Experts
22 . 03 . 18

Paper hacks, print’s fourth dimension and capturing feelings

Words by: Mark Hooper
Creative scientist Kate Stone is developing an innovative toolkit for immersive yet nostalgic experiences
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Image by Natalie Thery (natalietheryrf@gmail.com)

At a glance:

  • Use existing technology to create experiences that have never been seen before
  • The platform, production processes and software tools are there – you just need imagination
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of nostalgia – or an object’s passage through time – when trying to connect with people

Kate Stone is on a mission. Her aim? To highlight the vital role paper and ink play in our electronic future.

Her company, Novalia, uses regular printing presses to manufacture interactive electronics combining touch-sensitive ink technology with printed circuits. On paper, that all sounds very impressive – but for Stone, it just doesn’t tell the story effectively enough.

“It’s like describing a magic trick: it’s so much easier to show what we do,” she says. “Ultimately, we want to create an experience – and if it was easy to describe, it wouldn’t be a very good experience. If we were to make a video [about it], I would rather just film people’s faces and reactions to it, rather than the thing itself.”

When you have an idea to sell, however, needs must.

Unlocking new experiences

Stone is passionate about communicating how existing print technology can be used to create something brand new, engaging and – crucially – cost-effective. “It’s about integrating the things that are already around us – and have been around for years,” she says. “For example, we might use the same sort of audio chip that’s been in a [McDonald’s] Happy Meal toy for years.”

The process is relatively simple. Carbon-conductive ink is printed onto a sticker or label. On one side is a printed graphic; on the other, a small circuit board. By touching the graphic, you connect the circuit. The result? Connected print.

So far, so Happy Meal. But the difference here is that the ink can be used as a conductor to send a signal via Bluetooth to a computer, or to activate an audio chip. The ultimate aim, Stone explains, is “to unlock some kind of experience that has never been seen before”.

What Stone and her team at Novalia have invented is not a new product per se, but rather a new possibility. “I get asked a lot: ‘If you could create one product, what would it be?’” she says. “But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to create a platform – a toolkit and production processes that can be licensed by anyone, and software tools that are easier to use than a social-media app.”

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Sparking the imagination

Stone is determined to inspire anyone with the imagination to pick up the baton – from advertisers and marketers to publishers and producers – and find a use for her technology that works best for them. She admits it’s a big challenge: people need an initial spark of inspiration in order to make those imaginative decisions. “And that’s down to us,” she adds.

So, having established that Novalia isn’t in the business of creating products, the company decided the best way to showcase its work was… to create a product. Invited to deliver a TED Talk on her work, Stone was adamant she didn’t want to just discuss technology, but instead demonstrate its possibilities.

“I made a piece of paper into DJ decks, using Bluetooth,” she explains. The idea certainly caught people’s attention – but the long-tail result wasn’t quite what she had in mind.

“I thought it would make people think: ‘Wow, this is great, if you can do that, then you can do this…’ Well, that’s not quite what happened. Instead, everybody wanted DJ decks!”

This led to Novalia designing a sleeve for DJ Q-Bert’s Extraterrestria album that featured a DJ controller embedded in it. (Stone notes with a certain amount of pride that although she’s no musician herself, “I can say I’ve been sampled by Mark Ronson – when he did his TED Talk, he sampled my TED Talk!”)

Tapping into the fourth dimension

What is perhaps most remarkable about Novalia’s work is that it puts print front and centre in the search for technological innovation. “We’re not trying to do the obvious,” she says. “We don’t want to try to recreate a computer in a newspaper. The computer has already done quite well as a computer. What’s happening is technology is shrinking. A computer used to fill a room, then it filled our desk, then it filled our lap, and now it fills the palm of our hand. So, the destiny of the computer is to disappear. The technology will become so small that all we will be left with is our experiences: the technology will be inside the objects.”

This is the future that Stone envisages: one in which the computer doesn’t replace paper, but rather paper replaces the computer. Or, to be more exact, the computer is in the paper. She makes the point that, while many fantasise about a technological future that looks like Minority Report (or indeed The Jetsons), this isn’t borne out by experience. “We’re nostalgic about the past. And so, as we go forward, we actually recreate our spaces to look old-fashioned, because it gives us a sense of relevance,” she says.

The fact that we’re human and live in a physical, three-dimensional world is massively misunderstood, she says. And so is a physical object’s “fourth dimension”: its passage through time.

“This conveys a lot of information: if a child is reading an old book their grandparents once owned, they feel that weight of years gone by,” she says. “I want to be able to capture that feeling through this integration between print and digital.”  

When you combine this sense of nostalgia with the ever-shrinking size of technology, Stone says, you start to glimpse a future that looks more like the past than the present. As an example, she cites how bars and restaurants use candles to evoke a certain mood when electricity is readily available. Or, for a more apt example, how print still points to the future.

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Putting diversity into design

“Print is literally all around us,” she points out. “It is the most pervasive human interface, and print production is not only in every single town and city – it’s the only manufacturing process that’s in everyone’s home. I bet right now you can see more print around you than you can see digital devices.”

The fact that we have the means of production at hand, with a ready audience that’s receptive to print, makes it a no-brainer for Stone. And unlike the exorbitant tooling costs for producing products in plastic or other comparative materials, print is a cost-effective, versatile and democratic medium.

“You can do a print run of one or a million, and you can change things so they are just how you want them,” she says. “We can put diversity into design and manufacturing by following the print model. And that’s something I’m really passionate about, because diversity saves us from extinction.”

Next up for Novalia? A piano keyboard on the cover of a notebook. The Playable Book links with GarageBand and other music apps as a MIDI controller, so you can play musical notes as you’re taking written notes. “We’re trying to think about the whole experience someone might have. We want the detail and the creative thinking to totally outshine the technology,” Stone explains.

Novalia is also working on a platform that will enable people to connect with smart-home devices. “But what would that mean? What would that be?” she asks.

That, she concludes, is up to you: “A lot of it comes from a philosophical rather than a technological point of view. I’m not interested in arrogantly telling the whole world they want the one thing that I’ve made: I want to create a platform and let other people decide.”

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