Recently, a group of Swedish scientists announced the development of paper that could talk when pressed (check out the video). According to project leader Mikael Gulliksson, this was accomplished by combining paper with graphic codes and conductie ink, designed to be presssure sensitive. Digital information is embedded in the paper so that when touched, it signals a computer which plays stored audio sounds. This is just one of the latest developments in the technology of flexible electronic displays. What does this have to do with books and publishing?
For about a year now, newspaper publishers have been rumored to be experimenting with the technology as a replacement for traditional newsprint on paper. And since the late 1990’s, a number of companies – e.g. from RocketBook to Sony – have sstruggled to deliver a e-book reader that consumers would warm up to. However, sales have proven disappointing and technological / title availability problems have plagued the industry.
The printed book has proven a very durable instrument of human communication. It is portable, has a familiar and useful structue for accessing information, and requires no technical know-how on the part of the reader or accessories to operate. And unlike electronic products, physical books have an aesthetic that can make them more valuable with age. They even serve as an element of home decor.
But the flexible display and conductive ink offer a tantalizing prospect. What if you forget the e-book reader and move the electronics to the page and embed a small computer chip in the spine of the book? This would give the book many interesting new capabilities and yet preserve the aspects that consumers enjoy so much. For example:
Search – You could easily search and highlight any keyword or phrase in the text of the book and display the occurrences in a window that floats above the text.
Dictionary – Every term used in the book could be defined.
Illustrations – All photographs or illustrations could be held in digital form and displayed with the touch of a finger or stylus. This would save production costs.
Annotations – Include your own annotations in a virtual layer that floats over the text of the book. Hightlight text, write comments, underline passages. The book software would allow you to hide them so other readers wouldn’t be annoyed by your markings and then display later by tapping in a short code. Multiple readers could each have their own annotations, completely separate from other readers’.
Book networking – One could imagine that as wireless gets cheaper and more compact, and as the networks become more pervasive, books could tie together via specially tagged words or phrases, or from entries in the bibliography. Or, you could e-mail interesting passages to a friend.
The main difference with today’s e-books would be that the smarts are on the page and not in a reader. The format and design elements of the classic book are preserved, but the pages and the reading experience are enhanced by computer technology.
All wonderful you say, but what about the environmental issues associated with all that paper? Well that’s a solvable problem – there are ways to create papers (with embedded electronics or not) that are designed from the start to be reused. For example, see Crade to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
The book has made steady progress over the millenia. The first step was going from a scrolled to a bound, paged format. Then from handwritten manuscripts to the printing press. Then to the digitization of the production process. Now the new products based on flexible electronic displays that will be emerging in the couple of years may be hinting at the next major step in the evolution of the book – the e-page.