Steady your heart: web-connected paper is on its way

Steady your heart: web-connected paper is on its way

Interactive paper? Mind blown. This research project, led by Surrey University, has industry-changing potential...

The pitch

The 'Next generation paper' project aims to use augmented reality and printed electronics to connect paper to the web, in what the team call second generation (2G) and third generation paper (3G). If today’s ordinary paper is considered first generation (1G) paper, then 2G paper will be optically recognised with a camera, triggering associated digital information to be played or displayed on a nearby device. 3G paper will dispense with the camera and contain tiny sensors printed or embedded in the fibres of the paper itself. In this way, paper documents and books could have hotlinks to webpages, audio, video clips and so on, that could play on speakers or screens around them. 

The project is funded by the Digital Economy programme administered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and will start on the 1st October 2017 for 30 months. The project proposal was in response to a call on ‘Content creation and consumption in the digital economy’ and aims to create new technology and business opportunities in the publishing and tourism industries. 

The team

The project is being led by Prof David Frohlich, the director of the Digital World Research Centre, who specialises in interaction design. 

"The project is a research rather than a development activity, but we hope it will lead to new augmented paper products through commercialisation of our findings," he says. "The team will be looking at how this could change and connect the use of paper and screen-based information in tourism, where tourist brochures and guides already co-exist with mobile apps, digital photography and online booking systems. A key feature of the project is that it will be investigating new business models for next generation paper, alongside building and testing the technology itself." 

Examples of audio-augmented photobooks David Frohlich has already worked on.

Frohlich's core academic team represents six different disciplines: Prof Caroline Scarles from Tourism Research at the School of Hospitality and Tourism; Prof Mirek Bober from Computer Science at the Centre for Vision Speech & Signal Processing (CVSSP); Dr Radu Sporea from Electronic Engineering at the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI); Prof Alan Brown from Business Inovation at Surrey Centre for the Digital Economy (CODE) and Dr George Revill from Social Geography at the Department of Geography, Open University. Each academic will have a post-doctoral research fellow working for them on project activities at some point within the 30-month project.

In addition, the team has nine industry partners steering the work to make it relevant to their businesses, and to commercialise elements of it that are useful to them: Bradt Travel Guides; Emirates Holidays UK; HP; Visual Atoms; Librios Web Publishing; VTT; Otava Publishing Company; Ifolor Photo Printing; and Novacentrix.

What's the gap in the market?

"People are currently reading information from both paper and screen-based surfaces," Frohlich explains. "Paper is cheap, tangible, and aesthetically attractive while screen-based information can be multimedia, interconnected, updatable, actionable.  There is an opportunity to connect these two forms of information so that paper can become an index and interface to the digital.

"We are already familiar with the connection from screen-to-paper in the form of printing. Well, next generation paper can support a kind of amplified ‘scanning’ from paper-to-screen, not just capturing printed information but also using it to fetch other information. We are looking initially at the market opportunity of augmenting travel books and printed travel records with multimedia and other information, including social media logs and reviews.  However, such an approach could be applied to any domain where paper and screen-based information co-exist."       

The relevance for the book trade in all its guises is clear.

Radu Sporea, George Revill, Caroline Scarles, Mirek Bober, David Frohlich

Success so far?

As the project is starting in October, the team has nothing to report so far. "However, we are building on 26 years of research prototypes on augmented paper dating back to Wellner’s (1991) digital desk," Frohlich asserts, "some of which were created by members of our research consortium."

Greatest challenges?

The idea of next gen paper is incredibly exciting, but the team are keen to get one tangible product to market as soon as possible. "Because the possible applications of the technology are very wide, we need to remain focused on a very cheap and simple implementation for one domain, that scales in its application to other domains," Frohlich says. "This is why we have chosen the single domain of tourism in which to develop and test the technology, alongside a business investigation that considers other domains.     

Ultimate ambition?

To keep paper at the heart of human communication and entertainment. "We would like to develop a common framework for both 2G and 3G paper, that allows publishers to augment print products and services in a future-proof way," Frohlich reports. "We aim to work with multimedia standards bodies to make paper interfaces a part of our multimedia experiences of the future."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Think big. Publishing is at a crossroads, which creates an opportunity for new ways of thinking about how we create and consume information in different forms."