Columns / Emerging Media

Rock, Paper, Pixels

The Evolution of Visual Storytelling

Lisa   L. Cyr
The desire to communicate with the world through pictures has been evolving since the day man first expressed his vision onto the walls of caves. Illustrated on the surface of rock, sequential stories revealed life as experienced through its creators. From walls and stone tablets came illuminated scrolls, illustrated manuscripts and paper bound into books. With the invention of the printing press, illustrated literature became available to the masses, with reproductions of pen-and-ink style work accented throughout the text. The great Arthurian classics, illustrated by legendary artists such as Howard Pyle, are simply magical with engaging illustrations that beckon the reader at every turn of the page. With advancements in printing technologies, stories became adorned with full-color illustrations. Treasure Island, illustrated by the great N.C. Wyeth, is as adventurous and exciting today as it was when it first came out in 1911.

As we forge into the twenty-first century, publishers and content creators face a new generation of readers where interactive and new media platforms are at the forefront. Advancements in technology and the widespread use of the Internet through smartphones and handheld devices have spawned a plethora of web-based and interactive storytelling enhancements that are being gradually introduced into the book culture. With the advent of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality, quick response (QR) codes that link to video, audio, gaming and web-based enhancements, 3-D stereoscopic and lenticular printing and e-books with hyperlinks, robust opportunities are abound, engaging both young and seasoned readers alike. Although still in its infancy, this emerging trend in visual storytelling is growing with more advanced, user-friendly capabilities as the technology becomes more mainstream.

Written by Robert Siddell and illustrated by Veronica Martinez, Planets 3D (Popar Books) incorporates valuable educational insights as well as interactive 3-D visuals and sound.

Forward-thinking publishers are incorporating this interactive form of storytelling into their books and seeing an opportunity to further build communities for their intellectual properties, increasing book and other product line sales under the same umbrella. “As seen with the recent explosion of growth and revenue from games and personal interactive media, both movies and books will continue to feed unique licensing opportunities to the interactive AR field,” adds Scott Jochim, president of Popar Toy and Books. Authors and illustrators are also seeing the benefits of web-based support for their creative work. By expanding the printed page into a three-dimensional, interactive experience, digital media is able to actively captivate, excite and impact the reader in a very memorable way. AR technology works through the use of printed targets in key areas of a book. With the addition of a webcam and downloadable software, the door to an interactive experience awaits. “With the Be It feature in all our current titles, you can become the characters you are reading about,” says Jochim. “Imagine reading about a butterfly and then looking up and seeing beautiful wings pop out of your back or seeing an astronaut’s helmet on top of your head. This is the imagination of a Popar title coming to life.” In addition to interactivity, Popar books also incorporate a 360-degree, surround-sound experience. “If you are stalking a dragonfly deep inside the swamp, you can bring the book near the computer’s webcam and, as you get closer to the flowing creek, the sounds of nature come alive and surround you,” Jochim explains. In addition, each Popar book incorporates educational elements, allowing readers to learn more about the characters, objects, events or environments they experience.

In the WondLa series of novels by author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi, publisher Simon & Schuster employs cutting-edge technology in several interactive ways to support the futuristic storyline of each book. In The Search for WondLa, three augmented reality trackers are positioned in key intervals, each launching an animated, three-dimensional map of the world of Orbona for readers to explore. “Many middle-grade chapter books have a map of the character’s journey in the front of the book, such as the map of Middle Earth in The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien), the map of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) or the Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne),” shares DiTerlizzi. “In The Search for WondLa, we wanted the map to become an interactive experience. At different points in the story, the reader can hold the book up to their webcam and see an augmented reality map unfold. Stylized, pop-up animation shows the journey our heroes take as they explore the landscape.” To view an online demonstration, go to In DiTerlizzi’s second book of the trilogy, A Hero for WondLa, augmented reality is used in an adventure-filled game, placing young readers in the pilot seat of the airship Bijou that is featured in the story. Both the e-book and audio adaptations of each novel include the same augmented reality trackers, making the interactivity seamless across all media platforms.

