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Cleaning Mona Lisa: Bringing iBooks to a new standard

TUAW was treated to an advanced look at a new iBook from Tapity. "Cleaning Mona Lisa" offers all of thirty-odd pages of content. Of those, perhaps half are a gallery of pictures. Those numbers are deceiving however, as the application's video content, gorgeous imagery, and interactive widgets -- not its page count or its text -- drives the book's narrative.

Launching at US$2.99, Cleaning Mona Lisa is hosted by Lee Sandstead, "the worlds most fired up art historian," according to Tapity's press briefing. I found his video snippets thoroughly engaging as he introduces readers to the technical story behind art masterpieces.

The book explains how painting technique, from egg-based tempuras to glossy oils, evolved to try to define the "HDTV" of the 1500's. You see how careful restoration removes the haziness of years to bring back the colors, textures, and details originally created by each artist.

The book is a perfect introduction for young readers as well as adults. Its mix of videos, custom interactive widgets, and light reading cover the topic in a way that's sure to create a new audience of art enthusiasts.

Developer Jeremy Olson of Tapity was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about the genesis of the book. He explained how inspired he was at the Apple Design Awards he attended a few years ago. While picking up his own ADA for Grades 2, he discovered Push Pop Press's "Our Choice," an interactive book.

When Apple released iBooks Author this year, Tapity decided to test the waters. Approached by numerous potential partners, they decided to embrace Lee Sandstead, to build a new kind of storytelling, "that engages and delights on every page." Olson found that content partnership leveraged with a lot of elbow grease could let them see if iBooks would provide an alternative development platform.

"Developing iBooks," he explained, "involved little more than the cost of our time. We put in hundreds of hours on this project." Olson guesses that using iBooks Author offered them a factor of "5, 6, or even 7 times improvement" in man hours versus developing a traditional iOS application.

This project represents a big experiment for Tapity. "If anyone likes this book, if it's successful, it could end up the iBooks poster child for success. If any independently published iBooks Author book is going to make business sense, it would probably be this one. So far we have made connections with Apple and have had a good response from the press."

Olson hopes the book will find an audience and offsetting those hundreds of man hours with enough sales to allow them to move onto further iBooks projects.

Tapity already has additional content providers waiting if Cleaning Mona Lisa sells well. "This is a partnership deal," he explained. "People are coming to us with content, looking for a way to publish it. We'd like to do more of these ibooks and become more of a product company."

As for the future of iBooks, Olson added, "We feel that traditional publishers are missing a big opportunity for playing with this platform."

Would Tapity consider moving to other platforms like Android? "Honestly? We're really not that interested," Olson said. "We're focused on Apple. That's where we know people and where we know the culture."

As for those people who buy Cleaning Mona Lisa, Olson hopes they walk away from the book having been inspired by its lessons. "Our technology is engaging," he said. "It should not distract because in the end, the book should be the content. Our readers should be impressed by what they've learned, not just by how we presented it.

"The most challenging part is putting all of that together in a purposeful way to make every page engaging and fun. A lot of iBooks we saw used the technology just for the sake of technology. Widgets seemed arbitrary. We wanted everything to add to the narrative and I think we accomplished that."

Cleaning Mona Lisa is now available for sale in iBooks (US$2.99). It can be read on iPads only.

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