Push a button and read a poem in Hyderabad. A vending machine that dispenses stories, fables, facts, and puzzles is all set to make its debut at the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) at Vidyaranya High School from January 27 to 29.
Called the Story Box, this four-foot tall cherry orange machine made of metal is customised to print free information on HLF’s multiple activities across 13 streams as well as short, curated literary content. “Students call it an ATM of literature,” smiles Aparna Vishwanatham seated next to a Story Box at DoScience, an experiential Science centre, in Sanjeevaiah Park.
The building process
The idea germinated in December 2019 when the team considered acquiring and setting up France’s Story Machine — a story-vending machine — at DoScience.
It was not easy though as importing it would be expensive. With no blueprint to work on, the team worked through an iterative process to create Story Box. “In terms of the final output and the interface, we don’t even know what’s inside the Story Machine. We only knew that it prints at the press of a button. We started from scratch; our only aim was to print stories in English, Telugu and Hindi.”
The two years of the pandemic gave them time to build a technical team (coding, hardware, and design) and connect with vendors to fabricate it in Hyderabad. With five editorial members including Aparna, the first product was tested at Vidyaranya High School in February 2021. “The school was encouraging because Story Box aligned with its spirit of reading,” she recalls. Big launch planned in November ’21 had to be shelved due to the third wave of the pandemic.
Undeterred, the team began to connect with schools in May 2022. Presently, 29 units of Story Box are present at schools such as Sanghamitra, Ganges Valley, Colonel’s, Venus, and Mumtaz. There is also one at Vivekananda Institute of Languages in Ramakrishna Math, the IT secretary Jayesh Ranjan’s office in the Secretariat, and a pilot for the Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University.
Focus on content
Aparna : “Ramakrishna Math is going with our regular content as they want students of languages to inculcate the reading habit whereas the Agricultural University wants its students to read up on the latest developments in the field of agriculture. We create content from their textbooks, various agriculture-focused websites, platforms and technologies.”
Content based on difficulty levels
Language and theme complexities are a few parameters to categorise the content, which is determined by the difficulty level and not reading duration.. “It is not age but our ability to read that defines the reading levels,” says Aparna.
The source of the content is created by the team from mostly published books, which is already out of copyright. “We have internal processes in place to ensure that we do not use anything that is currently under copyright, without explicit permission from the copyright owner,” she adds.
Library in a box
Made of strong, mild steel, the four-foot box (with only English content for now) comes with a stand and does not need any intervention from the user. With a simple, easy user interface one can choose from the type of content, sub-type or genre, difficulty level, books-in-parts, and puzzles. It runs through a direct power supply and paper rolls need to be changed once in a while. Content is free to be used and is supervised by teachers in schools
A click on a story/poem in the menu will give users a choice from various levels — Very easy (corresponding to five to seven years), Easy (seven to 10 years), Medium (12 years onwards), High, (13 years onwards) and Very high (16 years onwards). The idea of keeping the content short is to attract wider readership. “Reading a 100-page book can be intimidating for some, a short fable on a strip of paper will have more takers.”
Won’t these strips of paper create paper waste? “We want the children to read and not on a screen. In a country like ours, with huge economic disparities, gadgets are not available to all ; and reading on paper is much better for comprehension than from a digital screen.”While paper with some content is recycled, the substantial ones can be circulated among friends and family members.”
Aparna informs that 70,000 strips of paper have been printed till now across their story boxes. “We are one step towards encouraging people to indulge in five minutes of undistracted, focused reading across all age groups.”
Priced at ₹70,000, the Story Box, available across Hyderabad, can be dispatched to other cities on request. For details, call 91772 02202.