A new textbook publishing method that uses infrared technology to combine traditional books with digital content might ultimately decrease the cost of textbooks, make them much more interactive for users, and remove barriers for students who have difficulty accessing traditional texts.

The interactive textbook works a lot like LeapFrog’s popular LeapPad reading device, where a paper book sits inside a cradle that contains touch-sensitive panels. But instead of accessing audio files stored on a cartridge, the book calls up video, audio, or other multimedia content by sending an infrared signal to a nearby internet-connected computer or a DVD player connected to a television.

“The book becomes a remote control, so to speak,” said Jason Barkeloo, president of TouchSmart Publishing LLC, a company that is planning to make math, science, and special-needs textbooks using the so-called “Smartpaper” technology.

A student studying polynomials, for example, could read the assigned chapter and then touch a diagram with his or her finger to pull up a 30-second video clip of a teacher working through a problem, or an audio file of another teacher explaining the problem in a different way.

“Just by touching a picture or text, you go right to a digital or audio file or a web site,” said Alan Chaplin, chief executive officer of Smartpaper Networks Corp., a four-year-old start-up company that developed the Smartpaper technology.

The book’s electronic components are housed in what looks like an oversized DVD case. “The difference is, the case contains touch-sensitive panels on either side,” Chaplin said.

The technology reportedly works with computers, game players, and DVD players–anything with an infrared receiver. The books are completely functional either offline or online, because each Smartpaper book will come with its own DVD that contains the multimedia content, such as movie clips and audio.

Many traditional books come with companion products such as DVDs, noted Chalplin, but “our product provides a more engaging and enriching experience. It takes two things that we are familiar with–print and video–and links them together.”

Because DVD players now cost a fraction of the price of a multimedia computer, students without internet access or computers at home still can receive digital content. With a Smartpaper book, “the student can crawl up on the couch, push the picture of kinetic energy, and see the video on it,” Barkeloo said.

Barkeloo also figures Smartpaper textbooks will cost less than traditional textbooks, because much of the content will be digital. “Books are priced on mass. If I have a physiology or anatomy textbook, that may be 500 pages,” he said.

Additionally, Smartpaper books might better engage students in their textbooks. The technology “brings a new level of excitement, because I don’t know what’s hiding behind the content. It’s like an Easter egg hunt,” Barkeloo said.

Also, the web-based model could track which students are visiting which URLs, or web site addresses, giving teachers specific reports on textbook use.

One caveat of the Smartpaper concept, however, is making sure the URLs never change. For that reason, TouchSmart plans to create all of the online content itself and have this content reside either on its server or the school’s server. If something needs to be updated, the file can easily change but the URL will remain the same.

The Smartpaper concept is still in the prototype stage, but “most of the technological hurdles have been overcome,” Chaplin said. The company, which holds several patents on the technology, expects products to be on the market in time for the 2005-06 school year.

Chaplin estimates that each SmartCase, which houses the books, will cost $40 wholesale. “That doesn’t take into account the cost of producing the content,” he said.

TouchSmart expects its first book to be an early reading book for special-needs children written by reading and special-needs experts. The book will contain links to animations and audio files of the story being read out loud.

The math and science textbooks will start at the kindergarten level and progress to grade 12, and each will be about 50 pages long with digital content links embedded throughout, Barkeloo said.

During the dot-com boom, Wired and Forge magazines both tested a bar-code method for linking web content and books together. The magazines distributed bar-code scanners and software to their readers, then began publishing bar codes alongside their articles. Readers would scan these bar codes, which would take them directly to a web site.

Chaplin said the bar-code concept failed because it had a complicated installation process. “People don’t want to go to all that trouble to look at advertising,” he added.

Smartpaper is looking for schools to test its products in an educational setting, as well as educators who would like to serve on its advisory board, Chaplin said.

Links:

Smartpaper Networks Corp.
http://www.smartpaper.net

TouchSmart Publishing LLC
http://www.touchsmart.net