Light reading

Senior Features Writer

It’s probably a fair assumption that readers of The Engineer are avid consumers of information and news. And as such we are all at various stages of flux in our ‘digital lifestyles’ – that is, in the technologies we use to consume that information.

Some will still no doubt still prefer paper most of the time, occasionally dipping into the online versions of their chosen titles for top-ups; while others will considers themselves true pioneers by adopting the latest digital viewing devices.  

What we can say with near certainty is that these devices will be viewed in the not too distant future as technological ‘missing links’ (to borrow a term from evolutionary biology normally used to refer to transitional fossils). Yes, things like the iPad and Kindle are proving incredibly popular, but they are rather strange things when you break them down. The former is undoubtedly an impressive and powerful bit of kit, but tries to be everything to everyone and falls very much short of being truly absorbing, enjoyable reading experience. The latter, meanwhile, is a one trick pony addressing issues of screen glare but not doing a lot else.

Now we’ve been promised alternatives before with flexible, newspaper-like plastic electronic devices, but due to technological shortcomings, or just failing to define who they were really for, they have not made it anywhere near to market.

However a new collaborative project is taking a very different approach to addressing our digital lifestyle needs by focusing on how technology is actually used.

The Interactive Newsprint project is led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN’s) renowned School of Journalism, Media and Communication with Cambridge University spin-out Novalia as industrial partners and public funding from the Digital Economy Programme.

They have created what they claim is the ‘world’s first internet-enabled newspaper’ using Novalia’s proprietary Interactive Printed Media (IPM) technology.

The aim is to work with journalists, electronic engineers and most importantly readers in the local community to address how best to deliver content through this platform.

While the project is pointedly not simply about dazzling people with technology, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the specs.

Printed electronics is a technology for fabricating electronic devices on materials such as paper, plastic, and textiles using electrically functional inks in combination with standard printing processes such as screen printing, offset lithography, and ink-jet printing.

Headline applications include TV screens printed into the wallpaper, touch-sensitive shop displays, and food and drug packaging that monitors the temperature of its contents and shifts the sell-by date accordingly for example.

It’s an area where the UK has particular expertise with research hubs such as Swansea University’s Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating. (The question, as ever, is how to commercialise the technology and get Britain’s 15,000-odd printers onboard before industrial giants like Germany’s BASF can steal a march … but that’s a different story).

The device used in the current project is a flexible paper-based product that has the ability to download text and simple images. It uses capacitive e-inks allowing touch navigation gestures. There are also ambitions to include certain digital devices such as microphones. (I’ll hopefully be examining the technology claims more closely in a news article soon).

Using this technology platform the team has been working on the project for several months now testing demonstrators in both a lab and field setting to explore new forms of ‘digital storytelling’ and effective ways of connecting communities to the content they’re most interested in.

While understandably details are sketchy given the ongoing nature of the project, some ideas include notice board display or picture frame containing active paper to which community club members could broadcast news in short SMS text messages and voicemails.

Meanwhile experiments with audio could include the ability to listen to the newspaper being read in local Lancashire accents.

‘We’re not just inheriting an ipad and being told we need to use it in this way or that way — we’re actually able to shape that some of that process and that useability,’ Paul Egglestone, Digital Co-ordinator at UCLAN told The Engineer.

‘Within our community-based workshops they write down their ideas, in a participatory design process, and we go away and try and work out the essence of what they want and deliver the best of that. We’re trying to avoid the kind of relationship where we go back to them say: “That’s all great, and we heard everything you wanted, but actually we’ve got this great platform and it does all this even better”.’

Clearly there’s a need here since local print newspapers are in their death throes, and despite some valiant efforts by entrepreneurial journalists to set up ‘hyperlocal’ websites, online offerings are pretty awful. And of course this also applies not just to local news and information but niche communities in the science and engineering.

While I think the project is heading in the right direction by addressing users’ needs, ultimately I don’t think it will deliver a silver bullet device that will slay the hegemony of the iPad and Kindle. What it could do, though, is provide a valuable body of work to draw upon when it comes to designing the next generation of devices, whatever they might be, and deciding what technology might be worth perusing and what is likely to be a dead end.

‘What I’d love to see in a few years time is a community that’s able to work with their local printer — because we know we can print all this e-ink using standard offset litho printing — that there’s somebody to programme the level of interactivity, and there are community reporters that can create the right content and there you have a new business model,’ said Egglestone.