sBook: Futures of the Book

Project status: 

Cross Platform Reading, Writing, Publishing

“The future is conversational: when there's more good stuff that you know about that's one click away or closer than you will ever click on, it's not enough to know that some book is good. The least substitutable good in the Internet era is the personal relationship. Conversation, not content, is king.”
--Cory Doctorow 2006

A Cambrian explosion of electronic book (ebook) forms is underway, offering new software, hardware, appliances, and devices that seek to supplant print. Clearly the process and experience of writing, publishing and reading a book in the 2000 year-old codex form, while far from obsolete, is ripe for evolutionary enhancement. Meanwhile our reading and writing behaviours are undergoing demonstrable, dramatic transformation, and while the precise causes are being debated [Carr 2008, Kelly 2008, Wolf 2007], all signs point to the penetration of digital media into every corner of intellectual life.

The goals of the sBook project are to develop a unifying information architectural framework for readers, writers and publishers that ties together emerging standards; and to invent new forms of functionality and interoperability to achieve our design vision. The name “sBook” refers to the qualities of the intended experience:

  • Simple: the pleasure and beauty of human readable pages
  • Social: developing context and community through social media tools
  • Searchable: the power and practicality of electronic text
  • Smart: intelligent recommendations both within and beyond the work
  • Sustainable: effective use of material and energy throughout the lifecycle
  • Synchronized: can be updated by author and publisher
  • Scalable: open platform supporting new products, services, experiences

Our vision goes beyond the limited model of most existing ebook systems (such as Amazon’s Kindle) by fully supporting annotating, quoting, comparing, searching, taking notes, and sharing, a process which may be described as “active reading” and which many commentators view as the threshold that must be met for the support of true knowledge work rather than simple leisure reading [Golovchinsky 2008, Sellen and Harper 2002]. One of our claims is that emerging digital text infrastructures (search and retrieval systems, social media) are increasingly good at facilitating collective and institutional textual practices such as citing, referencing, curating, publishing, managing, etc. However, they are not very good at facilitating personal textual practices such as highlighting, commenting, annotating, etc. This bias stands in contrast to that of paper texts, which facilitate personal practices while making social and institutional ones more complex.

A number of competing systems, open and proprietary, exist for sorting, delivering and engaging with texts. The focus of our project will be to explore why, when and how these solutions need to inter-operate, and to develop new pathways, 'middleware', and interface technologies that assist in connecting the pieces and experiences together. Our first design task, then, is to create a framework that maps and relates emerging standards, systems, and devices, working together and with external partner organizations to create innovative bridging of digital and paper text solutions.

Following from this phase will be the development of prototype displays, applications, and devices that seek to make use of and extend this framework, calling attention to the advantages of an open, shared and accessible infrastructure. In addition to these human experiential benefits, the sBook framework seeks to foster significant advances in sustainability by developing expectations and business models for print-on-demand, reducing needless inventory. The development of the sBook framework starts from three specific attributes of reading we see as important and in need of critical attention and material support:

  • Reading occurs in a variety of spaces, places and at different times
  • Reading is social practice that involves other people, collectives, and institutions
  • Reading is an active process in the productive trajectory of intellectual work (that might include thinking, writing, making, linking, etc) rather than a passive process of consumption.

Given these precepts, the sBook framework is oriented towards conserving the valuable aspects of both digital and paper-based text. It is obvious to us that current text solutions foster and develop these aspects of reading to different degrees -- and for different reasons. Digital text solutions make personal rather than institutional distribution of texts more possible, but are currently limited in order to maintain traditional economic models of publishing. Ebook software standards and devices make markup and highlighting of text (important aspects of active reading) difficult, whereas paper copies encourage these practices. Key to our understanding of these issues is that they involve material and technical development as well as institutional change. The sBook framework does not discriminate between social, organizational, and technical development – it shall encompass all of these.

Project Leadership

The sBook project is led by OCAD University and its centre for innovation and design research, Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab). Our process is rooted in a heritage of design thinking, information architecture, and human computer interaction. Our direction will be centred on human needs, wants and behaviours, and guided by the precepts of inclusive design. The project leader is sLab's Director of Research, Greg Van Alstyne, who brings two decades of experience in print and digital media design, research and education. Senior researchers include Dr. Robert K. Logan, chief Scientist of sLab; and Dr. Matt Ratto, founder of the Critical Making Lab in the Faculty of Information Studies at University of Toronto. Faculty researchers and graduate students from sLab at OCAD U and the Critical Making Lab at University of Toronto shall work closely with an experienced, international team in researching the future of reading, writing, and publishing through a creative and scientific project to rethink the book in the era of digital media.

