A few months ago I was introduced to a system for building Android apps for Scripture Engagement that was being developed by a colleague working in West Africa. It takes the scripture text and audio that we already have and bundles it together into something that really is equal to more than the sum of the parts. I have been privileged to be part of the alpha testing and wanted to share with you why I am so excited about this project.
Let’s start out with an overview of what the Scripture App Builder does. The builder is a Java program installed on my computer that I use to bring all of the needed files together. The first files I add are from the Paratext project or the Digital Bible Library. I then add the appropriate fonts to make sure that any special characters display correctly and any images that are needed for the app icon and splash screen. Finally I can add the audio scripture and associated timing files before building the app. The whole process goes rather quickly and the end result is a very powerful app.
As I mentioned above, the text is coming directly from Paratext files. They are not converted, but are copied directly into the app and used natively. That means that the features built into the Paratext files are available in the app. This includes the obvious like being able to select the appropriate book and chapter and having each verse number marked. But it also includes features like cross references, footnotes and glossary references. Search is also fast because it is working against the raw Paratext files.
The app can also be localized for the people group that it is intended for. That starts with the app icon and splash screen. There are some situations where it is more appropriate to draw attention to it as a Bible than in others. There are also three default color schemes that can be used (red, green, & blue), but every item within the app can be recolored to fit the culture. Even features like search have been localized with the ability to add buttons for special characters that are not normally on an Android keyboard. The user interface navigation within the app can be translated so that people will not need to know another language just to interact with it.
The feature I am most excited about is being able to include the audio right along with the text. In it’s simplest form, an audio recording can be attached to each chapter. However, by including a timing file, a lot gets added. Each verse and section heading is highlighted as the audio plays. The user can also skip forward and back by verse or section. This gives the user much more control over which part of the text they listen to and allows them to follow along. The implications for literacy are incredible! (The second half of the video below demonstrates this feature.)
The app is not just limited to scripture. Anything that can be put into USFM format can also be included. Some ideas that have been mentioned so far are related materials like scripture songs, the Lord’s Prayer, and statements of faith like the Apostle’s Creed.
Q: Once the app has been built, how can I distribute it to others?
A: You can start distributing it right away via Bluetooth or microSD card to people around you. It can also be made available through a website, by email and even the Google Play Store.
Q: Will people need internet access to use the app?
A: No. Everything can be packaged inside of the app, meaning that it will need no additional permissions like internet or file system access. However, that may change depending on how you handle the audio files (see further down).
Q: Do I have to split up my audio files by verse to make the advanced audio controls works?
A: No. Audacity, a free audio editor, can be used to create timing files which are then included in the app. It is not difficult to do, but will take a lot of time.
Q: Audio files can get large. Can they all fit in the app package?
A: There are actually a number of ways to include the audio files. Which one you choose will depend on what works best for your distribution methods.
- The audio files can all be included in the app package. This makes distribution easier because everything you need is in one file. However, if you distribute via the Google Play Store, the package file is limited to 50 MB.
- An extension file can be used alongside the app package. This can be up to 2 GB so should handle the audio for most scripture apps.
- An external folder can be used, such as a microSD card. This requires additional permissions for the app, but may simplify distribution. One possibility is to distribute a microSD card that has the audio scripture files and the app. Feature phones could still use the audio files and Android phones would get the added benefit of the full app with text and advanced audio controls.
- If Internet access is not a problem, the audio files could be hosted online and the user could download them. Again, additional permissions would be required.
Q: Since the raw Paratext files are included, can somebody access them by unpackaging the app?
A: It would be very difficult. The Paratext files are encrypted when the app package is built so that others cannot extract them to use for other purposes.
Q: Android has problems displaying my text because it is a complex script. Can I still use this app?
A: Hopefully. Each version of Android seems to fix some issues with complex scripts while at the same time breaking others. The Non Roman Script Initiative (NRSI) has developed a system called Grandroid that brings Graphite font rendering to Android. The app builder provides an option to use Grandroid.
Q: When will the Scripture App Builder be available?
A: The system is currently in an Alpha version, meaning that more features are still being added and a lot of bugs are expected to still be found. It will hopefully soon move into Beta meaning it will be a bit more stable and feature complete. The current plan is for a full release around November 2014.
Q: Is it only for Android, or is there a version that works on iPhone and Windows phones?
A: To make an app work well, it is best to write it in native code. The user interface code is very Android-specific, so it would need to be rewritten for other platforms. Android was chosen first since it has such a large portion of the smart phone market.
Q: What can I do now to prepare for the full release of the Scripture App Builder?
A: The first and most important thing is to make sure that you have the rights to distribute the text and audio. Determine who currently holds the copyrights and begin a dialogue about how this app fits into their distribution plans. You can also make sure that you have run the checks on your Paratext project and that it fully conforms to the USFM standard.