Chennai: Do you remember watching Chitrahaar or Rangoli on Doordarshan with Hindi subtitles of the song’s lyrics displayed on your TV screen? The subtitles in the same language as that of the programme, coined as the same-language subtitling (SLS) feature, was conceived by Brij Kothari in 1996 while he was associate professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A). And that, in fact, led to the founding of BookBox in 2004.

“Can the reading experience get converted on TV and mobile phones?" This question led Kothari and others to start BookBox, a social venture producing content in the form of animated stories (AniBooks) for children, with the SLS feature, which are later offered on other digital platforms.

Though BookBox stories are primarily focused on reading skills’ development and language learning for all children; they also contain several features that help children with special needs—dyslexic, autistic and hearing impaired children. “When sufficient content has been created, BookBox will create TV programmes from AniBooks to feed both, the demand for literacy and language learning. TV is where BookBox’s benefit will be achieved, without compromising the need to make a sustainable profit," says Kothari, CEO and founder of Puducherry-based BookBox.

BookBox has been nominated for the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s mBillionth awards 2016.

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Kothari grew up in Puducherry, studied at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) and later went to Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IIT-K). The idea of using SLS for mass literacy was first conceived and researched in 1996 at IIM-A by Kothari, who holds a doctorate from Cornell University, with a specialization in education and development communication.

BookBox was born as a result of a student-driven competition, Social e-Challenge, at Stanford University. Kothari, who is an adjunct faculty at IIM-A (from 2004 to present), implemented the SLS through PlanetRead, a not-for-profit organization. Former US president Bill Clinton once called SLS, a “small thing that has a staggering impact on people’s lives."

BookBox focuses on two simple things: children like to watch cartoons and a viewer who watches video content with subtitles, will try to read along inescapably and automatically, assuming a passing familiarity with the script. “Subtitled animation is, therefore, more than entertainment. Reading skills are subconsciously reinforced as part of entertainment," says Kothari.

BookBox has so far produced around 50 AniBooks in over 40 languages and aims to create sufficient content to eventually launch TV programmes.

Challenges

According to Kothari, the main challenge is the non-availability of good Internet connectivity in rural areas. He adds that this is slowly changing and there are many groups doing interesting work in this area to develop Internet infrastructure.

A study by market researcher Nielsen found that only a quarter of Indian children become good readers at school. When exposed to just 30 minutes of subtitled film songs a week, that proportion doubles.

BookBox produces stories for children in languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi and 21 other languages. “It couldn’t be done just through printed books. Children’s books are necessary but ultimately limited option to transport the reading experience across the geographic spread and linguistic diversity of India, in a context of economic scarcity," says Kothari.

Also, for a variety of reasons, most children do not grow up reading, or being read to, children’s books. Many parents are not regular readers themselves. Even among reading parents, the value of every day reading to children, from infancy to school and even beyond, is not commonly known or shared, nor socially and culturally promoted. Printed children’s books are often not affordable or unavailable in one’s language. There is the challenge of production and distribution in the language of choice to families living on a very limited daily wages.

BookBox has started a project where the main goal is to integrate AniBooks into schools and lives of children in grades 1-3, or ages 6-10, to support the development of reading skills. “We will be working in select schools in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, in partnership with organizations that have the experience and infrastructure to distribute and deploy AniBooks on existing screens in schools and homes," says a spokesperson of the organization.

The organization has a 20-member full-time team and has raised funding from Atlanta-based First Light Ventures, an affiliate of Gray Ghost Ventures, an investment firm which funds entrepreneurs who develop sustainable, market-based solutions for low-income customers globally.

Future plans

India now has 900 million mobile users. Only 10% or 90 million have a smartphone; telecom company Ericsson predicts that the number of smartphone users will be around 520 million by 2020. By 2017, tablets are expected to command 63% of the PC (personal computer) market.

BookBox has already launched Android and iOS apps, which give free access to users. The organisation plans to develop more such Android apps using AniBook content in the required language mix and make it available on tablets for children in early grades. They feel that with the rapid growth of smartphones and tablets, the potential for scaling up is obvious.

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