Wonderbook turns books into AR adventures

Matthew Warneford

Guest post by Andy Robertson: Wonderbook is a new peripheral for the PlayStation 3 that creates an interactive pop-up book experience. At Dubit we’re always excited about new ways to bring stories to life, which is why we asked Family Gamer TV’s Andy Robertson to report on Sony’s latest innovation.

Gesture controlled videogames work because they play on the idea that we already know how to use them. The most successful Wii games are those that allow you to control the action with natural movements, be that table tennis, bowling or dancing. Kinect takes this to the next level with games like Fable The Journey by including cultural motions like waving, clapping, bowing and even sitting down.

But, of course, these are games require more precise movements than we are used to in the analogue reality of every day life. Although we know the motion required to load a bow with an arrow we still have to re-learn what a game understands that movement to be. In a similar way to the uneasiness, the uncanny valley, of almost life-like graphics in games, it can feel equally awkward to learn these pseudo natural gestures.

Sony moving motion control forward

Sony has been slowly brewing up a range of motion controlled games that get closer to the real world with their Move controller. Tumble is an excellent if little known example that offers a block stacking challenge. It’s a little like Boom Blox on the Wii but because the Move controller has an extra depth perception the gestures are much closer to those you would do in the real world — in many cases identical. Tumble develops into a Jenga style party game where precision and dexterity is as important as knowing which button to press or how to flick the controller.

Wonderbook is a new peripheral from Sony, being released in November, that builds on both the Move controller and the philosophy of genuine real world interactions as video game control. The innovation here is that Wonderbook is controlled using genuine gestures that we have all made since our first board books. Turning pages, positioning a book for reading and tilting to see a picture are each mapped perfectly by the new book peripheral.

Wonderbook itself is a plush cardboard artefact that feels and behaves like a twelve paged pop-up book. Only here the cover and pages are blank apart from their Augmented Reality markers. You place the book in front of a PlayStation Eye camera connected to a PlayStation 3 and the pages become populated on the screen.

So what’s new?

The real novelty here for young players is that the book is rendered in 3D. On the screen all sorts of three dimensional effects appear as you turn the page and the particular story unfolds –a pop-up cardboard theatre perhaps, a paper dragon or maybe a jar of eye balls. As you can probably tell these examples come from the first book to be released for the Wonderbook peripheral when it launched in November – Book of Spells, written by J.K. Rowling.

For very young players this is even better as they can be granted access to the sort of intricate pop-up stories that they would soon break in real life. The books can be as delicate and detailed as they want without any consideration for physical robustness as the Wonderbook peripheral has that covered. We’ve even wiped ours down on occasion while testing, after stray jammy fingers made it a bit sticky.

This may not sound a million miles away from the Eye Pet or 3DS AR Card technology. The comparison is certainly warranted as the book has been developed by London Studio who created Eye Pet and are not shy in talking about how they are using that technology as a starting point.

However, while it’s true that this is leveraging a similar technology, the size and robustness of the book combined with the natural coffee table, lap or living-room carpet reading position make the experience entirely more reliable and this is a hugely significant factor when it comes to impatient younger gamers.

That’s the theory but how good is it in practice? I’m frequently telling families that these augmented reality or motion controlled games are a trade off. They offer a much richer and more engaging experience but you have to work harder to get it setup adequately well — lighting, space and other people in the room for example. Motion controlled games get away with working only most of the time because the novelty of the experience is worth it.
Wonderbook has that same magic and excitement but without the reliability issues. Using the book at home in a variety of settings and at different times of day with different levels of lighting, it has so far performed almost perfectly. It can be played close to the screen if you like with the camera tilted down, or further away if you have more space.

In many ways it is more similar to Skylanders Giants than other AR games. It shares that title’s ability to bring a real world objects to life in a videogame as well as the same surprising level of robustness. This means that, like Skylanders, young players can muck about with the experience flipping pages, spinning the book round much like their constant swapping of characters on the portal.

Issues ahead

The challenge for Sony is communicating this to families who are becoming more than a little gesture and peripheral fatigued. There really is no substitute to experiencing the game first hand, so in store demonstrations will be essential. Clear literature and messaging around what the book is (and isn’t) will also be crucial in helping families get over that hurdle of adoption.

To use Wonderbook families will need a PlayStation 3, a PS3 Eye camera and a Move controller. The Wonderbook comes packed in with the first book, and subsequent books can be bought or downloaded separately. For families who already have a PS3 there will be some packs to get them started. For those not in the Sony world of gaming yet a new 12GB Super-Slim PS3 Wonderbook pack will help ease the cost and complexity of all this coming in close to the £200 mark.

More than any of these factors though, it will be convincing families that the investment will have ongoing support from Sony and third-party developers. A growing library of different books will be essential. Wonderbook will launch with Book of Spells and will be follow by a slightly older skewing detective game Diggs Nightcrawler and a more educational Walking with Dinosaurs offering from the BBC.

These titles are just scraping the surface of what is possible. It’s the sort of technology that upon using you have all sorts of great ideas for the books you like to see on it. Personally I think there is plenty of scope for grown-up novels and stories, educational books for use in classrooms as well as titles that complement other PS3 games with a wider fiction. Uncharted, The Last of Us and Gravity Rush spring to mind here, the latter raise the question of interacting with the PS Vita as well as the PS3 via Wonderbook.

If my children’s responses to Wonderbook are anything to go by I’m expecting a strong first outing for Wonderbook this Christmas period. The real excitement will begin as the install base grows and all sorts of currently unimagined experiences and uses for the technology emerge.

Andy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer) is a family gaming expert for BBC TV and Radio and reviews family videogames. He runs the Family Gamer TV YouTube channel and is the father of three children (4, 7 and 9).

Other Articles