Table of Contents

1 BookWall

1.1 Bookshelves for a world with Internets in it.

I really like bookshelves. I like being able to walk into a new friend's place, and see the books they read. I like being able to invite people to see the books I read. I like seeing a book I've never thought to look for, and sitting down to flick through a few pages. I like to offer this experience to other people when they visit my home.

Bookshelves are Awesome.

But right now, I do most of my reading on screens. I'm typing this on a laptop. At work, I read papers and technical docs on a desktop screen. When I catch a bus or a train, I have my phone in my pocket, and it's full of recent books and articles. Even when I'm lying in bed, it's more convenient now for me to read on my phone, or some other device, than to read a paper book, just because those devices can remember which page I got to on the bus that morning.

Since my reading is increasingly electronic, I'm in danger of losing my awesome bookshelves. This here little scribble is about bringing back awesome bookshelves for ebooks. There are plenty of other problems with ebooks, but those problems are Hard. Building an BookWall, I might actually be able to manage.

1.2 Designing a Beautiful Digital Bookshelf.

Here's what I want:

First, I want a wall of my room to be a touchscreen. Or at least a bookshelf-sized chunk of wall.

On the screen, I want books (the books I own, and possibly the option of something like the amazon-recommends books on my account, or the books my friends are recommending or something) to swim around. They could gather in shoals by genre, or by social-network connectivity. There could be articles up there too - from my RSS feeds. The latest headlines may be more suited to news-tickers, but if you subscribe to any online essayists, then their latest essays should swim happily in our virtual sea of culture. Each book could be represented by an image of its cover. Essay feeds could be represented by an image pulled off the homepage of the essayist, or by the favicon of the page or something.

I suspect there will be far too many books in the system to comfortably fit on the screen at one time, but that's ok. They can swim on and off the screen. At random. Think of the BookWall as a window into an ocean of books and essays - like one of those underwater windows they have at aquariums. Remember that it's a touch screen, so you can "paddle" the water that the books are swimming in. Did you just see something really cool out of the corner of your eye? But it floated off the side of the screen before you could properly see what it was? Just paddle it back on. Does that inexplicably present copy of Twilight offend you? Paddle it off the screen, where you don't have to look at it! Remember that books tend to shoal like-with-like, so you'll quickly find that as you shoo-away the books you don't want to look at, and beckon over books you do like, the screen will naturally fill with more books of the sort you're looking for.

Of course, if you're looking for a particular book, then none of this will help you. But then, if you're looking for a particular book, then you don't need the BookWall at all. You can still do text-based search right on your reading device. Those things are already really good at finding books you already know the name of. What they're not good at is browsing.

But yes - I haven't really mentioned the reading devices yet, and they deserve a mention. How do you get books off the BookWall and into a place where you can read them? Well, I want my home to have cheap android reading devices liberally scattered around the place. They're all running one piece of software, which borrows an idea from Bump Technologies. To read a book, you take your reader, and bump it against the image of the book on the BookWall. When you do this, the screen (which knows it's been bumped, because it's a touch-screen) sends a message to your home book-server saying "I just got a request for book X at time Y". At around the same time, your android reader (which knows it's been bumped, because there are accelerometers in all android devices) sends a message to your home book-server saying "It's exactly time Y, and I'd like to read a book!". The server puts two and two together, and sends book X to your device. As far as you, the reader, are concerned, you just grabbed a book off the shelf with your reader. And now you can read it :)

1.3 How about an BookWall I can actually afford..?

Did you roll your eyes when I said "I want my home to have cheap android reading devices liberally scattered around the place" ? Yeah, me too. And also, the whole "wall-sized touchscreen" thing. Yeah. There's no need for us to invent any new technology to make the BookWall work, but a lot of the kit described above is really kinda pricey.

So, what can we do right now, as random hackers on a more realistic budget? Maybe just to prototype the idea? Well, first, we can switch the wall for a TV. It's much smaller and less impressive, but it's typically the biggest screen that's already in the house, so let's use that. The TV isn't a touch screen, so we're going to have to interact with it in the next-most-intuitive way we have available. Maybe a mouse? Or hey, if you've got a Playstation Move or a wiimote or something, then maybe you can use that.

That takes care of the screen. For the readers, let's use the smartphones that most of us are carrying around anyway. We can't use Bump kit, since we don't have a touchscreen anymore (although I suppose we could bump the phone with a wiimote that's pointing at the book in question but… Ugh), but we can stick QR codes on everything, so your standard android/iphone barcode reader will take you to a webpage served on the local bookserver (over the local properly secured wifi, of course), which will start the book download automatically. No need to write any mobile code at all, and no need for any of your smartphone buddies to install anything! Win!

1.4 Caveat

Obviously, none of this will ever work for the Kindle, since those things are so closed and DRMed up that I have no clue how to make the link between my custom UI (the shelf) and the books I legally own on my phone. And if I figured it out, it might turn out to be illegal. I don't know if the Kobo's any better. Anyone know where we can get sufficiently DRM-free books to make this work?

Date: 2012-06-17 15:43:09 BST

Author: Gareth Smith

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