology when opened on iOS or Android phones and tablets.
On July 7, Mercury Active launched four Incredebooks titles targeting kids ages three to six and parents at 288 Walmart Supercentre stores across Canada retailing for CA$12.99 in-store or CA$19.99 online.
Based on classic tales The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the reimagined stories are entertainment-based with light educational components including four interactive games that encompass spelling, exploratory coloring, 3D puzzles and counting. The augmented reality experiences are incorporated into each book’s storyline and come to life on four select pages in each title.
“A lot of existing IPs work where you hold your device up and it shows a 3D image, but there is no gamification involved. They become very gimmicky,” says Montgomery.
“We wanted to do something different, give kids a purpose and add replay value.”
Among the books’ additional features are 3D-rendered animations (made in partnership with Mercury Filmworks, which also worked on the writing and artwork for the storybooks), original music and sound effects, custom zoom and rotation functions, and a gated parents section.
Montgomery says the books’ covers are AR-friendly too, but Mercury is not drawing attention to them.
“We’re leaving that as a bit of an Easter egg for users. We want people to explore and be surprised by it,” he says.
For Montgomery, the biggest challenge of the project was the execution, not the idea.
“Trying to push the AR tech and build games around it was challenging. The tracking has to be high quality so there is no jitter or lag time with the 3D animation when you hold the device up or move it.”
Despite the challenges, Montgomery says the early response from parents and teachers has been very positive.
“We need to impress the parents because they are the ones buying. We spent a lot of time on the covers, the backs of the books and the instructions because it was important to call out what the books do. Parents have to understand what AR is when they hear about it and with AR, you really have to show it to people.” Going forward, Mercury Active plans to ramp up the marketing campaign for Incredebooks with continued social media coverage, TV spots and Walmart promotions. The company, which has already found success working with the likes of Disney XD and Nickelodeon, has also launched the first of a series of interactive eBooks based on the four Incredebooks and a new Mercury book publishing division called Mercury InPress is in the works.
By Jeremy Dickson, www.kidscreen.com