Last month Apple announced iBooks 2, the next generation of its e-book app for iPhone and iPad. iBooks 2 was notable for the launch of a new breed of interactive digital textbooks, designed for the iPad. The books feature videos, photos, diagrams, rotating 3D objects, “Study Cards” for notes and highlights, and more. Among the first iBook 2 offerings is a free preview of a new book by famed biologist E.O. Wilson, called Life on Earth. It’s an intriguing glimpse into the future of textbooks.

Life on Earth is a digital biology textbook for high school students. It’s currently “under development” (it isn’t being written, it’s being developed) by the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The free download offers a preview of the book and a sample chapter about ecology. New chapters will be “released” (not published) over the next 2 years to the Apple iBookstore.

After a brief introductory video by Wilson, the colorful textbook opens. It’s best viewed in landscape mode, where the photos and animations are larger and more vivid. Viewing it in portrait mode creates a more streamlined version, which is less colorful but can be read quicker.

The animations are probably the most impressive thing about Wilson’s iBook. Using a variety of swipe and tap gestures, students can explore how things like cells and DNA work.

The videos are typically short, 1-2 minutes long. So while they interrupt the flow of reading a textbook, they don’t distract for too long.

The “Study Cards” feature allows students to make notes and highlights. Students are also prompted to do pop quizzes. However, as Ars Technica pointed out in its review, there is limited sharing with third party apps like Dropbox and Evernote.

Publishers can create this new type of iPad textbook through a separate iOS app called iBooks Author. The big benefit of e-textbook projects like this is that the book can be constantly updated and new versions are released through the App Store. Life on Earth is a 2-year development process, but after that it will be ongoing iterations as new scientific discoveries come to light.

There are some downsides to projects such as Wilson’s iBook. They’re costly to both produce and consume. For producers, the animation and video effects don’t come cheap. For consumers – in this case students – iPads are expensive and many schools can’t afford them.

Regardless, this is an impressive iBook preview by the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Encouraging kids to interact with their textbooks and follow scientific process through animations and video is a great way to engage young minds.

Textbooks have evolved, it’s as simple as that.