Khoya iPad app: When a reader becomes part of the story

When Shilo Shiv Suleman presented Khoya, an iPad app for children, at Ted Global 2011, she said she wanted to use the technology of the iPad to enable magic. And what better magic than a story you can be a part of?

When Shilo Shiv Suleman presented Khoya, an iPad app for children, at Ted Global 2011, she said she wanted to use the technology of the iPad to enable magic. And what better magic than a story you can be a part of?

For the creators of this interactive story telling app, Shilo Suleman and Avijit Micheal, Khoya is not a video game. It lets you, the user, be a part of a different world. The moment you launch the app, it takes over; you become the protagonist, a navigator who must guide two children on a journey of adventure. There is a lot to be read and played with. The interactions take into account the diverse ways one can use the iPad - you must tilt the device to let fireflies escape, turn it around to unlock a safe and even take photographs of various objects as a part of a 'quest'.

We met the creators after their INK talk on the app and asked them to tell us more about Khoya - how it was conceived and produced, their inspirations and what lies ahead for this series.

Hi Shilo and Avijit. Before anything we'd love to know more about you guys. Could you give us a little background about yourselves?

Shilo: I'm a 23 year old illustrator and artist. I illustrated my first book for kids when I was 16, and since then I've illustrated about 8 or 9 more. I was drawn towards illustration because for me it became a way of keeping me childlike, which I think is very important for keeping one's imagination buzzing and being open and receptive to the wonders of the universe.

I met Avijit when he was in a rock and roll band many years ago, and we've always enjoyed some kind of creative outlet as an extension of our relationship.

Strangely enough I was a technophobe studying in a school with thousands of trees but no computers, and then ended up working on interactive media. He was an Infosys geek who left all that to work with the environment. And now Khoya brings it all together quite beautifully. We both have a shared passion for mythology, folklore, the Earth and fantasy and this becomes a way for us to channel it.

How are the two of you involved in the production of Khoya? Do you have specific roles or it's fairly open?

Shilo: We do have pretty specific roles, but it's also a bit of a jam. I do all the illustrations and animations, while Avijit does the writing. We both come up with the interactions together, jamming it along the way with our developers and publisher.

What's interesting about our process is it sometimes flips the traditional roles of how illustrators and writers work together. Having worked with publishing houses before, I've always had scripts handed to me.

Here sometimes I create characters and landscapes and Avijit has to weave a story around it. Or he comes up with a story and I need to create landscapes and characters for it. The story and larger concepts that we've created together happened over brainstorms in little cafes in Goa, off cliff sides in Kodaikanal, and in organic farms in Pondicherry.

How did you conceive the idea of Khoya? Was it always meant to be an interactive adventure or did that just happen along the way?

Shilo: For me, Khoya began as a college project. I was part of a lab called the 'Toy Lab' in Srishti School of Art and Design with a Finnish Interaction designer, Anders Sandell (now our publisher) as faculty.

I started working on Khoya as an Augmented Reality paper book for kids that used technology to enable and revolutionize storytelling.

In its first avatar 2 years ago I did all the writing, animating and illustrating. And it really was quite different from Khoya in its current incarnation. How it worked was that it came with these QR codes or 'magical symbols'. Kids would need to take these symbols out, place it on themselves and look into their webcam, or 'magic mirror'. They would then be able to see themselves with an animated layer on top of them. So for example, if the child put a marker on his shoulder, on screen he would see a crow sitting on his shoulder whispering secrets into his ear.

Later, when the iPad was released, it really excited us all. What we saw was a storytelling device that was also mobile. So it was like a book that you could curl up with and read, but that was also capable of knowing where we were, and how we were holding it.

 Khoya iPad app: When a reader becomes part of the story

Khoya makes you a part of the story: Screengrab from trailer

Avijit: Khoya has evolved into its present form over nearly 2 years. We started thinking about the idea of the story in a little cottage in Kodaikanal, with inspirations as diverse as the non-fiction book, The Secret Life of Plants and even Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Over time the larger narrative solidified itself and then we started to detail the world of Khoya. And Khoya is a multi-layered world - the different parts have been lost, but will soon be found over the series.

The current book in the app store is more of a prologue to the series - introducing readers to the first world in Khoya. Further worlds will be available as in-app purchases over time. The second part should be out later this year.

