Design playground, thinking interfaces

Thinking about the near future of interacting with audiobooks

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This is an experimental sketch and speculation as to the near future of audiobooks or to look even broader, text converted speech. I look to explore more interactive methods of consuming or listening to audiobooks with an eye on recent technological developments and a few pointers from informal user research. This is work in progress!

Audio books have been among us for a while now. From the earliest ideas of Edison, where he envisioned a phonograph playing recordings of books in every household to the app based consumption models of today, the basic concept of listening to an audiobook via a device has remained relatively unchanged. 
But with the advent of screen and touch based interfaces, an ever increasing sophistication in text to speech conversion (and vice versa)  and asynchronous communication between text and audio,  we can possibly explore alternate modes of interacting with audiobooks, expanding the scenarios of use and making them as rich as an actual book.

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Why do Audiobooks need enhancement?

These set of thoughts are based on my experiences with audiobooks over the years and conversations with a few people I know and also interviews with authors** who love the medium and understand it’s many limitations.
For instance, audiobooks are brilliant for listening to narrative texts, where a voice can hold you in rapt attention to a scene in a book and can actually lend to imagination, largely based on the quality of the narrator.

“An audiobook is its own thing, a unique medium that goes in through the ear, sometimes leaving you sitting in the driveway to find out how the story is going to end.” – Neil Gaiman

But there are limitations, when compared to reading…

– a loss in the sense of time and space, in terms of handling the medium. For instance  dog ears in a book, page numbers, bookmarks, specific constructions of paragraphs all act as indicators in traditional media like paper. Or even in ebooks.

– this loss in the sense of space and time seems to play an important part in memory. The construction of sentences for instance aid in associative memory with respect to passages you love in a book.

– the earlier aspect of cognition and memory make it difficult for people to read reference books or text books. Also adding to the difficulty is the loss in understanding other media if present among the text. For instance, a picture, video , graphs cannot be translated and make it absolutely impossible to rely on an audiobook. Even though some people learn more by listening rather than reading. (A lecture vs a text book for example)

So through the following explorations, as I have tried to explain via a short video clip and text, look at other modes of interacting with audiobooks, possibly with apps in touch based devices.

The elements presented in the video:

1. An animated and interactive indicator for speech, which also enables you to mark passages you wish to return to. more images 1

2. Returning to the marked passage with your scrubber which provides you aural and visual feedback on interaction. more images 2

3*. Easy switching between audio and text, which are synchronously connected. This could be especially useful while working with reference or text books, with other media present.more images 3

These were quick explorations, done over 2 days, which could possibly be extrapolated further.

*Since I wrote this post, the ever innovative Amazon have launched Whisper sync for voice, a fantastic feature which enables a user to jump between text in a book , to the corresponding space in an audiobook. Glad to see point no.3 has seen the light of day. ** The wonderful Neil Gaiman speaks about Audiobooks in this npr story.


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