From 'thunks' to mixed reality, the future of books is interactive

What is in store for literature in an increasingly digital world?

Bookshelves with books on laptop screen
Modern technology like augmented reality is poised to take books into the future
(Image credit: Jane_Kelly / Getty Images)

As it advances, technology shapes and changes how we interact with almost everything in our lives, and books are no exception. With the introduction of OpenAI's ChatGPT, the tension between the literary world and generative artificial intelligence is palpable. It feels like the future of books might be endangered or at least up in the air. Experts agree that books aren't going anywhere. They just might look somewhat different by featuring more mixed-reality elements, audiobooks becoming a power player and the proliferation of the cleverly named "thunk." 

Books could be replaced by 'thunks'

The literary world and generative AI like ChatGPT have been at low-level odds since the latter's public debut. What with lawsuits over pirated books being used for training and speculation about the death of the English composition class, technology and literature seemed destined to have an acrimonious relationship. A world where generative AI replaces books is the worst-case scenario for some, but that's precisely what Peter Wang, inventor of PyScript and the co-founder and CEO of Anaconda, recently envisioned in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Instead of publishing books, people will publish "thunks," an invention Wang described as "nuggets of thought that can interact with the 'reader' in a dynamic and multimedia way." While there would still be the option for classic linear reading, the content could also "be autogenerated based on the recipient’s level of existing context and knowledge." 

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BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti made similar predictions at the company's Investor Day in May, Futurism reported. Peretti said that static content would eventually be replaced, "and audiences will begin to expect all content to be curated and dynamic with embedded intelligence." The technology would "lead to new formats that are more gamified, more personalized, and more interactive," he added.

Or they could be integrated with mixed-reality tech

Mixed reality might be having a slower start than some insiders expected, but there may be a place for it in the future of interactive literature. Incorporating virtual or augmented reality into books is an opportunity to animate digitized literature. The technology has already been featured in some children's picture books, but there may be more resourceful uses for it in the coming years. 

At Canon Europe's Future Book Forum, Eirik Wahlstrom, co-founder and CEO of Ludenso, gave a demo on how his company's technology could "quickly and seamlessly add augmented reality aspects to textbooks to enhance pupil engagement and the learning experience," Printweek reported. The company also announced a partnership with Books of Discovery, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that publishes physical therapy textbooks, per a Publishing Perspectives report. 

Apple is also taking steps to enter the space of mixed-reality books with Virtual Paper, an invention that first surfaced in 2020, per Patently Apple. With the Apple Vision Pro on the way and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granting a second patent for the invention, Virtual Paper is closer to becoming a reality. Eventually, Virtual Paper could include mixed-reality content in 2D, 3D and animation: You will be able to crumple, fold, and bend the paper while keeping the graphics intact. 

Audiobooks could have a resurgence

Audiobooks aren't new, but they may take on a new importance. Despite being looked down by some, audiobooks have become increasingly popular over the past few years. "Audiobook sales have seen double-digit increases each year since 2012," Sam Apple wrote in The Atlantic. That trend will likely "accelerate in the years ahead given that Spotify recently made a major push into the market, and Google and Apple are racing to produce AI-narrated books," Apple added. 

Book communities will look different in the post-Twitter era

For a long time, Twitter was the literati's playpen, but Elon Musk's takeover has marked the end of an era. Because users are abandoning the platform in droves, the "online literary community has splintered into factions on new platforms like Bluesky, Mastodon, and Threads," Esquire reported. 

“Instagram and TikTok are still massively influential,” publicist Michael Taeckens told the outlet, “but there's no longer one central place where most everyone shares and receives info and opinions about books.” Without Twitter, literary communities will still find each other, but “instead of one platform taking precedence, as Twitter did, I suspect that many different platforms will continue as the dominant trend,” Taekens said. 

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