Quick response codes, prevalently seen in advertising, are also penetrating the publishing arena. Through the use of a smartphone with a QR code reader application, these stamp-size codes allow easy access to hyperlinks on the web that feature supportive audio and visual content. Book trailers, educational tools, author videos and maps each add to the reader's understanding of a book’s content. “With the increasing number of smartphones in the marketplace, the use of QR codes linked to trailers provide consumers with a quick preview of the book, beyond the flap copy, at the key moment when they are deciding whether to purchase,” shares Matt Pantoliano, online marketing manager at Simon & Schuster Children's Division. “To promote the WondLa books, we created a spot-the-difference game that is available as an iPad app ( and online in Flash ( Distributed to major gaming websites, the game has been played well over one million times.” Animated games and digital toys add yet another element of entertaining, interactive engagement. “With digital toys you can take the experience out of the book to examine, explore and create your own digital universe," explains Jochim. The technology of 3D Cards by Popar allows readers to capture photos, record videos of the interactive experience and even create their own story, later posting the photos and videos onto any social media network.

The digital toys component of Planets 3D (Popar Books) goes beyond the confines of print to entertain and engage young readers.

We are seeing just the tip of the iceberg in this emerging technology that seamlessly combines the very tactile world of print with the sound and animation capabilities of the web. “With the proliferation of e-reading devices and e-book sales on the rise, I think augmented reality, qr codes and similar types of technology will help forge a connection between the print and digital platforms. We’re already seeing augmented reality pop-up books, choose-your-own-adventure style e-books, enhanced e-books with audio, video, animation and games as well as all sorts of extra content built in. As the devices that can handle these types of media continue to multiply and spread, there’s no limit to what a book may become,” says Pantoliano. “There will always be a place for traditional books as we know them, but innovative publishers will definitely continue to find new ways to adapt these emerging technologies, creating new forms of entertainment that transcend print books.” When it comes to visual storytelling, the vehicles for creative content are evolving and interactive digital media is certainly throwing down the gauntlet. But no matter the format—rock, paper or pixels—engaging, thought-provoking storytelling still needs to be top of mind.

Bugs 3D (Popar Books), written by Robert Siddell and illustrated by Chrissie Vales, is an interactive experience using augmented reality, 360-degree surround sound and 3-D digital toys. For an online demonstration, go to

Telling stories is as basic as the need for every individual to connect and be heard. Technological advancements have made it possible for content creators and readers to communicate like never before. For publishers, authors and book illustrators, the future of visual storytelling is abounding with cross-platform opportunities. “As technology and our connections become more mobile and accessible so will the enhanced experience in our daily lives. Through augmented contact lenses and glasses each person will have their own unique way of seeing the world,” concludes Jochim. “A new generation of readers will push the boundaries of what they want and are willing to experience, where each reader decides on the depth and breadth of how far he or she wishes to travel down the rabbit hole of the story.” As the technology becomes more sophisticated, the art of visual literature will continue to expand, entertain and mystify, becoming illustratively magical and more awe-inspiring than we can even begin to imagine. ca

© 2012 Lisa L. Cyr, Cyr Studio LLC

Lisa L. Cyr is an accomplished author and multidisciplinary artist with a content-driven focus. Her books, Innovative Promotions That Work, The Art of Promotion, The Little Book of Big Promotions, Brochure Design That Works and Graphic Design That Works (Rockport Publishers), feature top national and international promotional work with sidebars that go beyond the basics to explore strategic and innovative thinking. A graduate from The Massachusetts College of Art (BFA) and Syracuse University (MA), Cyr’s artistic oeuvre has been exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, galleries and universities. Her work is also included in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Illustration as well as private collections. She is an artist member of the Society of Illustrators in New York City and works in partnership with her husband Christopher Short, painter and 3-D illustrator.


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