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NuvoMedia Rocket eBook

One of the first electronic books to hit the market.

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The Scenario

NuvoMedia was cofounded by Martin Eberhard and Mark Tarpenning to create one of the world’s first electronic books.  Palo Alto Design Group (later bought by Flextronics) was hired to do the industrial design and I was hired to create the user interface.

At the time, there were no existing interface ideas to draw from for a mobile device.  The design solution had to be "transparent" and not get between the reader and the text.  How can we create a new interface that embraces the technology and the historical context of a print book?

What I Explored

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In order to facilitate the best reading experience, the screen real estate needed to be dedicated to the content.  We had room around the edges of the digital screen to put programmable buttons, but where to put them and how many?  Their image had to be fixed as it was not part of the digital screen.  (Touch screen technology had yet to be invented.)  I spent a lot of time thinking about what functions were important enough to warrant their own button and which buttons might contain a menu and what items belonged on the menu.

Icon  & Menu Design

As this was the pre-smart phone era, there were no mobile operating systems like iOS or Android from which to get standard components to build an interface.  I had to design my own icons for this device.

There were four top-level icons that would be permanently visible on the edges of the glass (but not part of the digital screen).

  • Library – a menu to access other reading material

  • Book – a menu to access book functions, such as search, bookmarks, highlighting

  • Orientation – change the text orientation from vertical to horizontal and back

  • Short Cut – a programmable button the user can set to their favorite library or book function


A Lesson in Design Simplicity

I believe strongly in simplicity and ease of use and try hard to resist sexy, yet gratuitous design.  This project was a test of that principle.  

NuvoMedia had two primary competitors, Softbook and Everybook.  An article at the time suggested that the Everybook, which had two facing screens, was the only true ebook for this reason.  Softbook countered they were the true ebook because theirs had a leather cover that flipped back (similar to the much later iPad) to fee
l more like a real book.  They both had laptop-sized color screens making them heavy and expensive with a short battery life compared to the Rocket ebook, a paperback-sized, black and white screen, and the only one that could last through a flight of 12 hours.  These were design decisions by the engineers and the hardware designers, I was tasked with figuring out new and innovative interfaces, one of which was:

  • what was the best way to turn a page on an electronic book?  (remember, this was the pre-mobile era, not that long ago!)

Page Turning for Ebooks

Continuous scrolling was not yet implemented on desktops so the standard way to continue reading was to repaint the screen with the last two lines repeated at the top for context.  This wasn't ideal as it forced the reader to find their place again.  Myst, a new video game, used innovative visual effects of a page curling from right to left and a swish sound to simulate more realistic physical page turning.  This worked on the small scale of icon-sized books within the game, but took more bandwidth on a larger screen and was hard to make it smooth.  

In order to test the device with readers, the engineers implemented a simple repaint of the screen from top to bottom, which was reasonably fast without any fancy features.  As I tested, I realized that this worked rather well because the time it took for the reader's eye to move from the last word of one page to the first word of the next page was just enough for them to continue reading without interruption, kind of like with a physical book - no bells and whistles and no compensation for refresh.

Simple not Sexy

I admit I was disappointed not to spend more time designing something sexy, but in the end, the Rocket ebook was deemed the easiest to use because the reader could get lost in the content and not spend time fussing with controls.

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