‘Next Generation Paper’: Connecting paper to the Internet

What happens to paper in a Digital world? Is there an evolving role for this most ancient of media?

This was one of the key issues addressed recently in Book Industry Communication’s (BIC) seminar on ‘New Trends in Publishing’, focusing beyond the fads into genuine digital-world shifts, seismic changes, and ‘weak signals’ throughout the publishing industry. The conference addressed the role of books in conflict zones, GDPR compliance and how to get there, audio books edging into the mainstream, and ‘Next Generation Paper’, Surrey’s EPSRC grant-funded project using augmented reality and printed electronics to connect paper to the internet.

‘We don’t know how it will happen, or precisely when it will happen, but we are convinced it WILL happen,’ predicts Miroslaw Bober, Professor of Video Processing at Surrey in the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing. He explains, ‘Luckily, traditional books seem unlikely to disappear – but equally, people want more from books. What are the opportunities for fusion?’

We can currently scan printed QR codes with a smartphone — an early method of linking paper and digital information. But Next Generation Paper will go beyond this into full document recognition.

‘It’s very costly to embed technology in books,’ Bober points out. The solution: ‘automated linking’ via visual recognition – technology developed by Visual Atoms and used already by the Metropolitan Police to i.d. criminals. Via a special device screen that recognises words, objects and other elements on the paper, associated information, links and images are delivered to the reader. ‘It makes the book ‘alive’ ‘says Bober, ‘and the technology is in the device, not in the book.’

These interactive documents, which are a hybrid of “print-and-digital” information, could have links to video clips, animations, sound recordings or music, which can then also be uploaded to TVs, music players, smartphones, tablets and computers.

Interactive, instant, and ‘on demand’ (the reader can choose how much s/he wants to access online material, or not at all), Next Generation Paper links to real-time information, meaning a book is never out of date.

The goal: to give physical paper a whole new lease of digital life. Elements of interactive paper have been around in prototype form for some time, but this new research could help create a mass market next generation paper for the 21stcentury. The project will create new business opportunities for the digital economy that the team will research in parallel with the technology. CoDE’s co-director Professor Alan Brown is leading on the development of business models and business applications for the project.

The project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will have specific application in travel and tourism technology, which is already blazing trails with a combination of printed and digital information in travel brochures, guide books and leaflets used alongside smartphone apps, e-books and TV programmes. However, interactive paper would link up these sources, making it easier to move between them in the reading process.

Further applications could include printed textbooks linked to online teaching materials, patient records linked to test results, and office documents linked to their electronic versions and associated reference material – all making it easier and faster to get the extra information.

What other industries could be digitally disrupted by interactive, connected paper? Let us know your ideas.


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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.