Last night, I read my daughter a story before bed, like I always do. I picked an old favourite from her bookshelf — Giraffes Can’t Dance. But this time, a musical cast accompanied my narration.
“The warthogs started waltzing ...” I read. Just then, a romantic melody started playing.
I continued. “And the rhinos rock ‘n’ rolled ...” Suddenly, there was an interlude by an electric guitar.
“The lions danced a tango that was elegant and bold.” Right on cue, a dramatic tango tune cut in.
OK, so there were no actual musicians in my kid’s bedroom — that would have been weird as we were sitting in our pyjamas. But it felt as though they were there, thanks to a free iOS app called Novel Effect.
It is impressive: As you read a children’s book aloud, your iPhone, iPad or connected speakers play custom music and sound effects to enhance the story. The system uses voice recognition technology to drop in the sounds at the perfect moment, so you can go at your own pace.
There’s a well-timed “ba-dum-bump-chhhh” in The Book with No Pictures; the hum of machine engines in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site; and lively underwater effects in The Pout-Pout Fish.
There are even some voice cameos by certain characters — in Where the Wild Things Are, Max appears with his famed line, “I’ll eat you up.”
Novel Effect works with more than 200 different books, from classics to recent bestsellers. There are some titles that come with the app, but for most of the selections, you must already have a copy of the book, whether print or digital. (There’s also an option to open a book in iBooks directly in the app.)
Once you tap “Read book”, you can just set your device aside and start reading.
When it comes to story time with my kid, my general stance has been to keep tech out of it. I’ve shaken my head at the crop of “reading robots” trying to disrupt the sacred ritual. But I have to admit that Novel Effect is fun. I felt like a real audiobook narrator.
My five-year-old, who’s just learning how to sound out words, tried reading a book on her own as well. She read Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, and amazingly, the system picked up her little voice and played the effects at all the right moments.
The founders of Novel Effect, Matt and Melissa Hammersley, explained to Forbes that the technology is designed to “keep the focus on the story and the storyteller”. There are no silly games or reading comprehension questions, and the content shouldn’t distract from actual reading experience.
Still, not every story time session needs the help of sound effects, and when you’re trying to get your kids to go to sleep, the introduction of digital anything could have the opposite effect. But for now, we’re enjoying revisiting books we read a long time ago and engaging with them in new ways.
Novel Effect is currently creating media designed to be used with Alexa, which makes a lot of sense. It’d be nice to not need my phone at all to use the technology.
Next, it would be pretty awesome if they could add sound effects to my daily conversations with my child. I’d love it if a “womp womp” played every time my daughter says she doesn’t want to eat her broccoli.