Review: Kodansha/Mobile Art Lab PhoneBook Ride! Ride!
It's not always easy to explain the difference between legitimately good ideas and ones that are bad but so cute that your heart wants to like them anyway. Kodansha and Mobile Art Lab's PhoneBook Ride! Ride! (aka PhoneBook Popo and Momo Ride! Ride, 2980 Yen/$32) demonstrates this challenge: designed as a storybook for young children, it starts with a cardboard and foam book with a hole in the center for an iPhone or iPod touch. After buying the book at a store, you download, install, and then load an adorable, free PhoneBook - Ride! Ride! app (version 2.1 tested), drop your device inside the book, and interact with the app as you flip through the book's six backgrounds -- spread over 12 pages -- hopefully keeping the book's pages and app's changes in sync.
To be clear about a few things up front, PhoneBook Ride! Ride! is a novel concept with charming, professional grade execution, and those who are willing to pony up the cash for the whole experience will find it to be pretty cool. Mobile Art Lab’s story shows animal-like kids Popo and Momo looking out the window of their house, then imagining trips on various vehicles before finding themselves back at home in the arms of their father, mother, or “other” reader; you choose the face in the app before the story starts. The physical book provides the background context for what’s happening in the app—your iPhone or iPod touch is the central window they’re looking through—and a little on-screen icon flashes to let you know when to flip the page, corresponding with house, train, airplane, submarine, spaceship, and then heart markings on the lower right corners of the book’s right pages.
PhoneBook’s art is both typically Japanese and wonderful, more compelling within the application than the book due to both its animation and interactivity. Peering into the iPhone/iPod touch as a window, you can see and touch trees, clouds, fish, and planets as they zip by, with different responses from the items in each environment. Tapping a tree can cause apples to fall out, while hitting the screen in outer space accelerates the ship towards Earth in a 3-D perspective before zooming into Popo and Momo’s house through the chimney. The finale, showing the two kids getting hugged by the smiling reader, is an especially wonderful way to finish the book given that an adult is most likely going to be guiding a child through the experience. Everything is set to a beautiful, Feist-like song composed by Slavomir Kowalewski and performed by Tomoko Kanda, which enhances the excitement and fun of the experience. You can hear it yourself by downloading the free app.
But there are some hitches that really cripple PhoneBook Ride! Ride!‘s appeal, and the first two are obvious: the actual book has only been released in Japan, and even there, the roughly $32 asking price is pretty ridiculous for an experience that lasts for five minutes or less per read. There’s little doubt that Mobile Art Lab’s decision to go through the trouble of printing, manufacturing, and distributing the book added so considerably to the expense here that it priced itself out of the sort of success the same content could have had in pure app form, while limiting the number of people who could purchase the package. While it’s very likely that the book was conceived well before its May 25, 2010 release date in Japan, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the recently-released iPad has almost the exact dimensions necessary to display both the static flippable book pages and the animated window inside. At the right price, and with modest reformatting, the exact same app could be sold without the physical book and make way more of an impact.
And we’d actually recommend that Kodansha do exactly that. As nice as the “book plus iPhone” concept may be, the book frame is not really practical or a good use of space. Having to synchronize the flipping of pages on both the book and the app will be a challenge for the younger children who will most appreciate the animated content here. Further, inserting the iPhone or iPod touch into PhoneBook Ride! Ride!‘s foam and cardboard shell requires the inconvenient removal and replacement of some foam insert pieces that are mainly there to keep the book from collapsing and the device from falling out as a child plays with it all. Once inserted, the iPhone or iPod touch’s volume and Home buttons are inaccessible, too, so the only way to stop the application is to pull the book away from the child, pull the inserts out, and then disable the iPhone. It goes without saying that the experience of reading this book would be a lot easier if everything here was built into one big, nicely designed iPad application; redesigning the current app as a $5 bookless app wouldn’t hurt, either.
Overall, PhoneBook Ride! Ride! is a unique alternative to many of the App Store releases we’ve seen for kids over the past couple of years, and though its attempt to fuse traditional and new media together wasn’t entirely successful, the quality of its content is so strong that we hope to see sequels—albeit in purely digital form. At the right price, with the right interface, and on the right Apple devices, Kodansha and Mobile Art Lab could have an internationally popular series of books on its hands. For now, PhoneBook Ride! Ride! will appeal only to a limited subset of wealthy, experimental Japanese customers who are willing to make somewhat inconvenient and brief use of their iPhones and iPod touches within this oversized, expensive shell.