Eric Carle passed away in May at the age of 91. This story first ran on the App Store in 2017.
When you think cutting-edge technology, an 88-year-old children’s book author—sporting a cropped white beard and knitted cardigan, no less—doesn’t immediately come to mind. But the augmented reality app My Very Hungry Caterpillar AR catapults Eric Carle to the forefront of the field.
“I could never have imagined anything like this,” Carle says as he uses an iPad to watch the creature he created half a century ago squirm its way across the wooden table in front of him. “It’s crazy.”
Although he didn’t touch a line of code (that was handled by Dublin-based developer StoryToys), every illustration in the app—from the caterpillar’s plump body to the shiny red apples and towering trees—began with Carle’s hand. StoryToys started by scanning his painted pages, then worked their digital magic to create subtle shadowing effects and smooth-flowing graphics.
Like other AR apps, My Very Hungry Caterpillar AR uses the camera and sensors on newer iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch models to place digitally rendered images on real-world objects that you view on your device’s screen.
Launch the app, point the camera toward a brightly lit, uncluttered surface, and up pops the iconic caterpillar and a few apple trees. Tapping the trees shakes the fruit loose so the caterpillar can feast. With enough food and rest, it soon turns into a butterfly that flutters toward the ceiling of your room.
Carle has written and illustrated more than 70 titles over the past 50 years (with a staggering 140 million copies sold), continuing to break ground along the way. In his first children’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), he superimposed his colorful collages on stark-white backgrounds—a radical departure from the cartoony norm of the day. (Carle still makes collages as he did then: by hand-painting paper, cutting it into shapes, and then layering them.)
Over his storied career, Carle kept innovating. When The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published in 1969, it was among the first books to feature pages with die-cut holes. “No manufacturers in America could handle making that book at the time, because of the holes and all the different greens and reds,” he says. “We had to go to Japan.”
For The Very Busy Spider (1984), he used glossy acrylic ink to capture the silkiness of a spider’s web. Button cell batteries powered the speaker that played the musical chirps in The Very Quiet Cricket (1990), and enabled the twinkling lights embedded in the pages of The Very Lonely Firefly (1995).
As for his drive to experiment, Carle credits the artists who inspired him when he was a child. In elementary school, an art teacher, noticing Carle’s talent, secretly showed him artwork that was banned at the time in Nazi Germany: “Franz Marc, Picasso, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger—a lot of the modern artists of the time, the surrealists, the expressionists, the impressionists,” Carle recalls. Those artists, he explained, challenged themselves and their peers by embracing new mediums—which is in part why Carle has made paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media projects throughout his career (many of which have never been seen by or sold to the public).
When asked about his legacy of innovation, Carle insists he never intended to be groundbreaking.
“You say innovation, but I really just like to make art and tell stories in any way I can, whether that’s painting or drawing or sculptures or cutting things up,” he says. “The idea for the caterpillar came from me playing with one of these.” He picks up a hole punch from his desk and shakes it in the air.
“Really I was just wasting time when I was doing that,” he says. “But when an idea comes, it’s always fun to see what’s possible.”