You've mentioned more than once that Khoya is not really a video game. Any specific reason for you to say that? Especially when video games are making strides into the interactive story business?

Avijit: There are definitely game like elements in the story. I'm personally not much of a gamer myself - the focus of our app is more reading than the interactions. There is no score, there are no lives, there are no multiple endings, and there are no moves or skill-based challenges. You cannot lose.

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In Khoya the reader becomes a part of the storyline, and helps navigate the protagonists of the story through the worlds of Khoya. It's a 16,000+ word story. It's mostly reading, images and animation with interactions interspersed.

Could you take us through the art design process? How difficult was it to draw for an app?

Shilo: Interestingly enough, a lot of times in the process of our 'story making' the artwork came first. When I started looking at creating an iPad app, before there was any text all the interactions and the illustrations had been designed.

I think is quite different from how a book is traditionally worked on. Each painting takes between 4 days to a week and involves weeks of concept sketching, references, moodboards and study.
I say 'study' because creating Khoya for me has meant months of reading about symbols, myths and understanding what goes into creating characters that not only look like an archetype but also embody some of its symbolic history.

For example, with a character 'Sarpa' in the next book, who is a snake goddess, it meant weeks of reading about connections between serpents and women through mythology, starting with Eve and Lilith and ending up with Manasa and the Nagas in India.

It also meant finding colours that have traditionally been associated with some of these character traits. Or with the compass, it meant looking at astrolabes, compasses, maps, cartographic tools, navigational tools and circular tablets and mandalas and bringing them all together into our map.

It wasn't any different drawing for an app, since i'd been animating for a long while as well. For me, it was exciting to be able to bring still illustrations and animations together.

Who took care of the technicalities? The programming etc. for the app.

Shilo: The app was programmed by a great startup from Bangalore - Inkoniq.

What demographic are you targeting?

Avijit: We're looking at kids of the Harry Potter reading age - around 10+. Interestingly enough, in my first phase of creating Khoya, I actually worked with children between 8-12 to write the base of the story. A lot of the research from that period has also helped in the Interaction design because it meant identifying 'magical ideas' like fireflies in a jar that somehow we all had as kids.

Or this idea that if you ate a seed, a tree would grow in your stomach. Initially it was never meant to be a book in the market but a series of experiments, starting with the AR book and then going into the iPad. With each book I wanted to explore a different new media, and a large part of this year is going to be going back into experiment-mode.

Shilo, In the recent TED talk that you delivered, there was a mention of some social networking features in the app. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Shilo: I think this is part of what we'd like to experiment with more in the coming year. We're looking at creating interactions that are not just taking you out into the natural world but also connecting people all over the world. In some sense fantasy has always done that. When I was growing up and reading Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, it led me to go online, join fan fiction forums and keep pen pals.

I think it could be interesting to bring that aspect into a book as well, particularly with the interaction of sharing photographs of natural objects, if we could link it up with something like interest, and create quests where you also need to seek photos from other parts of the world. It could get really interesting.

Were there any particular folk tales and myths that inspired elements in the story?

Shilo: The story in Khoya draws from symbols and myths across the world. While the external form of these symbols might be different and based on the cultural context in which they were first expressed, the meanings behind them remain the same.

A big part of the idea is also to bring the Indian version of world archetypes into the global vocabulary.

We all know about fairies, and nymphs from Greece, but very few outside of India know of their counterparts- the Apsaras. Or we've all seen the archetype of the hermit come alive in Dumbledore and Gandalf, and even the wise old Japanese man, but isn't this archetype also in Vyaasa, and new-agers like Sadhguru and Osho? In all the babas sprinkled in trains and hills and river sides in India? Our characters bring a touch of that Indianess in as well.

What next?

Avijit:As far as the book-app world goes this is our only project. The next part should be out later this year. We of course continue to work on our other interests - from creating revolutionary movements to painting city walls, picking flowers or watching them being pollinated and transformed into vegetables!

Shilo: For me I'm also interested in getting back into the 'lab' and working on more experiments with New Media storytelling. Apart from that I'm going to continue working on tangible storybooks, painting community walls, and travelling. Avijit is going to focus on getting some farming done while mobilizing people to good causes online.

Watch the trailer of Khoya:

Khoya- the trailer from Shilo Shiv Suleman on Vimeo.

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