Currently, the project is exploring how this could connect the use of paper and screen-based information in tourism, where brochures and guides already co-exist with mobile apps, digital photography and online booking systems. The opportunities are virtually limitless, with multiple industries ideally placed to benefit from this approach – interactive textbooks in education; patient records in healthcare; music and entertainment; cultural interpretation in museums and galleries. All are real and practical possibilities.
“Everything’s getting closer, and there’s a co-existent connection between paper and technology,” explains Professor Frohlich. “So we’re trying to get away from the idea of paper versus screen; instead, putting paper and screen into the same product is the obvious next step.”
"You don’t expect a book to sing or show you a video. There is something truly magical about it."
“Screens are preferred because they are ubiquitous now, but in the future, user interfaces may move away from touch screens,” says Dr Radu Sporea from the Advanced Technology Institute, who was part of the project team. “Print may have new uses when that happens.”
As Professor Frohlich explains it, 2G paper is optically recognised with a camera, triggering associated digital information to be played or displayed on a nearby device. Meanwhile, 3G paper dispenses with the camera altogether and contains tiny sensors printed or embedded in the fibres of the paper itself. This will trigger the same kind of associations around it.
“Essentially, you’re taking a typically static object, such as a book, and allowing it to interact with the world, and with other devices around it,” says Frohlich. “I believe augmented paper will be a commercial reality within three to five years. 2G will come first, and 3G will follow. Touch-sensitive paper, with hotlinks, is our holy grail: as soon as you know exactly where people are touching and pointing in a book, you can start to instrument the entire surface. At the moment, we have a shifting interface between the book and the smartphone. But, in future, the objective is to put the whole interface within the printed book.”
The project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of the UK government’s commitment to developing the digital economy. The end result is an augmented guidebook, or a-book, to Cornwall, with extra pictures, videos and interviews – it was released as an experimental demo in early 2019, in association with Bradt Travel Guides.
Despite the freedoms offered by the digital interface, Professor Frohlich remains passionate about paper. “There is potentially so much distraction associated with the digital experience,” he observes. “Paper products, such as books and magazines, are often actively chosen to escape from social media because paper will never interrupt you. Even our product has to be manually initiated to obtain the additional information. We’re trying to design a new kind of reading behaviour involving paper and screen and, in doing so, we hope to make media tangible again. You don’t expect a book or magazine to sing or show you a video, and there is something truly magical about that.”