Penguin Random House is using virtual reality to improve the way people read and appreciate books. Author Romina Garber analyzes how virtual reality is used with her Zodiac series.
CNET and CBS News senior producer Dan Patterson spoke with Romina Garber, author of the Zodiac series about how Penguin Random House is using virtual reality to improve the way people read and appreciate books. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Dan Patterson: We are flooded with technology. Innovations are changing the way we live, work and read. And most of us, or at least I do, read on a Kindle, on a tablet. But I started with the oldest technology, hard books. Romina, you are working on a project that uses virtual reality not only to bring children from books to technology, but also to do the opposite, to help them use virtual reality to help them appreciate literature and books. Tell me a little about this.
Romina Garber: So, with the Zodiac series, which is a series of four books through Penguin Random House, I made a worldwide assembly of virtual reality readers. And what I found fascinating was that virtual reality is so immersive and so direct and instantaneous that it gives you something that a screen really doesn't. It allows you to interact with other people, granted through their avatars, but you are still seeing people in the room with you.
And what I found is that, just like movies can attract a reader to a book, or a television can attract a reader to a book, so can virtual reality, because there is immediacy. You can also travel the world of the book, which is something that a movie does not allow you to do. I think the closest would be an amusement park. So, if you really find yourself in the surroundings of the book, you are very close to the author. It really is a completely different ball game, I think. And if that world attracts you and you want to stay in it, you will pick up the books.
Dan Patterson: Well, you created with Zodiac a world that is immersive, especially for young adult readers. And there are many readers. This is a fantasy setting and almost perfect for virtual reality. Tell me a little about the configuration of the book.
Romina Garber: Zodiac is in a galaxy where each planetary system is inspired by a zodiac sign. And the technology is huge, particularly the holograms. People travel long distances by sending their hologram there. And virtual reality has a … It's almost like a sister ship, with that kind of technology. So, there is this axiom in the Zodiac universe called trusting only what you can touch because there is a lot of identity fraud due to fraudulent holograms. So, in the world of virtual reality, you are living the experience of a member of the Zodiac, because you are interacting with other people's avatars, which are like holograms, and you don't know who you can trust.
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And because all these are very new planets and planets designed in virtual reality, we create portals for those worlds. So, literally, you can walk to a door and enter those planets, which is very special. It's even more special than seeing it on a screen because it's you, not the actor.
Dan Patterson: You worked with a company called High Fidelity or Penguin, your editor worked with a company called High Fidelity, to render this universe in virtual reality. Tell me a little about what they did.
Romina Garber: Well, they worked with another company also called Abelana VR, and created the elements. So I would send images of the Pinterest board type of what I was thinking. And also, text fragments where I describe the worlds of the characters, and created avatars of the four main characters so that we can see them. And they were true to life, exactly as I described them in the books. Then, if a reader approached one, they would know who he was.
They also scanned me and created an avatar of mine, a fully mobile and moving avatar, which was fascinating. And then they sent me things to approve. Then they would say: "Okay, this is the world we are thinking about for Libras. Is that how you imagined it?" And it was really amazing to see the details and how much my imagination really came to life. Then it made me feel great as an author, of course, but also as a fan of that universe, which I become. It was surreal.
Dan Patterson: And tell me what happens when I put on a VR headset, either a Rift or a VIVE. When I enter your universe, what do I see in the experience?
Romina Garber: So, in the Zodiac books, we have the planetary plenums, which is when the ambassadors of each house meet and have discussions. What are supposed to be diplomatic discussions, but often turns into petty arguments and things. And so we recreate that environment.
Then we have all the zodiac flags. Everyone uses the color of their house Zodiac. And then you can walk and watch YouTube videos of things I've done about the series. And then you can enter these portals, and you can really see the entire Zodiac spinning around you. Then you see the 34 inhabited planets, you see the galactic sun, Helios. It is quite unique. I had never had an experience like this. And you walk and move, and you are no longer in the room you are in, you are in this other dimension.
Dan Patterson: And finally, how does virtual reality help create new readers?
I think, because it has the ability to be so immersive, some of us, some readers like to be more passive. We like to sit down and see how the characters and their stories develop. I think that's great, especially with movies, with television, with reading and other things. Some of us like to be those characters and experience it and take more agency. So we will enjoy the rides in amusement parks and the different ways of making ourselves feel as if we were in the center. This is for that type of person, because once you have explored that and have come to walk in the character's shoes, literally, and in your world, you are more likely to want to know more. And then you will take that book and say: "Huh, let me see what adventures this character got into and how that differs from my interpretation of it." And I think it is a gateway to that. And the immediacy and immersion, once again, is that it really leaves the screen behind.
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Dan Patterson: What is the future of books and virtual reality and technology?
Romina Garber: So I don't know, particularly, if it will be VR as we know it now, or if it will change and evolve into something different. But I do think it is more accessible in a certain way because it can also be viewed online and tuned in different ways, such as people tuned to the live broadcast of the high fidelity chat we did. I think there are virtual reality centers everywhere where people can put on their headphones and get involved.
So I think it's the future. I think of immediacy, again, with the author and getting involved in the story and talking with the author. That's something you were saying, you started reading good old-fashioned paper books, just like me, and I could never have dreamed of meeting those authors or talking to them or asking them all my questions. And the difference between a Twitter chat or a Skype video or whatever, is that in this case, you are in the face of that author. And they are watching you, and you are watching them, even if it is through an avatar. The experience was something I never knew how intense it would be.
So I think he is heading that way. I think books are excellent for adapting to this kind of world, and I definitely see virtual reality or something like that in our future.