BERG bills itself as a design consultancy, but according to CEO Matt Webb, it’s really a product company. And today the London-based innovators (who’ve made invisible-ink comics, augmented reality toys, holographic iPad light paintings, and a visual volume knob for Twitter) are announcing a product—in the works for a year—that shows just how committed to building the future of interfaces, media, and digital connectivity they really are.
And it’s a printer. (A "Little Printer," to be exact.) This is the future?
BERG is betting on it. When Webb gave Co.Design an exclusive preview of Little Printer last week ("You’re, like, the thirteenth person on earth to see this," he said in Skype conversation from London), he was visibly giddy. "We’re sick of not telling everyone about this, so we’ve just decided to tell everyone," he explained, grinning. Little Printer is exactly that: a palm-sized, cube-shaped, cloud-powered thermal printer with an adorable pair of feet and a cute face. And what does it print? A personalized mini-newspaper—with content curated from partners like The Guardian, social media like Foursquare and Facebook, as well as stuff created by BERG itself—and output on a receipt-like paper strip no longer than 10 inches. "Each information source we think of as a personalised 'publication’ that you subscribe to from a kind of 'app store for paper,' collated into a delivery that arrives at a chosen time," Webb tells Co.Design. You "feed" Little Printer by selecting content via a remote-control-esque smartphone app, and then get your mini-newspaper delivered "once or twice a day." Think of it like Flipboard, but without the screen.
Little Printer is the culmination of BERG’s experiments in "incidental media," a term BERG coined with Dentsu to describe ubiquitous-yet-unobtrusive digital content. "Little Printer can bring you paper deliveries, regularly, quietly and happily, without competing for attention with the bright flickering screens in your life," Webb explains.
But why paper? Isn’t that so 20th century? Webb disagrees—in fact, he thinks that paper is an ideal interface for social media. But not the kind of "social media" that pings you with meaningless updates about people you’re not sure you even care about; Webb’s talking about social interactions between small groups of real people in the physical world, like families. "We love physical stuff. What’s great about paper is that it’s made for sharing," he explains. "You can scribble on a puzzle and give it to a friend, or stick birthday reminders up on the fridge for your family to see. Paper is basically a technology tailor-made for a home full of people."
My first knee-jerk reaction to Little Printer was bemused bewilderment—really? this?—but it’s hard to deny Webb’s point. He cited Bret Victor’s recent rant against the "pictures under glass" interaction paradigm, in which all our media is sequestered beyond our reach, divorced from the physical world that we actually live in. Little Printer may seem like a throwback at first, but it’s actually a disruptive, weird, but undeniably innovative way to liberate digital content from its screen-based prison. It’s about making "the cloud" tangible and intimate again, by bringing it into the home in a physical way. "Little Printer is more like a family member or a colleague than a tool," Webb writes. But, at the same time, "paper is like a screen that never turns off. You can stick to the fridge or tuck it in your wallet. You can scribble on it or tear it and give it to a friend."
And Little Printer isn’t just a dumb pipe, mindlessly spooling out Twitter updates and RSS headlines. (An early prototype did act like this, Webb says: "It was incredibly annoying.") Powered by another new product called BERG Cloud, Little Printer condenses and curates its content, treating that 10-inch strip like the precious real estate it is. "The act of printing—committing to paper—makes a statement, so you want to be sure that what you print is important," Webb says. "What we concentrate on now is density of information or delight. Great publications are ones you would consult a lot over the day or want to carry with you, so it makes sense to print them. Or exceptional information that prints a large alert when something drastic happens, so you can see it from across the room. Or beautiful images: We’ve been working will old woodcuts and pen and inks, which look tremendous on the thermal printer."
"I’ll tell you my favorite publication: It’s the Daily Puzzle," Webb continues. "You get to choose easy, medium, or hard, and I like to ramp it up. That’s neat, that personalisation—I always get a sense that it’s for me when the puzzle gets delivered."
Little Printer will be available in 2012, but Webb says it’s just the first of many screenless, physical, web-connected products that the studio hopes to roll out. "We think of BERG Cloud as the nervous system for connected products," he writes in the product announcement. "It’s built to run at scale, and could as easily operate the Web-enabled signage of a city block, as the playful home electronics of the future." But in the near term, will receipt-like paper strips (which BERG has already experimented with) really become a viable delivery medium for digital content? It’s interesting to note that Webb and company aren’t the only ones working on this: Jack Dorsey recently announced that his electronic payment concern, Square, is actually a "publishing" company with paper receipts as its futuristic medium of choice.
I’m reserving judgment on the user experience and physical appeal of Little Printer until I can actually get my hands on one. But after the initial shock wore off, I couldn’t get BERG’s odd little product out of my mind. I imagined setting it on my nightstand next to my alarm clock, tearing off my little "mini-newspaper" in the morning—a much more physically satisfying interaction, perhaps, than rotely grabbing my smartphone and pecking at Twitter. Maybe that’s the most innovative, disruptive thing about Little Printer: It may not be the future, but it’s a future that’s actually thought-provoking. Which is no small feat.
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