As an avid comic book reader, I know that the outside world falls into two categories … people who love comics and those who think that comic book fans don’t know how to read a real book. I have had numerous discussions over the years with friends, family and significant others who tell me that comics are for kids or that there is no literary value in graphic novels.
My standard response is to hand them a copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and tell them to read it.
If they still don’t think that comic books have value, then I quietly point out that most blockbuster movies since 2008 have been based on characters from either the Marvel or DC universes (well, maybe not DC so much). And if they are remain unconvinced, then I make a mental note to not mention comics again.
Comic book fans are more than used to being outsiders. The Big Bang Theory may be science or physics-based, but an underlying theme is that the core characters spend a vast amount of their time reading comics. At the same time, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj are scientists at the top of their game … comics are just part of their DNA.
Yes, there are ongoing moves by publishers to digitize comics, but the majority of comic book or graphic novels are still enjoyed as a tactile experience. The comic book industry is a multi-million dollar entertainment sector—North American sales have generated just over $280 million for publishing companies in the first six months of 2016 alone, according to Comichron.
Comic Books Are Not Built For Mobile Devices
One reason for the continued physical nature of comic books is that the style and format of a title doesn’t always lend itself to a digital version. Even cloud-based platform Comixcology’s much lauded Guided View feature was somewhat lacking in user experience, although at the very least it was a reasonable attempt to be interactive.
Reading a book on a mobile device or an e-reader is easy—words flow down a page in a natural order. But a graphic novel is different. Images mesh with speech bubbles, splash pages highlight big action scenes or story arcs and the eye is forced to take in a lot of information at the same time.
So how can we bring the comic book experience into the 21st century? And how can we make sure that nothing is lost in translation?
The answer may be through machine learning and artificial intelligence.
In the comic book universe, AI is either good—Tony Stark’s virtual assistant Jarvis—or evil—the robotic super villain Ultron.
In November 2015, Google introduced an upgrade to Google Play Books that specifically addressed one of the issues that comic book fans had with reading titles on mobile devices—vertical scrolling.
People could flip a device on its side and enjoy comics in landscape mode with rapid vertical stripes without needing to pan in and out to pick out individual details. The experience was reasonably satisfying but was still not the same as being able to follow a narrative in a physical copy.
So Google’s brainiac superheroes went back to the drawing board and thought about how to improve digital comic books. And machine learning is the path Google has chosen.
“We wanted to use our superpowers, like machine learning, to improve the digital comics experience even further,” said Google Play Books’ head of product Greg Hartnell, in an Android blog post.
At San Diego’s Comic-Con 2016, Google launched Bubble Zoom.
How Machine Learning Enhances The Comic Book
Bubble Zoom is a new feature for comic books in Google Play that uses machine learning to identify speech bubbles in comics and make it easy to read digital versions on smartphones and tablets. The system uses the same machine learning technology that recognizes items in photos—dogs, hugs, people’s faces—and applies it to dialogue on a page of a comic.
According to the blog post, people just need to tap on a speech bubble to bring that part of the story to the front without affecting the rest of the page view. In other words, as you look at the full page you can select an individual bubble and not lose the artwork—which is one of the main reasons why comics are more than just a reading experience.
“Bubble zoom expands the speech bubbles of a comic one-tap-at-a-time, making them super easy to read on your mobile device,” said Hartnell. “It’s much easier to read digital comics one-handed as Bubble Zoom automatically identifies and expands each speech bubble for readability. No more compromising the full-pageexperience or getting lost while panning around.”
Bubble Zoom is still in its early stages of development and is only available as a technical preview on the Google Play Books app. All collected volumes of the big two publishers—Marvel and DC (or Iron Man vs Batman, if you prefer)—are supported on Bubble Zoom but Google has bigger plans for its machine learning comic book technology.
In much the same way that the world’s libraries are being slowly digitized, Google wants to bring Bubble Zoom to every comic book and manga-style comic ever made. Which is kind of awesome.
Bubble Zoom Upgrades The Digital Comic Book
Google has not revealed when Bubble Zoom will be more than a technical preview in Android, but just knowing that I will be able to read comic books in the way that Moore, Stan Lee or Mark Millar intended is a huge step forward for mobile devices.
And anything that increases readability for the average user without taking away from the overall feel of an image-centric mobile page could have implications in terms of accessibility.
Forbes’ Anthony Karcz said that it has been a long time since there has been any real innovation in digital comics so the arrival of Bubble Zoom is a big deal. Machine learning is already proving to be a worthy addition to our digital lives. Provided that the tech is more Jarvis than Ultron—the possibilities are endless.
Time will tell if Bubble Zoom is the feature that takes the graphic novel to a new level, but at the very least it means that I can read my comics on a small screen … without sacrificing the visuals.
A lengthy session with The Dark Knight or Judge Dredd deserves nothing less.