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Six ways to think about an "infinite canvas"

How would content look, feel and act in an unlimited space?

masterpiece by 416style, on FlickrThis is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Next week, I’m speaking at the Books in Browsers conference on “the infinite canvas.” When I started chewing on this topic, my thoughts centered on a very literal vision: a super-ginormous sheet for authors to compose on. And while I think there’s some great creative territory to explore in this notion of space spanning endlessly up, down, left, and right, I also think there are a bunch of other ways to define what an infinite canvas is. Not simply a huge piece of virtual paper, but instead, an elastic space that does things no print surface could do, no matter how big it is. So, herewith, a quick stab at some non-literal takes on the topic. My version, if you will, of six different ways of thinking about the infinite canvas.

Continuously changeable

The idea here is simple: refreshable rather than static content. The actual dimensions of the page aren’t what’s elastic; instead, it’s what’s being presented that’s continuously changing. In some ways, the home page of a newspaper’s website serves as a good example here. Visit The Boston Globe half a dozen times over the course of a week and each time you’ll see a new serving of news. (Haven’t seen that paper’s recent online makeover yet? Definitely worth checking out, and make sure to do so using a few different screen sizes — laptop, big monitor, mobile phone … each showcases a different version of its morphing, on-the-fly design.)

Deep zooms

Ever seen that great short video, “The Power of Ten“? It’s where the shot begins just above two picnickers on a blanket and then proceeds to zoom out so that you see the same picnic blanket, but now from 100 feet up, and then 1,000 feet, and on and on until you’ve got a view from outer space. (After the zoom out, the process reverses, and you end up getting increasingly microscopic glimpses of the blanket, its fabric, the individual strands of cotton, and so on.) Here’s a presentational canvas that adds new levels of meaning at different magnifications. So, the viewer doesn’t simply move closer or further away, as you might in a room when looking at, say, a person. As you get closer, you see progressively deeper into the body. Microsoft calls this “semantic zooming” (as part of its forthcoming touchscreen-friendly Metro interface). Bible software maker Glo offers some interesting content zooming tools that implement this feature for readers looking to flip between birds-eye and page views.

Alternate geometries

A printed page is a 2-D rectangle of fixed dimensions. On the infinite canvas, the possibilities vary widely, deeply, and as Will Ferrell’s character in “Old School” might say, "in ways we’ve never even heard of." Some possible shapes here: a 3-D cube with content on each side, or pyramid-shaped ebooks (Robert Darnton wrote about those in The New Age of the Book, where he proposes a multi-layered structure for academics with excess material that would bust the bindings of a printed book).

Canvases that give readers room to contemplate and respond

I just got a wonderful print book the other day called “Finish This Book.” It contains a collection of fill-in-the-blank and finish-this-thought creative exercises. It reminded me that one thing digital books haven’t yet explored much is leaving space for readers to compose their reactions. Sure, every ebook reader today lets you take notes, but as I’ve written before, these systems are pale replicas of the rich, reader-friendly note taking experiences we get in print books. Job No. 1 is solving those shortcomings, but then imagine the possibilities if digital books are designed to allow readers to compose extensive thoughts and reactions.

Delight

Print book lovers (I’m one of ‘em) wax on about their beloved format’s special talents: the smell, the feel, its nap-friendly weight. But touchscreen fans can play that game, too. Recall, for starters, the first time you tapped an iPhone or similarly modern touchscreen. Admit it: the way it felt to pinch, swipe, flick, and spread … those gestures introduce a whole new pleasure palette. Reading and books have heretofore primarily been a visual medium: you look and ponder what’s inside. Now, as we enter the age of touchscreen documents, content becomes a feast for our fingers as much as our eyes. Authors, publishers, and designers are just beginning to appreciate this opportunity, making good examples hard to point to. I do think that Erik Loyer is among the most interesting innovators with his Strange Rain app, a kind of mashup between short fiction and those particle visualizers like Uzu. It’s not civilian-friendly yet, I don’t think, but it points the way for artists interested in incorporating touch into their creations.

Jumbo content

A movable viewport lets your audience pan across massive content panoramas. Some of the possibilities here are photographic (Photosynth, Virtual History ROMA). Others have begun to explore massively wide content landscapes, such as timelines (History of Jazz). One new example I just learned about yesterday: London Unfurled for iPad, a hand-illustrated pair of 37-foot long drawings of every building on the River Thames between Hammersmith Bridge and Millennium Dome, complete with tappable backstories on most of the architecture that’s on display.

These are just a few of the possibilities that I’ve spotted. What comes to mind when you think about the infinite canvas?

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT

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Photo: masterpiece by 416style, on Flickr

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  • Elisabeth Robson

    Have you seen the work on pad++ by Ben Bederson from the nineties? That’s the first work I know of that used an infinite canvas and I still have yet to see an interface that does it better.

  • http://www.newkindofbook.com Peter Meyers

    I hadn’t heard of pad++ — just checked it out: neat!

  • Dave

    I remember on an early Beta of eol.org, they had the ability to set what grade you were at and the information on the page changed in depth (I don’t think it’s there now). I think that fits in with the excess material some academics have (as you mention above), you could have 1 book, which you start with at the beginning of school but stays with you getting into more depth as you do. (I’m not talking ‘Young Ladies Primer’ from Diamond Age where the book learns, but excess existing content filtered to the users level, allowing for exploration and further depth at the users pace).