Brave New Paper World – Low-Cost Interactive Abilities Open New Opportunities for Paper Usage

How do you combine the advantages of a traditional piece of paper with those of the digital world? You enable normal paper to act like a touchscreen – at affordable pricing. That is what researchers at Carnegie Mellin University did.

Around the beginning of the computer age in the 1970s, forecasts stated the decline of the paper industry and speculations about a paper-less future emerged. Nevertheless, global paper consumption has instead continued to grow since then. More than 40 years later, paper still plays a major role in our everyday lives. It is used in a broad range of products from newspapers and calendars, food packaging and exam documents to notepads and post-it notes. Indeed, paper is a convenient, low-cost, high-contrast and durable means to transport and view information.

However, when it comes to convenience, there is one major disadvantage in the usage of paper: It does not offer any kind of interactivity. There is no direct and quick possibility to rate articles or share them on social media, for instance. Therefore, users are much less likely to engage deeply with printed media than with digital media.

Closing the Gap Between the Passive Paper World and the Interactive Digital World

In order to overcome this shortage, Yang Zhang and Chris Harrison, researchers at Carnegie Mellin University’s Human Computer Interaction Institute in Pennsylvania (USA), addressed themselves to the task of expanding the functionality of ordinary paper while keeping the production costs on low level.

The researchers’ goal was to enable paper to track touch input as well as drawn input from writing implements. At the same time they wanted to preserve the advantages of normal paper, i.e. they did not want to replace but to augment paper and thus preserve its convenient, low-cost and disposable character.

How Do You Teach a Normal Piece of Paper Touchscreen Abilities?

The researchers’ technical approach is based on sensing through electric field tomography (EFT) which is built upon electric field sensing (EFS). At a high level, this leverages the shunting effect, where a well-grounded object, such as a user’s finger, will draw a fraction of the current from the electric field to ground.

For the manufacturing process, a normal piece of paper is provided with a conductive material on the back. The liquid substance may be applied, for instance, by spraying or offset printing. It is also possible to connect a film to the paper. The current price per sheet amounts to 0.3 US-Dollar, but the researchers hold out that costs could be further reduced by mass production. There are no limits to the paper size; even entire paper rolls can be equipped with the conductive material before they are cut to the requested size.

By means of a small clamp the paper sheet is connected to a board that can transmit the sensing signals to a computer. Not only does this technique work with the classic pen on a piece of paper. Also fingers are identified so that the surface can then be used as a kind of touchscreen.

Interactive Newspapers, Live Feedback in Written Exercises or Automatically Digitised Notes as Sample Applications

Zhang and Harrison have created a series of example applications to illustrate the feasibility and potential utility of their technique. Although online media increasingly outdo classical print media, newspapers, magazines and other printed materials are still read by millions today. With this new technique, it will be possible to integrate printed “buttons” allowing readers to rate articles, share stories on social media, add items to a digital reading list or launch content on accessory devices.

In the field of education, the researchers created an interactive math exercise containing both multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank written answers. By means of the interactive paper, the exercise could be graded in real-time and offered live instructional feedback. Another scope is the digitisation of written notes on notepads, easels or post-its. Who would not appreciate the opportunity to automatically digitise quickly written notes for a later recall or transmission to others?

Would you appreciate the opportunities interactive paper offers? And what do you think would be the field of application in which the use of papers with touch functionality would be most sensible? We would love to have your comments on this.