Impressions from the Digital Café

54th Bologna Children’s Book Fair, 3-6 April 2017

Certainly, the presentations in the Digital Café of the Bologna Book Fair were held in the name of commercial interest. With this in mind I provide a commented summary of some of the impressions I got from there.

Who are the children-consumers?
Sketching the demographics of child-users, a presenter points out that great changes occurred between 2007 and 2010 when the swiping mobile technology was released and manifolded. That means that children age 10 do not know a world without mobile devices, whether their parents had one or not, and that the mobile phone is part of their everyday. Unlike televisions or older style mobile telephones that acted as telephones only, the mobile phone that can be connected to the internet, on which you can listen to music and download apps for all sorts of purposes, turned into an extended part of the human body and identity, a part that children of course feel the need to grow as well in order to become part of the community. Other recurrent ideas about children are that they love competition, and that they have the need to move around. I thought that this probably might not be a healthy idea to have in mind when creating toys or literature for children (as other theories of society and childhood exist that stress collaboration instead of competition).

Story-telling in the digital world
In terms of story-telling possibilities a presenter explains that the devise (TV, apps, books) does not matter for a child, as long as the story is good, and maintains that books are still important as physical objects. Yet, the opinion is divided on that subject, and during a discussion between developers and authors the consensus is found that sometimes the device is more important than the content. Several app developers introduce apps that require the users to engage with literature and the physical books; furthermore, one presenter shows the great engagement of users with the app of her company; the app is a platform for users to write stories, either alone or together, and commenting on the stories (more for adolescents and older than for younger children).

While for the authors clearly the book is first followed by the app, the existence of the story-writing app calls that into question, as stories are written on the app (and occasionally a physical book can be published from that pool). Interestingly, movies, theatre plays, animation films, and story-apps were talked about in terms of ‘non-linear stories’, while books contain ‘linear stories’.

Online content for children is all about play – when the presenter says this, she shows a picture with an empty swing. While some years ago researchers grappled with a possible difference between online and offline until they finally reached the consensus that both social worlds coexist and overlap and are one in the end, the presenters at the Digital café show that the industry is especially playing with and furthering this blurring lines between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’, and most products deal either with AR or VR: augmented reality or virtual reality (more on AR, see these articles from the Economist and digi-capital).

Presenters point out that with devices that work with augmented or virtual realities disadvantaged children can be reached – mentioned are rural children who are shown as being locally and socially behind urban children, autistic children, and children in the Global South, for example. In the cases of those children, the educational as well as the fun aspect are stressed (as for children in general, actually). Devices work with but especially hope to improve on speech recognition, natural language recognition, vision, gesture recognition etc. Although prognosis for the general AR market in China is very positive – China is supposed to be the greatest market by 2020 – the companies represented in the digital part of the Bologna fair were dominated by Korea introducing their AR and VR devices, (they also had a beautiful children’s book (linear story) section).

While the digital development on the children’s book market is interesting and exciting, some developers were aware of the unaffordability of their products for the majority of children. In countries or localities were a kindergarten even cannot afford children’s books or where there are no children’s libraries, augmented or virtual reality devices or books in apps are a far dream.

As a final note concerning China – after a Chinese children’s book author has won the prestigious Andersen Prize last year (see earlier blog), China will be Guest of Honor of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2018.

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