A student tries out the new Vidya Books app. Photo courtesy of VidyaGamer.com

A student tries out the new Vidya Books app. Photo courtesy of VidyaGamer.com

By Ian Ogburn

Teachers, students and parents are excited about a new learning application for the iPad and iPhone that actively engages readers by letting them decide how the story unfolds.

Queen Anne resident Joe Booth has made the Vidya Books application for iOS devices that allows readers to interact with the story as the lines of text appear on the device. It’s described as a novel that you play and a book that’s a game. Readers become an essential part of the storyline. A swipe of the screen at the end of a paragraph can take the main character down a different path in the story. A quick response is needed to help the main character fight villains along the way.

Instead of using big launches for funding like he once did at Microsoft, Booth launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 15 and was able to reach his goal of $10,000 in days. There are incentives for parents, teachers and researchers: If they pledge more than $5, they will get a copy of the first book on the iPad and iPhone; for $25, their school, library or academic researcher is provided with five books through the Free Vidya Books Program. Based on the pledging so far, almost 1,000 books will be given to school libraries and researchers. 

The project, which funded Tuesday, April 16, raised $15,175 in pledges from 350 backers.

Booth said the funding has made a world of difference, laying out a foundation for the next installment and attracting more creative writers and supporters.


Getting engaged in reading

Booth is a video-game veteran. Before Vidya Books, he worked at Microsoft Studios, Electronic Arts Canada and Ubisoft, working on popular games like FIFA soccer, Nike Fitness and Need for Speed. He spent a few years searching for the next chapter in his career, he said, and he fell in love with the idea of applying what he learned with video games to help kids learn.

“Children are more likely to learn if there are multiple repetitions of something. If they are predisposed at the cognitive level, it’s more likely to stick,” Booth said, pointing to the results of research around background knowledge. “If they believe they are going to be successful in class, then it turns out they are more likely to be successful, incredibly successful; in fact, it’s one of the key indicators.”

The first book is an Indiana Jones-themed adventure. It was well-received by parents and students at Booth’s recent open house, which drew 170 people through Facebook, friends and word-of mouth. Booth said he was worried at first how parents would respond to it, as it strayed from the traditional book. But he said it resonated well with the parents, especially since their children found it much easier to engage themselves in an interactive platform like the iPad.

Booth said his 9-year-old son, who at first had trouble with reading, is his No. 1 tester.

“It’s a joy as a parent to find yourself shouting at your kids to stop reading a book. It’s really good to see your kids develop this joy of reading,” he said.

Booth also tested the first book at Queen Anne Elementary School, where he is a parent and PTA board member. He said kids in the classroom felt it was natural for a book to be interactive. The main question for them was when the next book would be coming out. 

Teachers were excited about the possibility of offering new ways for kids to learn.

“Teachers recognize that children learn in different ways. They are looking for a breadth of tools,” Booth said. “They need different tools for different problems because kids don’t learn in a single way.”

Niki Fischer, a special-education teacher at Queen Anne Elementary School, works with many children who have reading disabilities like dyslexia.

“I’m excited for my students to have access to Vidya Books. I think the obvious benefit is furthering engagement in reading: We know that the more children read, the better readers they become,” Fischer said. “If a child dislikes reading, it takes a lot for them to become engaged in reading and practice more. Vidya Books could potentially further that engagement and keep kids reading.”


An interactive layer to reading

Booth said he initially didn’t know whether the application was a video game or a book. Testers unanimously agreed that it was a book but with an interactive touch that can’t be replicated in the traditional paperback.

“Vidya Books are just so unusual and satisfying to read,” said Queen Anne Elementary parent Paul Hughes, who experienced Vidya Books when Booth demonstrated it to students and parents. “Traditional books are already immersive, of course — like everybody has lost themselves in a story. But Vidya Books add this tactile, visual, interactive layer on top of that experience. I think that combination can be really successful at making books more ‘sticky’ for kids.”

Booth said that there is something about the tablet as a device that works very well for schools.

“If you think about how media changes — how storytelling went from plays to films — it took decades for that medium to change. I think the shift from paper to an interactive device dwarfs that shift between the play and the film,” Booth said. “We’re scratching at the surface of what this really could be.”

The next phase for Vidya Books is acquiring licensed games like “Red Dead Redemption” and “Assassin’s Creed.” Booth said there is great content in these games that is age-appropriate — not to mention that it’s a good way to reach kids because it exposes them to a platform that they are familiar with. 

He said he would also like to include popular children’s books like “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars” and “The Hunger Games.” 

Another area Booth wants to explore is classic books, an idea from teachers and parents, who said they wouldn’t mind experiencing novels like “Robinson Crusoe” in the interactive platform Vidya Books provides.

The Vidya Book Application will be available for iOS mobile devices in about two months. For more information, visit vidyagamer.com.

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