The sBook project will consider the emerging potential for new forms of hardware reader that exploit flexible, multi-touch displays using the emerging technologies of Flexible Electrophoretic Ink (Flexible E-Ink) and Flexible Organic Light Emitting Diodes (FOLED). In support of emerging ebook standards, we will compare and evaluate several classes of interface, hardware and software ebook solutions that go far beyond paradigms in the current commercial market.

Development of Research Talent

Our process will be driven by a series of strategic foresight and design research engagements. These will include market analyses and field studies as well as intensive design charettes. These workshops and charettes will be facilitated with the support of graduate students from the Strategic Foresight and Innovation Masters and the Interdisciplinary Art, Media, and Design Graduate Programs at OCAD U, and attended by selected students from the undergraduate minor program in Digital Media at OCAD U. These hands-on workshops will enable graduate and undergraduate students and faculty researchers to work together in formulating concepts, brainstorming ideas, designing models and scenarios, creating and evaluating rapid prototypes. Experience with design research methods will provide significant benefits to graduate researchers and undergrad thesis students, who may well discover new opportunities and experiences that could redirect them into research-driven career areas. Canada’s prospects for attracting and retaining talent in high-priority sectors is essential to developing robust innovation ecosystems and ultimately to our shared future prosperity.

Networking and Partnerships

The project is rich with opportunity for partnerships and we shall develop these as a core activity. In terms of technology, this is because our initiative does not seek to invent a new device, but responds to the need to create new combinations of relationships between different classes within the space, including:

  • Works (printed book, journal article, report, ebook)
  • Citation standards (legal and scientific standards, DOI, URL)
  • Devices /applications (Kindle, Sony E-Reader, proposed sBook enabler)
  • Web resources (book sites, Google Books, Amazon, LibraryThing)
  • Physical services (large run print, on-demand print, distribution)
  • Interactions (annotation, discussion, recommendation, reference)

The problem and opportunity that we are responding to is clear. In the market we see a variety of primarily commercial organizations connecting these classes with single threads -- e.g., Amazon connects ebook works with its Kindle through Amazon’s own catalog recommendations -- thus Kindle is a closed system. Like many commentators we believe this kind of narrow approach will produce limited success because it locks the reader into a single thread of classes. In contrast, what we propose is to develop an open architecture that enables mixing and matching of various classes. From this unifying platform shall arise multiple solutions, open source and proprietary, that offer multi-threaded, cross-platform choices to writers, publishers, and readers. Further partnerships are required by this project in order to capture and represent the interests of the stakeholders in the key sectors, namely writers, publishers, book sellers, libraries, manufacturers and service providers, and last but not least, readers or every variety. Each group has its own readiness to deal with innovation of this kind; of necessity our strategy will be solicit support, endorsement, and collaboration by presenting work in progress at the appropriate stage for the particular target group.

Knowledge Exchange

The goals of this project are designed to stimulate and take advantage of pre-competitive research and development, fmor which commercialization opportunities are expected to proceed. The principle investigators are based at OCAD University’s Strategic Innovation Lab, a leading Canadian centre for design and innovation research, situated at the centre of a growing innovation community in Toronto that includes MaRS Innovation, The Centre for Social Innovation, as well as academic, commercial, and industrial initiatives and organizations. The dissemination of our work at local, national and international levels will be undertaken through sLab's regular series of lectures and workshops, as well as international presentations and to visiting scholars and industry representatives. Publication of research results will be made in research journals, through white papers, as well through popular press, Web publishing, and social media.


The research outcomes and milestones of this project are currently being developed in tandem with funding initiatives.


Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic Online, Retrieved from  

Golovchinsky, G. (2008). Reading in the office. BooksOnline '08: Proceeding of the 2008 ACM Workshop on Research Advances in Large Digital Book Repositories, Napa Valley, California, USA. 21-24.

–––––. (2008). Will google make us smarter? Message posted to

Sellen, A. J., & Harper, R. (2002). The myth of the paperless office. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid : The story and science of the reading brain (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harper.