Thursday, August 15, 2013

Making Interactive Digital Books The Easy Way

Books are a great source of information and entertainment. They can teach us things, they can make us laugh, they can let us see the world from different perspectives and so much more. Normally, when people think of books, what comes to mind are thick objects with multiple layers of paper and covers. Now, thanks to modern technology, books can be digital and interactive pieces of content which are informative and entertaining, without taking up much physical space. Allow me to share my experiences at a free training workshop conducted in Nanyang Poly’s School of IT (NYP SIT), which taught me how to make interactive digital books for the iPad known as iBooks.

This workshop was part of the Singapore Science Festival, an annual festival on the latest scientific innovations, new technologies, cutting-edge research and engineering.  The festival was jointly organised by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and the Science Centre Singapore.
Looking at Other People’s Work

When I first reached the computer lab for the workshop, the trainer, Mr Lee Chit Boon, showed us some samples of iBooks that attendees from previous classes had created. They were really cool and looked professionally-made. The software used to create these digital books is called “iBooks Author” which lets Mac users create iBooks easily for free.

Some Sample iBooks

In order to boost our creativity, the trainer showed us some more examples of various iBooks that were fun and interactive. One is called “The Road and Me” which is an iBook that lets users, especially children, learn more about road safety. The iBook contained several elements of interactivity like quizzes which tests the users’ knowledge on road safety along with a 3D model that allows users to rotate, zoom in and zoom out on a virtual street.

The other iBook that Mr Lee showed us was made specifically for special-needs students. It contains some interactive elements like embedded videos which allow users to envision the story through sign language. There were even games like crossword puzzles and ‘picture scramble’ for users to play with. iBooks are definitely a great way to let students  learn, thanks to the interactive elements and the amazing visual aids. Imagine a time where all your textbooks and regular books will be in iBook format so all you do is just to carry an iPad with you.

Learning the Basics 

I have been a Windows user ever since the year 2002 so using Apple’s Mac OS X on the iMac was completely new to me. However, way back in secondary school I had used an iMac before although it was the old and small CRT model. Anyway, back to the story, Mr Lee showed us some basics on how to use Mac computers including some shortcuts. I realised that the Control button on the Mac is totally different from the Control button on the PC. Shortcuts like Ctrl-X, Ctrl-A, Ctrl-Z and the likes are mainly for the PC.

For the Mac, users will have to use the “Command” (or Cmd) button as a replacement for the Control button. So if you want to undo, use Cmd-Z. If you want to select all, use Cmd-A. Other basics that I learnt include “Spotlight” which is basically a universal search button, “the dock” which is like the Windows Taskbar and “Finder” which is like the Mac version of Windows Explorer. PC users who want to switch to Mac will definitely find all these basics useful.

Making My First iBook

After learning the basics of Mac OS X, watching videos about how iBooks can change the education landscape and looking at some iBook samples, it was time to finally create my very first iBook. This was the part I liked the most. All I had to do was to open up the iBooks Author software and I was good to go.

The first thing that popped up when I launched the iBooks Author software was the list of iBook templates that I could use to create my iBook. Just like Microsoft Word, you can actually choose a template and start working with that, or you can choose a blank one if you don’t mind doing everything from scratch. Mr Lee mentioned that iBooks Author is basically like “Microsoft Word on steroids” which I pretty much agree with. The templates featured here were all very beautiful and they were great for beginners.

Filling up the Content

In order to make things much simpler, I  decided to use the same template used by Mr Lee in his demonstration mainly because it’s easier to follow and understand. Thanks to his simple and not too wordy presentation slides along with his live demonstrations, I managed to follow what he was doing. I have learnt to do tasks like changing the layouts, changing the title, adding some interactive elements like HTML, pictures, Keynote presentations and so much more. After a while, it started to look like this…

I know, I know. It wasn’t as fancy as the ones shown in the examples. I’m still a beginner and this wasn’t exactly finished because I still had to do more things but hey, it was good progress, wasn’t it? After adding some more content to my iBook, I was able to finally use it and view it on the iPad. That’s what I did and here are the fruits of my labour.

Enjoying the Fruits of my Labour

So this was how my iBook looked like on the actual device. It’s totally interactive and simple. All I had to do was to connect the iPad to the computer, click ‘Preview’ in the iBooks Author software and my work was ready for me to enjoy on the device. Just like a regular PDF book, I just have to scroll to the left or to the right to enjoy my content but unlike PDF books, I can actually enjoy the interactive elements too. I added the picture slides so if a user wants to see them, what he or she can do is to tap on them and see each and every picture by scrolling left or right along with their descriptions. Oh and do take note that I didn’t actually write all the text because I was given a text file to “copy and paste” onto the iBook. Of course, if you are making an actual iBook, don’t ever do that. Write your own content.

Here is another page of my book. I have inserted two more interactive elements. One is a map of Nanyang Poly (NYP) while the other was a keynote presentation that talked more about NYP. If you are wondering why the element on the right is missing, that’s because I forgot to put the Keynote presentation in. How silly of me! Anyway, for the interactive map, I was taught how to add speech bubbles so that when someone taps on them, they can see what block this is and what School it belongs to. Of course, I didn’t actually map out all the blocks of NYP in the map due to time constraints but I did add some details like Block A, Block L and so on. Thanks to the ‘widget’ panel in iBooks Author, creators will find it easier to add in interactive elements into their iBook. Just drag and drop and you’re good to go.

Enjoying the Fruits of Other People’s Labour

Since the iPad was right in front of me, I took some time to see iBooks created by others. This is the road safety iBook that I was talking about earlier. It seriously looked very professional in my opinion and I cannot really believe this is not for sale. It was way more interactive than my iBook and it enabled me to have some fun at the same time through its quizzes about road safety and a crossword puzzle. There are so many possibilities when it comes to making your own iBook. All you need is a great idea and how you can implement that great idea.

Additional Resources to make use of

After one and a half hours, it was the end of the workshop and I was presented with a code to iTunes U (iTunes for education)- KWM-VSR-7H6 - where you can view content that has been created and published by Mr Lee, the trainer, for this workshop. He also did put up his contact details like his Email address and Google+ account so that we can contact him whenever we need help with iBook creation. Other than that, he also showed this web tool called Bookry ( which enables you to add in more interactive elements to your iBook.


In summary, all I can say is that I totally had fun and learnt something new. Books are definitely a great way to consume information and it can also be a great way for people to know more and gain more knowledge. With iBooks, the whole experience has been taken one level higher with the help of interactive elements, portability and fun. Will this revolutionise or even change the way we read books or study in class? Only time will tell. If you are interested in creating your own iBook, all you need is a Mac computer and an iPad and you’re set. One thing to note is that the iBookstore (like the App Store but for iBooks) is actually unavailable for iPad users in Singapore so if you want to access it, you may need a US or an Australian iTunes account. On that note, download the iBooks Author software, let your creative juices flow and start creating your very own iBook!

By Hanafi Bin Sedik, Year 1, Diploma in Engineering Informatics

I like to spend my free time and weekends exploring various places around Singapore, taking long walks at public parks and eating delicious food. Not only that, I also like to make videos, write on my personal blog and hang out with my awesome friends and family. I wish to work at a major software company and start my own production company in the future.

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