The VoiceBook Saga Part II: Voyage

Part two of our 20 month quest to reinvent eBooks using voice recognition, in which we make lots of prototypes and learn some hard lessons

Nick Marsh
Nov 20, 2017 · 8 min read

For the complete context, please read Part I of this essay. The tl;dr version is that we had been searching for the right digital media idea to complement our personalised printed books at Wonderbly and had settled on a super exciting concept to use voice recognition to power a semi animated tablet reading product that we called VoiceBook. Here’s what happened next.

Part II: Voyage

January 2016 — September 2016

we had an idea for a platform level product — voice recognition powered digital picture books— and we had a technologist that believed he could make the necessary progress on the voice recognition to get a real product shipped — but what creative content should we put into our first VoiceBook?

This was a tough question for several reasons.

Firstly, although we had only just published our second book, The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home, we were still essentially a one story company. Lost My Name was 95%+ of our revenue and we had hardly any other full products in the pipeline, so developing original content for this new medium felt odd for us.

Secondly, we had not yet really thought through the commercial and customer side of the project — what was the commercial goal of Voicebook? What customer need was it solving? It was born with a big business dream, to disrupt eBooks, but that was a long way away, so what was the short term goal? As with almost every project in the company at the time (early 2016) the easy answer was to ‘help sell more Lost My Name books’.

So we started by doing the most obvious thing — remaking Lost My Name in a VoiceBook format.

We drafted in an animator to help us and began work on faithfully re-creating an existing Lost My Name Book segment.

Screenshot of the Imp story — unfortunately our prototypes of this version no longer work so we couldn’t make a film

There was so much wrong with this.

First, the animation was very very laborious and technically challenging. We set ourselves the design goal of having VoiceBook run with no internet connection and so we were relying on core graphics animation capabilities on early version iPads and iPhones to create the detailed texture heavy character animations in the style of Pedro Serapico’s original illustrations.

Secondly, and more importantly, the story just didn’t work. The Lost My Name book had been designed to work across two double page landscape A4 spreads, whereas we were dealing with a 4:3 aspect ratio single screen, and the manuscript was not in any way optimised for our emerging voice recognition engine. There were lots of words that were hard to pick up that we wanted to use as animation triggers and scene transitions.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it begged the question … why? Just as with the movie and the audio book, slavishly recreating the Lost My Name story in a new format that didn’t take advantage of any major new distribution or awareness channels (i.e TV, cinema) didn’t make a lot of business sense. The main customer for a Lost My Name VoiceBook was probably a Lost My Name book customer… but they already had the picture book.

So what was the VoiceBook adding?

This was the first time that we really started thinking more deeply about the business and customer purpose of VoiceBook. What was it for, other than being a cool idea?

P.S — By the way, I vehemently believe that doing something because it is a cool idea is an absolutely legitimate reason to start a project — Nick

But, now that we’d done a small spike and spent a bit of money to learn something it was time to start validating the business case. What was it?

We sat down to debate these issues and plan our next move and came to two conclusions.

Firstly we’d try and focus the first VoiceBook release towards a ‘loyalty’ product for our existing fans, but also use it as a way to test the water as a new way of acquiring customers through the app store.

Secondly we’d try and create more ‘voice native’ interactions and story structure to underpin the release.

So we alerted over and began by just prototyping voice native interactions — what stuff is fun to do with your voice and how does that translate into interactivity through a microphone input and animated reactions on a screen?

Jonny’s original idea to create little spin off books from the Lost My Name character universe

This work was led by Jonathan Attenborough working with Liam and they identified several different component level interactions.

Here’s a demo of the prototype they created where you have to say the colour on the screen to stop the eagle eating the chameleon.

Eagle vs Chameleon prototype

Here’s another, using the style developed for the story below where you have to say ‘flap’ a lot to get your dragon to fly above the clouds.

Delightfully surreal ‘flap’ demo

The core voice interactions they identified through this work were:

  1. Repetition — repeating words over and over again is funny and it’s easy for us to use to create engaging interactions as we’re just hitting loops and have no branching elements. For example, saying banana twenty times as a monkey drowns under a sea of bananas is … fun!
  2. Say what you see — saying something in response to seeing a visual prompt on screen is fun. For example, saying the colour of a chameleon in time to stop it being eaten by an eagle is … fun!
  3. Volume — saying things loud is fun and it’s a great to have permission to be noisy.
  4. Duration — saying things loud AND for a long time is even more fun! For example, saying NooooooOOOOOOOO! Because your banana bread has been stolen by a cheeky monkey is … fun!
  5. Timing — hitting the right timings is fun, for example getting the rhyme ‘right’ in a verse, but hard for us to make fun. This is how karaoke works (which also uses pitch, which we didn’t test because we don’t think it’s fun).

The next step was for us to build these components into a story.

It’s worth pointing out that what we didn’t do, that in hindsight perhaps made most sense, was turn these little ideas into tiny little products and release them as per Jonny’s original idea.

This didn’t feel like an option a the time for a few good reasons — the tech wasn’t quite working — but also some bad ones — we wanted to release something amazing that would blow customers away and lead to the disruption of eBooks remember!

So we stuck to our plan and we fashioned these little fun ideas into a single big idea, a spin off story based on some of our favourite Lost My Name characters — the Viking and the Monkey.

We worked with an illustrator / art director we’d found whilst recruiting for another picture book we were working on called Chris Cox.

Chris’s looser more vector based style and his familiarity working on digital products meant we could move much faster and make a much longer, better story than we’d made to date.

Here’s a demo of the prototype story that we made called ‘The Viking and the Extraordinarily Greedy Monkey’

The Viking and the Extraordinarily Greedy Monkey

Here’s some of Chris’s art from the story. It’s pretty wild.

This looks great, everything was going well right? Well, no actually.

There were several interconnected issues within the project that we had not addressed as well as a bigger looming issue within the business.

  • First, there was hesitance around Chris’s art style. It was a very radical departure from Pedro’s original work. Would customers understand the link between this world and the one they knew, especially given the novel new format? It was a stretch.
  • Second, there were still technical issues. VoiceBook only worked with microphone input. Liam had made huge progress in understanding the limits of native voice recognition tech on iOS devices and we’d figured out how to use UX to make bigger leaps than tech could, for example using very distinct words like ‘helicopter’ as triggers, but we were still mainly using the microphone as the input and we felt we were still a way of our design goal of ‘works at arms length in a quiet room’.
  • Third, the business case for integration with our existing marketing operation still felt far away. Around this time we were still mainly acquiring customers using Facebook ads and had begun some CRM work mainly using our new editorial content, but we didn’t have any App Store experience and the pull from marketing for this product was weak.

In addition to all this, the wider business was going through some challenging times. We had to restructure the company somewhat in the late spring of 2016 and revise our forecasts. It wasn’t a huge set back, but it did force us to re-evaluate the projects we were working on and how we were allocating resources.

Liam, the project’s main cheerleader was re-deployed to supporting a re-launch of our second book The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home and started doing some work on a new image rendering tech we’d created. So this, added to the concerns over the art, and the lack of a strong commercial pull had put the breaks on our ambition for a while… but it couldn’t last.

It was just such a great idea.

Look out for the penultimate chapter, Return, next week, in which the VoiceBook returns full throttle including more demos and more hard earned insights.

UPDATE: Read Chapter III, Return, here!

If you like this kind of content, why not sign up for our Strange Tales newsletter to get invites to the monthly events we do exploring ‘unconventional story telling’.

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