“Can Printed Electronics Save the Music Industry?”
While we were working on our last ULAB project, Sweet Tweet, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at SXSW in Austin, Texas to discuss a mashup of electronics, print and indie music. We didn’t just want to blab about it, we wanted to create some demonstrators that enabled people to get an idea of what the technology could do.
Printed Electronics is an emerging technology with huge potential to change the way we interact with each other and the everyday stuff that’s all around us. The field is growing and the UK is home to some of the world’s leading researchers. The principles behind Printed Electronics are straightforward, it involves printing basic electronic circuits and components onto pretty much any surface, but much of the current research is focused around flexible display screens and very high tech applications. We wanted to explore what could be achieved with a relatively low-tech approach.
Where our last research project explored Physical Apps, this new project explores Paper Apps. These are devices that enable users to interact with data, information and services, but they’re made from paper and conductive inks. We made a short film about why we’re excited by them.
We’ve been working with some great partners on the project, including: Dr Jon Rogers, Mike Shorter and Tom Metcalfe from the University of Dundee; Dr Kate Stone, founder of Cambridge Printed Electronics specialists Novalia; interactive artists & musicians FOUND, who created the award winning ‘autonomous emotional robot band’ Cybraphon (and some pretty good songs); and Mercury Music Prize nominee and hyper-local indie record label founder Kenny Anderson aka King Creosote.
For SXSW, me and Uniform’s in-house Arduino wizard Martin Skelly have designed two experience prototypes that people can interact with to get a better understanding of what the impact of Paper Apps could be for the music industry.
Digital Postcards give digital tracks a low cost physical form. Each postcard represents a unique track. The cards are docked in a Postcard Player and users can control the playback of the tracks by pressing buttons printed on the postcards. The experience of controlling music by touching the paper postcards is really engaging, much more like interacting with a record sleeve rather than a phone screen, with the experience or browsing through a collection of tracks analogous to that of browsing through a Vinyl collection. The Postcard Player becomes a pedestal for the artwork on the postcard, creating a glanceable indication of what’s playing and celebrating the artwork accompanying the track.
We worked with the multi-talented artist, designer & musician Tommy Perman from FOUND to translate his sleeve artwork into a set of postcards that play the singles released from their Factorycraft Album.
For Fence Records we created a set of samplers that give people the chance to listen to a selection of artists from the indie label, featuring photographs from local photographer Keny Drew. We’ve also made an album sampler for Jonquil who’ll be playing tracks from their new album at SXSW this year.
Our second prototype, the Listening Post, is a poster that highlights recommendations for gigs in your area in a given month. Users can press on a recommendation to hear a sample of that artist’s music. Connecting the poster to cloud content such as Spotify, SoundCloud or MySpace would enable dynamic content that could be updated. We envisage that users could subscribe to a service that could provide suggestions based around their tastes, allow them to share recommendations and enable purchasing or both tracks and tickets. Paper Apps that encourage people to experience live music, could help to support a diverse and independent music industry.
Although these are just experience prototypes, they’re really functional prototypes. The postcards are screen-printed using conductive ink made by Bare Conductive. The Postcard Player, recognises which card has been inserted by reading a code printed at the bottom of the card, when the printed buttons are pressed it plays or pauses the relevant track using Arduino and a Wave Shield. The Listening Post is a stand-alone poster realised by Novalia, using their proprietary hardware, which is small and light enough for it to be attached to the poster directly and can run off just a single watch battery.
It costs about £100 for the materials and electronics to make a postcard player but we think that you’ll be able to achieve the same functionality for a fraction of the cost within the next few years. According to Dr Kate Stone from Novalia, another speaker on the panel at SXSW, within a similar time frame we’re likely to be able to embed that sort of technology into a paper-thin sticker the size of a postage stamp. When you combine that with the ability to print conductive inks on standard lithographic presses it becomes very significant and not just for the music industry.
At Uniform, we love Print – in an increasingly screen based world, it still offers a ubiquitous, low cost, high volume and high value platform for interaction. Printed electronics is an opportunity to merge the traditional media, skills and production methods associated with Print with digital content and services in new, often unexpected ways to enable more engaging interactions between brands and consumers.
While we’re still a few years away from the digital stickers we’ve described, the technology and principles underlying the prototypes we’ve developed could be used right now to enable consumers to experience more engaging and playful interactions that move beyond the screen.
You can see the panel discussion on Tuesday March 13, 11-12pm at the Austin Convention Center, Texas, USA or follow the discussion on twitter #sxpaperapps
I’ll also be tweeting throughout SXSW, and you can follow my ramblings @petepigeon
Thanks to: Novalia for making the Listening Post; FOUND, Fence & Jonquil for letting us use their music, Gummi Bako for his help and Keny Drew for letting us use his great photographs of the Fence Collective, Paul Egglestone and his Interactive Newsprint team at UCLAN for helping to make it all happen and Research Councils UK who funded the Universities involved in the project.Tweet
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