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New Zealand’s VR/AR storytelling capabilities go global with The Boy and the Lemon

A New Zealand children’s book written by James Hurman and brought to life via VR/AR technology by M Theory will take centre stage at a Future of Storytelling event held in New York next month. M Theory managing director Samantha Ramlu explains the tech behind it and why it’s meant to enhance, not replace, traditional storytelling.

The Boy and the Lemon is a children’s story designed to explore life’s most magical lesson – how to be lucky. And for every book sold, a second book is donated to a school, library or less advantaged family.

What began as a seven-year passion project for author Hurman, the founder of innovation agency Previously Unavailable, quickly transformed into a collaborative affair.

Illustrator Juliet Burton came on board to do the illustrations, the funds to get the book off the ground were raised on Kickstarter and then Method and M Theory managing director Samantha Ramlu caught sight of the book and wanted to bring her VR and AR nous to the table.

“I really loved what James was doing and his whole idea of giving it to not-so-lucky kids,” Ramlu says.

“There a lot of kids these days that don’t actually like reading books, so how can we get them reading and enjoying books? The illustrations are beautiful, we thought the story was amazing and we thought it could be brought to life quite well. It was one of our first projects in terms of AR storytelling and we wanted to do that with a lovely story that wasn’t too cumbersome.”

Ramlu and her team took Burton’s illustrations and Hurman’s words and brought them to life via a virtual reality version and augmented reality version of the book. 

The tech is based off using the illustrations on each page of the book as markers, which the free-to-download accompanying app on a phone or iPad picks up when pointed at the illustration.

The Method team have then redrawn and animated the illustrations as overlays to the story, with the augmented reality version showing the drawings ‘popping out’ or leaping off the page.

The virtual reality version is understandably more immersive and doesn’t involve the book itself, instead just showing the 2D and 3D animations.

A narrator reads the story aloud in both the AR and VR versions, but there is a mute option available in the AR version.

“The reason we added the mute option is we found while user testing (with kids), it was really nice for the child or parent still being able to read it themselves,” Ramlu says.

The most exciting aspect about drawing in the different methods of technology is the story is experienced in a different way each time – either with the tactile book alone, with a phone or iPad in augmented reality or with a VR headset.

As for the reading purists, Ramlu says although it’s incorporating sophisticated tech, it’s meant as an enhancement, rather than a replacement for books.

The project has made waves internationally in the AR and VR storytelling community, with Ramlu being invited to speak about the book at the Future of Storytelling, the world’s leading immersive storytelling event. It’s being held in New York in October.

Ramlu says she was stunned and thrilled to receive an invitation to the event, which will feature the latest immersive experiences and stories, as well as the best in show of VR, AR, AI and mixed reality from across the globe.

“It came out of the blue, we weren’t expecting it at all,” Ramlu says. “This event is one of the most prestigious on the creative tech calendar, with just over 100 exhibits of work from around the world. The Boy and the Lemon will be the only New Zealand project at the festival and we’re very proud to showcase the creative and technical abilities to be found in the VR/AR industry here.”

The Boy and the Lemon project was recommended to the festival organisers by Gabo Arora, film maker and creative director and senior advisor at the United Nations. Gabo experienced The Boy and the Lemon story in AR and VR earlier this year when he was in Auckland for the Story Edge World Exhibition.

As for what’s next on the horizon, Ramlu has recently been invited to join the board of the New Zealand VR and AR Association.

She says one of her aims is to build greater collaboration within the local VR and AR industry to be able to better attract international projects.

“We need to come together to showcase our work internationally, work on our compatibility and capability, and work together to present a consortium of VR and AR skills to the outside world,” Ramlu says.

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