Wonderscope's Apple AR app makes storybook characters walk up and talk to you

Storytelling enters the augmented reality era.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

I remember the first sentence I ever read. I sat on spill-resistant carpet in my kindergarten classroom. The sun was bright in the windows, and the little paperback reader was big in my hands. While my classmates horsed around in other parts of the room, I read "the bee flies." Even more than the words, I remember the feeling of unlocking a new private world that I could explore. 

Wonderscope, a new augmented reality app for Apple devices, reminded me of that childhood feeling, of a kid's imagination ignited by a story. With Wonderscope, an animated tale unfurls like a miniature, immersive play on the floor or table in front of you. Speak your lines in the script, and the characters look you in the eyes and respond. Tap a tiny tree in the background and it bounces with cartoony glee. 

Wonderscope calls its augmented-reality format "spatial-storytelling," one that viewers experience not by looking at their devices but by looking "through" them. The goal, especially with kids stories, is to marry the real world with make-believe. 

Wonderscope from Within

"It's more for the 7-year-old in me than the adult me," said Chris Milk, CEO of Within, the company that developed the app. 

The Wonderscope app is one of the first to tackle storytelling in augmented reality, the buzzy technology that overlays digital images on screens showing the actual world around you. (Think Snapchat filters and Pokemon Go.) But the format goes beyond silly face filters and Squirtles standing on your toilet. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said AR has the potential to be as important as the iPhone. Updates in iOS 12 point toward what we might expect eventually from AR headsets.

Wonderscope hints at what a future of AR entertainment might look like. It's also the first augmented reality project from Within, a company well known for producing buzz-worthy virtual reality experiences.

Watch this: What is AR and how does it differ from virtual reality?

Wonderscope launched Wednesday with two stories ready to go: A Brief History of Stunts by Astounding People, which features a wing-walking granny and other unexpected thrillseekers, and Little Red the Inventor, a spin on the classic fairy tale. They both create miniaturized sets inside your room. The app prompts you with your own short lines in the play's script. After you say them, the characters look you in the eye and respond like they're talking right to you. 

An animated AR airplane loops around a man's head

An animated, wing-walking grandma flies around the room in Wonderscope's free story. 

Wonderscope from Within

Those first two stories are aimed at kids around the ages of 7 to 10, but toying around with a demo of the app, I could imagine the format being intriguing for adult-oriented stories down the line. 

And Milk said he wants Wonderscope to be more of an open platform for storytellers. Beyond the first two tales in the app, its next additions will likely be recruited and supported by Within. But the company has created a development tool, called Storymaker, that allows creators to piggyback on Wonderscope's core technology. Ultimately the company's ambition is for Wonderscope to become more accessible for creators of all stripes to build and publish their own walking, talking stories. 

The kid inside me hopes one of them will star a buzzing bee too. 


The characters in Wonderscope's stories make eye contact with you, and the action moves forward in response to your spoken prompts, a move meant to make you feel more like a part of the story. 

Wonderscope from Within

Wonderscope is a free app that starts with one complementary story. At launch, A Brief History -- the one with that wingwalking granny -- is included free, and Little Red costs $4.99. But the app doesn't require user registration or a credit card to try it out. Additional titles will begin rolling out in December.

Wonderscope works on iPhones starting with the 6S or newer and on iPads made starting in 2017, including the iPad Pro, so long as the devices are running iOS 11 and up. Within didn't specify plans for an Android version, but the company said that it will release Wonderscope on additional platforms "wherever we believe we can offer a consistent and great experience," according to Colin Decker, it's operating chief, in a statement. 

Originally published at 9:45 a.m. PT.
Updated at 11 a.m. PT: With Android details. 

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