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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Carlton Publishing’s digital director Japhet Asher on augmented reality powered books

Carlton Publishing is a leading international publisher based in London. The company publishes illustrated books for adults and children and specialises in popular topics such as entertainment, history, sport, arts, lifestyle, puzzles and pastimes.

Over the last decade, the company has been looking to adapt to changes in the market; like many other industries, the sector has been majorly impacted by consumers swaying to new digital offerings, and new technologies.

At the heart of the company’s change was the decision to hire a digital director just over a year ago. Japhet Asher was hired into the role, but interestingly he had already made an impact at the company several years prior to joining.

“Seven years ago, I suggested to management to consider using augmented reality (AR) with books, and perhaps in retrospect a little too early because it was in the time of webcams and PCs for AR. It wasn’t until the arrival of smartphones and tablets that the ease of use of AR products really exploded and drove success for Carlton in that area,” he says.

In fact, the company has sold more than 3.5 million AR-powered books, bringing to life brands such as My Little Pony, Jurassic World, Ice Age and Transformers. Using what it calls its Digital Magic technology, the company has also recently published a book for adults, an ALIEN survival guide.

The AR concept is simple. Consumers need to buy a book, download an app on their smartphone or tablet and engage with the book by scanning it with their device. The page will then deliver additional or new content. For example, within the iExplore series, a reader could read about a sabre tooth tiger and then using the AR app, they could make it leap out of the book and even make it life-size, according to Asher. Alternatively, they can go into a section of the app and find out the tiger’s habitat, weight and size.

But while sales are going well, and the AR app is easy to use, a big challenge for Carlton Publishing is to make the concept appealing for books that don’t have huge brands like Jurassic World and ALIEN associated with them.

Asher explains that this means only the partners who collaborate with the company effectively end up being successful.

“If the consumer knows what they’re getting then the books do very well – that’s the same with any digital product. It’s really not just about what’s on the cover and that’s our challenge,” he states.

The AR team

While Asher was behind the company’s drive into AR, he is not a technologist and his role isn’t technology-focused.

“My job is to help Carlton to continue to come up with in-house intellectual property and use licences in innovative ways,” he says.

The company does hire developers and designers in the same way it hires authors for different subjects – Asher says this is to ensure the company gets the right mix of capability and ability. It hires an in-house team that focuses on the user interface (UI) design front and uses a combination of external and internal technology specialists to deliver each project.

Asher emphasises the importance of hiring and working on a project-by-project basis.

“Given how quickly things are moving, it’s wise to be flexible and nimble and adjust how we do things. I’d be cautious of building a large infrastructure to work in a particular way at this moment in time,” he adds.

The AR of the future

In regards to new ideas, Asher is particularly interested in the way image recognition is developing. In addition, he believes Apple’s developer tool called ARKit is where many developments will be made, including defining where the company places links on a page.

But Asher insists that Carlton Publishing will focus on making more of the printed page itself rather than delving into a completely new area of digital content.

“It’s about making extra experiences within books, delivering elements of the book that wouldn’t be possible without digital,” he says.

The next natural step for AR, according to Asher is replacing the use of a phone with glasses or lenses.

“Whether that will also go with digital paper I’m not sure, it depends on the development of holographic projection if you wanted 3D animation taking over the page,” he says.

“It seems to me that people will expect that any given surface will have information available in the next generation of interfaces and it is the reason people are excited about AR – it’s a new way of connecting content in a digital way,” he states.