Adding a New Dimension to Storytelling

Girish Balakrishnan

These days, it’s more common to see a teen with her nose buried in a smartphone than in an old-fashioned paper book.

But graduate student Girish Balakrishnan says there’s a way to encourage reading among young people in the digital age. In fact, he and a group of fellow Drexel students are putting that theory into practice with the recent release of a storybook app for iPad.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to get kids and teens who haven’t found reading to be cool do so,” Balakrishnan said. “Hopefully this sort of platform will make reading appeal to them, and if teachers really catch onto this idea, we think there’s a future in this sort of market.”

The “we” Balakrishnan refers to is the company Beyond Ink, an LLC formed by a group of five digital media students after working on a senior project together last fall.

“Part of the project was to think of new and innovative ways to portray stories,” said Balakrishnan, a graduate student in the digital media program at Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. “We did a lot of research on iPad apps and found that most of the book apps catered more toward the younger ‘Sesame Street’ generation. We found there was a market for an older ‘Harry Potter’ demographic—and that a lot of kids that age don’t really read that much anymore.”

To satisfy the storytelling end of that market, Beyond Ink enlisted screenwriter and Cinema and Television Department professor Matthew Kaufhold to write a compelling story for the team to depict.

The result was “Spirit of Virginia,” the story of a young boy aboard a magical train. A month after the app’s release, it has already been listed as one of the top 150 book apps in the Apple app store. It also received the Dean’s Award at Drexel’s Research Day, as well as a nod as semi-finalist in the international Adobe Design and Achievement Awards in both mobile design and animation categories.

“There are some secrets and mysteries about this magical train that the users can learn through the way the app was designed,” Balakrishnan said. “All of the visuals were done using 3D graphics, and we used the latest software to create them completely from scratch.”

Balakrishnan said the team created a unique user interface that adds depth to the app’s narrative capabilities.

“It follows a panel system, where you swipe between panels instead of pages,” Balakrishnan said. “In addition to swiping between panels, you have the ability to read deeper in the story—a whole back story to read [at the discretion of] the reader.”

A single swipe on a smart device will propel the story forward, and Balakrishnan said any words that are intertwined with the story’s background are underlined with the capability to be tapped for more information.

“The goal for the first book is a prologue,” Balakrishnan said. “This is the first chapter of what we hope to be a larger series.”

Balakrishnan he and the rest of his team at Beyond Ink see great potential in the teen e-book genre and plan to apply the skills they learned at Drexel while developing their company.

“We’re doing this on side of all our graduate classes, and some of us are even working at jobs,” Balakrishnan said. “We built this [company] with the sense that if you were an amateur story writer and you wanted to pitch a story to our team, we would be able to take that story and put it in 3D and create an app. We’re all learning as we go, but we all see great promise in the ability to bring together our skills in 3D and animation to the medium of storytelling.”