Stories Leap Into 3D with 'Augmented Reality' Coloring Books

The new Disney coloring book app.
The new Disney augmented coloring app creates a 3D character to mirror whatever character you're coloring at the moment. (Image credit: Screenshot, Disney Research on YouTube)

Have you ever wished that the characters in your coloring book could come alive — leap from the page and dance around, perhaps? Well, good news: There's an app for that.

Developed by the tech nerds over at Disney Research (a network of laboratories affiliated with the Walt Disney Company), the new coloring book app turns your doodles into virtual, 3D figures that move around on screen like cartoon characters.

Here's how it works: You color in one of the characters inside a regular (but app-compatible) coloring book and launch the Disney coloring app on your phone or tablet. The app accesses the device's camera and uses it to detect which character you are coloring. Then the app uses special software to re-create the two-dimensional coloring-book character as a 3D character on the device's screen. As you color with your crayon, the app applies the same color you're using on the page to the 3D character. [The Cool Physics of 7 Classic Toys]

The app isn't meant to replace the low-tech practice of putting crayon to paper; it's only meant to "enhance engagement" with this treasured pastime by offering a "magical digital overlay" to accompany the act of coloring, Disney said.

"Augmented reality holds unique and promising potential to bridge between real-world activities and digital experiences, allowing users to engage their imagination and boost their creativity," Robert Sumner, principal research scientist at Disney Research, said in a statement.

Turning a coloring-book character into a cartoon was not an easy task, especially since virtual characters are 3D and the outlined characters in a coloring book lie flat against the page. Disney Research had to figure out what to do about all the 3D space (they call this space the "occluded areas") that exists on the screen but not inside the coloring book.

To fix this issue, the app uses a "lookup map" for each character. This map matches the pixels in the occluded areas with the corresponding areas that the user can actually see. For example, if you color the front of a character's head with a brown crayon, the app will automatically figure out what color might be appropriate for the back of the character's head (perhaps a darker hue, representing the character's hair).

Though the app certainly makes coloring a much more high-tech task, Disney said that, so far, it's gotten a good response from users. In the initial tests, the majority of users said the app increased their motivation to color. And 80 percent of trial users said the app increased their feeling of connection to a character, Disney said. 

However, all of the users who have tried out the new coloring-book app have been adults. It's still not clear whether this "augmented" coloring experience will go over well with kids.

Disney researchers, together with others who helped develop the app, presented the augmented reality coloring app at the recent the IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2015) in Fukuoka, Japan. The app already launched to the public earlier this year through Disney's publishing company, Disney Publishing Worldwide. Called "Disney Color and Play," the app is available on Google Play and iTunes.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.