What the papers say

Printed circuitry, conductive inks and the development of bespoke hardware are turning print into an interactive medium. Pete Thomas explains the potential of Paper Electronics and Printed Apps

I love print. I love the way it feels and smells, I love the quality of ink on a page and the subtleties that different stocks and processes bring to words and images and, in turn, how that is interpreted. The physicality of print engages more senses than screen-based media. We process printed media differently and the very action of having to turn a page, unroll a poster or open an envelope makes print rich and memorable. It imparts permanence.

Over the last few years however, the picture painted of the future of print has been fairly glum. The growth in smartphone ownership, e-readers and tablets and our increasing expectations of a content-rich, ubiquitous internet have seen a clear and dramatic year-on-year increase in spend on eBooks and digital magazines, a decline in advertising spend across print media, and print titles folding or becoming digital only.

This transition is just another in a media landscape that’s been reinventing itself since its inception and doesn’t herald the end of print, but it does demand a re-evaluation of the role of printed media in a multi-platform, digital society. The boundary lines are starting to be drawn. On one side, print, whether cheap or expensive, offers permanence, cherishability and a singular voice. On the other side, digital is all about dynamism, connectivity, co-creation and conversation. But what if you could bring the two together?

At Uniform, we’ve been working with a group of designers, technologists and researchers to explore the nascent field of Paper Electronics and in particular the development of Paper Apps. These are devices that enable people to interact with digital data, information and services but they’re made from paper and conductive inks.

An example would be our Listening Post poster. Developed with Cambridge printed electronics specialists, Novalia, this prototype demonstrates some of the potential for the technology. Like a traditional listings poster, The Listening Post highlights recommendations for gigs in your area each month. Users can press on the poster to hear a sample of each artist’s music. The reverse of the poster is screenprinted with conductive silver ink that links to Novalia’s proprietary hardware, which is small and light enough to be attached to the poster directly. Connecting the poster to cloud content such as Spotify would enable dynamic content that could be updated: users could subscribe to a service that could provide suggestions based around their tastes, allow them to share recommendations and enable the purchasing of both tracks and tickets.

This is just one plausible scenario. By connecting paper to the internet, Paper Apps could be considered to be part of the much-hyped ‘Internet of Things’, however it’s a relationship which rankles with Jon Rogers, a leading design researcher in the field from the University of Dundee: “The Internet of Things is a phrase I really don’t get on with. It sounds like organised fun. A practical term that explains something but not something I want to do. It surrenders us to our addiction to the screen and it locks us in a mindset of different internets. There is one internet. It is a back-end, not a front-end.”

On this basis, rather than think of Paper Apps as part of ‘An Internet of Things’ we should think of them as conduits to ‘the internet’, a platform that enables people to experience the internet beyond the screen.

If you consider the possibilities of traditional print: the different processes and finishes, the ease of production and the distribution of printers around the world, and then imagine this as a gateway to web 2.0 services and information you get an idea of the possibilities.

One of the leading proponents of Paper Electronics is Bare Conductive, an East London startup that develops and manufactures conductive materials. Co-founder and ex RCA graduate Matt Johnson describes their conductive paint as “paintable wire” but as he is quick to point out, this is a gross simplification: “We see what we do as a platform for interaction,” he says. “Anything that can be painted can have some sort of electrical life.”

Bare Conductive is spearheading a DIY approach to Paper Electronics, which reflects the current broader trend towards hacking and popular electronics, but the possibilities for the medium are much broader, as Johnson explains: “We are all certainly on the cusp of something new. In industry, printed electronics is a well-worn idea, as it has been used for years to make low-cost electronics. Traditionally printed electronics has been about high precision, repeatability and industrial processes. Paper Electronics is about precision when you need it, repeatability when you want it and accessibility to a wide range of users. This attitude means that Paper Electronics can include a talking poster, a Paperduino, a noisemaker toy, an interactive book or a precise sensor.”

Paper Electronics offers an appealing mix of craft on the one hand and industry on the other, underpinned by existing print production methods such as screen, litho or flexi printing. As such, much of the infrastructure for the commercialisation of Paper Electronics is already in place.

Just as with traditional print, Paper Electronics raises issues around sustainability. Even if we can create large volume runs of Paper Electronics, should we? How easy would they be to recycle? In this context, the greater challenge for designers is not in the emergent nature of the technology, but in understanding when and how a paper-based interface adds significant value to the user experience.

Mike Shorter, a digital designer at the University of Dundee is considering the implications of this emerging technology for designers: “It’s a very interesting space to create digital interactions, due to both the pervasiveness of print and paper’s interesting varied value,” he argues. “Paper is everywhere but can be considered worthless or priceless depending on its content and context. To add meaningful digital interactions and considered behaviours to paper we need to understand and interpret how people currently interact with it: they frame it, fold it, crumple it, tear it. From this we can try and create new digital interactions.”

If Paper Electronics offers a new platform for engaging with data and the internet, then inevitably it will define a new language, a new aesthetic that enables this interaction. As Rogers says: “No-one has ever had to ask how to switch a piece of paper on, how to control the volume of a newspaper or how to make an induction loop for a postcard. To some degree, the technology will define different aesthetics – what we are doing with Novalia has a very different visual to what we are doing with Bare – a bit like the way Processing gives a different visual to Director or Flash.”

Johnson agrees that in the short-term the aesthetic of Paper Electronics is “technically self-referential” but is optimistic about the future of the medium: “I hope that we will quickly move to the phase of development where the interaction becomes the most important part of the work and I think it’s at this point where we will see an explosion of outputs,” he claims. “But we won’t get to this second phase unless a large number of people from different disciplines can ‘play’ with electronics as they would with papercraft. We will look back in 20 years and see that Paper Electronics was the next major revolution in consumer technology after home printing moved from 2D to 3D.”

Our current screen-based interfaces are reductive – a singular way to experience a vast variety of media and information. The future will be not be neat like this. Paper Apps are forerunners to a maximalist internet, where we can pick and choose the kind of interactions we want to have with data, services and each other and the objects that will deliver these.

Combining paper and conductive inks with open source digital tools like Arduino creates a powerful, accessible platform to experiment and offers an enormous opportunity to redefine and craft the medium through which we engage with digital data. By doing so we can make bespoke, more personal internet experiences. For Rogers this represents a fundamental shift in the way we interact with digital data: “We use apps to play in and manage our world – but when we make apps we start to control our world. Paper is the basis of our creative world. While we will publically blog what we want people to know, we scribble our innermost thoughts in our paper diaries. We do this because we trust paper. It is at the heart of what makes us human.”

Pete Thomas is a founder and futures director of the creative agency Uniform (uniform.net). You can follow his tweets @petepigeon.


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