A team of graduate students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology went to the Stockholm suburb of Kista last year to find out what 13- to 15-year-old boys think about books. Of the 38 boys they interviewed, only five said they had ever read a full book on their own—aside from the autobiography of Sweden’s football superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Considering all the competition for their attention, all the instant gratification readily available via movies, video games, the web, it’s a wonder kids immerse themselves in anything that requires intellectual effort. But a lot of kids do. And if they read books, there’s a good chance it’s happening because these kids are encouraged to do so. Not just encouraged in the sense that the parents started reading to them when they were infants, but encouraged in the way that their parents provide an environment where kids can concentrate.
Which sounds perfectly reasonable for a parent who is not raising four kids in a 60-square-metre two-bedroom.
That’s the story in a lot of homes in Kista, a low-income suburb that is home to many families who fled to Sweden from war-torn, developing countries. A lot of the parents here have big families to raise, and they do so in small apartments where no one gets much privacy.
Lacking a place they can call their own, the Kista teenagers tend to drift out in search of environments where they won’t be pestered by parents and siblings, says Andreas Rehn, a master’s candidate in media technology. But the places where boys in particular wind up in are not exactly peaceful and solitary.
The City of Stockholm wants more teenage boys (among others) to spend time at the Kista Library; but the dual — and sometimes conflicting — desires for privacy and immersive stimulus rarely merge into a desire to spend time there. So the city asked OpenLab, a interdisciplinary design thinking laboratory housed at KTH, to come up with a solution.
What Rehn and his team came up with combines stimulation and the sense of one’s own private space. It’s called the Zone 164 (the postal code for Kista) reading pod—a partially enclosed, cocoon-like chair that is fitted with audio and light outputs that can be engineered to deliver subtle enhancements to the actual text that the user is reading.
Rehn and colleague Viktor Wennström built the prototype for the pod together, using the development platform, Arduino. Also in the group were Anna-Belle Ericsson, Sarah Eriksson, Johanna Thuresson and Michaela Woltter.
“We want to lower the threshold for reading,” he says, as I settle inside the prototype sitting in a corner of an OpenLab workroom. “We wondered, is it possible to create an overlay over traditional reading that stimulates the senses that they are stimulating now with different kinds of media? What can we take from movies and music?”
Light and sound, to start with. Colored lighting and ambient background soundtracks are what are currently installed in the prototype. I’ve put it on the night setting. I am surrounded by a deep violet glow and the sound of crickets chirping and frogs croaking in some forest. And it is quite cozy and muffled—without being claustrophobic because, the rest of the world is clearly visible on one side. And the nice thing is, I don’t hear much of the rest of the world.
“It gives you some distance from what is going on around you,” Rehn says. “It blocks out the peripheral vision. That’s helps the user to concentrate.”
Rehn tells me it could be more interactive. There is existing technology for embedding book cover chips with custom lighting and sound cues that can be activated by eye-tracking sensors.
Yet the idea isn’t to overwhelm the reader. “This is passive feedback,” Rehn says. “The light is bouncing off the paper and the page becomes tinted.
“We don’t want to distract the reader; we want to heighten the experience and trigger the senses.”
And then he suggests something that immediate triggers mine. “These could also be used in open seating work environments.”
At which point, I begin to image little clusters of these cubbyholes scattered around my own office; and I start to fully understand how truly awesome this actually is.