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Digital reader targets familiar design

December 30, 1999

5 Min Read
Digital reader targets familiar design

You may have seen it advertised in airline catalogs, or maybe you received one for Christmas. Either way, the NuvoMedia Rocket eBook undoubtedly made an impression. It is the first electronic book and is capable of storing up to 4000 pages, or about 10 books. By placing the eBook in its cradle, users can log onto the Internet via a PC and download new titles, which are then stored in the eBook, on the PC’s hard drive, or in third-party online libraries. What makes this futuristic marvel even more unusual? Designers opted for the look and shape of a traditional paperback book (folded over), and translated the geometry into a molded plastic design.

As the first of its kind, the eBook hit the market in time for the 1998 Christmas season. NuvoMedia was confident of its core technology, which enabled the eBook’s CPU to store and retrieve text using minimal power. This left battery resources for the backlit display. However, the company still needed convincing prototypes to attract funding and partners, and then turn around a real product as soon as possible. To meet this demanding schedule, NuvoMedia’s design team—Martin Eberhard, Mark Tarpenning, and Tom Huber—enlisted Palo Alto Products International for help in product design and development.

One of the principals at Palo Alto Products, Malcolm Smith, explains the challenge that the Rocket eBook presented. “We had to give form to a new type of product. A digital reader by its very nature seeks to marry two disparate ideas—high technology and the intimacy of an object that everyone understands and knows how to use,” Smith says. “These ideas needed to be brought together without sacrificing functionality or creating a parody of a book.”

Reader-friendly Form
According to Smith, it became clear very quickly that a direct metaphor like wrapping electronics in leather was not the right solution for the eBook. “Instead, we focused on the form factor and ergonomics,” he explains. “The solution began with crude but effective mock-ups, which determined ideal size and weight distribution. We wanted it to be small, totally ambidextrous, comfortable to hold in all orientations, and simple to use. In short, the design solution was to keep the technology from getting between the reader and the text.”

By positioning the battery as the “spine,” Palo Alto Products created a place to hold the product and centered the weight in the palm of the hand. The company also kept the buttons to a minimum, ensuring less visual clutter to distract the user. Two page-turning buttons are the only tactile interface while reading. The only additional controls are touch-screen icons used for basic navigation and a power button recessed in the side of the product. A stylus located at the back of the viewer is available for detailed annotating or highlighting.

Working within the confines of a paperback-page-sized display and large battery, designers came up with the curled-over paperback form. “It provides a subtle reference to a well-worn novel but does not attempt to be a direct metaphor of a paper book,” Smith notes. The front of the product is simple and quiet, which allows the reader to focus on the text. The crisp chamfered frame around the display indicates touch-screen control locations that can be found by touch. Soft contours encourage the product to be held, yet the form is designed to be comfortable in any of four orientations—right or left hand, up or down.

Prototype Pays Off
Industrial design proved to be a key player in securing the funding needed to bring the Rocket eBook to market. Based on the low-pressure cast enclosure parts prototyped from surface files designed by Palo Alto Products, NuvoMedia successfully demonstrated the product to key investors and publishing partners. “This was accomplished by handing the product to someone and letting the Rocket eBook speak for itself,” adds Smith. Once investors were won over and funding secured, the development process continued and the product was released in time for holiday sales a mere six months after project start.

The combination of molded ABS and intelligent design not only helped the eBook make it to market on time, but is also responsible for several accolades. The product won two awards in 1999—an ID Magazine design distinction award and IDSA/BusinessWeek’s Bronze IDEA award. In head-to-head comparison with two other competing products, the Rocket consistently received a majority of preference votes and high marks for its form factor and usability.

“It’s a clear benefit to users who would like to carry 20 oz instead of 20 or 30 lb,” says Smith. “And in addition to being lightweight, it is ambidextrous. Readers are able to use the product in the same way they might use a paper book—sitting, standing, curled up in bed, at a desk, on the bus, or in the dark. They can also select what font type and size they wish to read to reduce eyestrain or to accommodate impaired vision.”

To ensure reader comfort further, the Rocket eBook uses the brightest, highest contrast screen available. Unlike most digital products such as PDAs and notebook computers, battery life is nearly a nonissue. With 20 hours of backlight read time and a 90-minute recharge cycle, even the most avid reader will likely need a break before the Rocket eBook does.

Palo Alto Products also designed the eBook for environmental friendliness. “We used ABS for the enclosure material because it is a common and easily recycled polymer, and the parts are easy to separate,” adds Smith. Once the housing is unscrewed, the four plastic parts that make up the product (top, bottom, internal frame, and stylus) simply snap apart.

Contact information
Palo Alto Products International
Palo Alto, CA
Malcolm Smith
Phone: (650) 327-9444
Fax: (650) 327-9446
Web: www.paloaltoproducts.com
E-mail: [email protected]

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