Activate your book

Parents these days often complain that children don’t like to read and prefer electronic devices. Mobile games have replaced the fascinating stories about Winnie the Pooh, the Moomins, Little Red Riding Hood and Neznaika. By merging paper books and digital technology, Devar, a startup from Tula, blew up the publishing market and made millions. Devar’s CEO and Tula University of Education graduate Anna Belova now lives in New York and is listed as one of the most promising Russian entrepreneurs below the age of 30 according to Forbes. She believes that augmented reality books will soon take over bookstore shelves all over the world.

The fate and fortunes

Devar means “wishes come true” in Sanskrit. The startup definitely granted its creators’ wishes.  Devar books and toys are now sold in 40 countries making a total profit of $40 mio. As it often happens, this road to success began by accident. Anna Belova was engrossed in studying art and humanities at the Tula State University of Education. She loved attending professional conferences where she once struck a conversation with Andrei Komissarov. It turned out both had been thinking about starting a business. As it often happens when you are 20 years old and meet a like-minded-person, they got down to business right away and set up a web design studio. The co-founders found a brainy programmer and started offering their services. Sometimes work was in abundance, followed by a dry spell; but overall, the company continued growing and could soon spend more time on exploring technology. Once a particularly challenging job came their way: to develop a video surveillance system for monitoring nuclear reactors. The company proved to be up to the task. It was one of the first projects involving computer vision and augmented reality (AR).

It was then that the young entrepreneurs started thinking about development vectors. Perhaps it was possible to combine advanced digital technology and a mass product? They started experimenting with AR and using a mobile app to combine 2D pictures with 3D virtual imagery. They decided to apply AR to children’s books. And they didn’t go wrong: it turned out to be a potentially lucrative business.

What dinosaurs roar about

Having no experience in publishing books, the co-founders of Devar went to publishing houses. But none of the publishers was interested in the new technology: five years ago, one could hardly believe that AR books could sell well. Devar members had to invent the next best thing: relatively inexpensive augmented reality coloring books. The first 50,000 books were printed at a Tula printing office.

“How it works: a child fills in a cartoon character on the page and uses the free app to scan the image and create a 3D animated model of that same character within the app. It is a mesmerizing experience for children. Their parents are glad, too, because the technology encourages children to color, which promotes fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. So, Devar coloring books were quite popular with customers, and we began creating children’s books,” Anna Belova says.

According to Anna, the publishing of AR books is more expensive than that of traditional ones, but the costs are recovered due to a larger number of copies and larger sales. The average number of copies of a traditional children’s book is 5,000, while AR books are published in editions of 25,000-40,000 copies. It allows for selling AR literature at accessible prices. For instance, the Dinosaur World encyclopedia costs RUR 288 ($3.8), The Wonders of the World and Outer Space sell at RUR 490 ($6.4), and Teremok at RUR 70 ($0.9). And yes, the dinosaurs roar and the planets rotate: just point your phone’s camera at them.

Devar books are currently published in 30 languages and include fairy tales, encyclopedias, ABC books and coloring books. The company employs about 100 people.

Anna says that their business model includes the creation of one book and selling it on various markets, which significantly increases profitability. However, this one book requires a plot that would be interesting to children from various cultures. The founders of Devar did not see it initially and had to learn from their own mistakes. For instance, a series of “live” books with Russian fairy tales did not gain much popularity on the global market. Devar sold it in ten countries, but overall, the series sold best in Russia. For instance, in Arab countries, people are wary of dragons (the Quran disapproves of these mythical creatures), as well as half-naked mermaids. At the same time, books about animals are interesting to everyone.

Entertaining or educating?

Naturally, not all parents appreciate the fact that their children start reading with a smartphone in their hands, but Anna believes that her company’s books are not just for entertainment, they can educate too.

“We have books dedicated to the development of emotional intelligence, as well as books on physics, anatomy and astronomy. With the coloring books, we conducted an experiment. We gave such a book to children and promised them that after they are done with it, they will receive a tablet device to play with. Of course, they hurried to color the book. Then we used the device to animate the characters they colored. The children immediately wanted to continue coloring and this time, they did it with diligence. Is it entertainment or education? I think it’s the latter, and its aim of teaching kids to color carefully and thoughtfully has been reached. AR books boost attention levels by 45% and increase children’s involvement,” Anna thinks.

A mix of augmented reality, gadget technology and a traditional book can actually be helpful for accelerating the learning process. For instance, children (and often adults as well) find it difficult to wade through medical terms while reading about the blood circulatory system and lobes of the brain. And it’s another thing to see a 3D drawing in the anatomy encyclopedia, rotate the image of the brain, see it from all sides and hear the basic terms. In an encyclopedia of space, the AR technology will allow the reader to see inside the planets to learn about composition of their layers, while a personal robot assistant will tell them about various space objects. An AR book about microcosm will help users examine a drop of water without a microscope and study the structure of a Paramecium caudatum

Anna assures that AR books are now easier to publish: a manufacturer does not have to hire developers but can opt to use the MyWebAR service launched by the Devar company last year. The AR technology can be used to ‘animate’ not only books but also toys, puzzles and actually any object. The AR globe model manufactured by the company allows kids to point their mobile phones or tablets at a certain portion of the Earth and see animals inhabiting the area as well as cultural monuments, flora and natural landmarks available there. 

Future belongs to phygital   

Devar’s CEO believes that augmented reality technologies, which are infiltrating our lives, can be compared to the emergence of the internet, when many processes and behavior models migrated from the reality to the virtual world. AR technologies are making a step further by incorporating the internet into the reality and providing physical objects with a new context and consumer properties. A book that utilizes the AR technology will offer a greater amount of information to kids and will engage them in a faster learning process, Anna says, adding that AR books will definitely be chosen over traditional ones.   

Today, we can see increasing use of AR technologies in various fields. With more industries to introduce them within the next few years, the future belongs to phygital – a tight integration of virtual objects into the reality. Many futurologists believe that the ultimate transformation will take place as soon as there are convenient AR smart glasses, with hands free and mobile phones becoming less relevant as mediators between people and the digital world. This will immediately change everything, including advertising, real estate and marketing industries.

“Today, many restaurants choose to offer e-menu instead of traditional paper one. Yet, it would be much more convenient to introduce AR for visitors to see 3D images to get a clear idea how various meals look like. Users will soon get used to receiving a larger amount of content and to augmented reality. With this perspective in mind, we are planning to develop our MyWebAR service, which allows any producer to manufacture products that utilize AR technologies. We launched this service last year and it is currently in use in 100 countries,” Anna says.

By Natalia Sysoeva

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