Every toaster has a personality. It’s warmth. Tradition. A smell of comfort and childhood and maybe a wisp of burning. The average smartphone can do things the average toaster could never dream of—talk to satellites and crunch millions of calculations a second—but somewhere along the line, an appliance became a gadget.
The Little Printer, by Berg London, manages to bridge some undefined gap between these disparate worlds. It’s a super efficient, cloud-connected printer capable of ticking off everything from your GCal to your friends’ tweets. It’s also the first printer you’ve ever seen that sits in the living room and draws its own face.
"There’s a slightly nightmarish vision of a world full of glistening, super high-rez Retina Displays all over your house, a sort of Total Recall world where everything’s a TV," Berg’s Jack Schulze tells Co.Design. "These objects have to live in your home, connected, but they can’t all be ringing and pinging, winking and flashing all the time. They have to be kind of calm." The Little Printer is the first of what Berg plans to be a whole line of quieter, cloud-connected devices that sit in very public places in your home or office, to be shared by everyone like a television. It’s decidedly low resolution, using cheap, thermal paper (commercial receipt paper that needs no ink and sells for 50 cents a roll).
Though the Little Printer can seem a bit baffling, it’s really a quietly different paradigm for technology: It’s a hack of old technologies, aimed at creating a calmer vision of social networking. It’s a limited device that’s meant to fit into our day rather than demand attention. As Shulze points out, amid the din of contemporary tech, "There’s room for shared objects and content that moves a little slower."
"Twitter has become very important even though it’s quite a tight, constraining medium. Instagram has become a more important part of my life than Flickr. It didn’t feel that inappropriate to choose such a low-fi medium for a domestic product," Schulze says. "Traditional printers, obviously they’re very useful, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve wanted to print a two-line email with a phone number on it, and then, you have to get this dialog box with a preview in it, and then you print it, and it says do you realize some cropping will occur, and you think, ‘I just want to print this.’ For owning a printer, you’re really reluctant to print."
With cost-to-print concerns completely mitigated, the Little Printer can be guiltlessly tasked to keep track of all sorts of information—digital Post-Its that Berg says sit somewhere between ephemeral and permanent objects. Much like a DVR, the Berg Cloud Bridge is a box that plugs into your router and manages online subscriptions from Berg’s content partners (Google, The Guardian, foursquare, and Arup). Each person in a household can create a custom newspaper by managing those subscriptions on an iPhone app. So whenever Mom leaves for work at 7:30, the printer can have current news headlines, a "mini newspaper," waiting for her to read on the train, along with a crossword. When Dad takes the kids to school at 8:30, his daily to-do list could be ready at the door, along with popular pictures from his Instagram network.
As simple as scheduling may sound, it’s one way that Berg is solving what they consider one of the most daunting problems in our connected lives today—expanding our single-screen devices connected to very personalized (and personal) Facebook accounts to live in real environments, accessible in more natural, analog-interactive social situations. Their other solution is geographic cue, to label the Little Printer in Berg Cloud as "kitchen" or "living room," reminding users that these are public devices as they sign up for subscriptions.
"There is no current model for those [social] accounts to deal with small groups," says Schulze. "We have to be completely honest, it’s a challenge that we’re tackling. I haven’t got an answer where I can just say ‘it’s completely wrapped up, this is how we deal with it’ … [but] the person that solves this problem in a clear technical way is going to be a serious competitor."
Of course, all of this is a lot of technical mumbo jumbo and design philosophy that’s skirting the most obvious elephant in the room: The Little Printer has a face. In fact, every time it prints a new chunk of information, it actually reprints its face to sit in a carefully shaped metal profile. "Industrial design in the consumer electronics market is littered with a history of things … how many VCR players used to have that blinking 00:00 on it, like no one knew how to set the time?" Schulze reasons. "You never really wanted to engage with them."
But in the next 10 years of home products, engagement is only becoming a more and more important point. The everyday objects that Berg is interested in, from remotes to washing machines, will be loaded with incredible networked capabilities. Friends. Recommendations. Did-I-Add-The-Soap notifiers. It’s a collective level of capability beyond any existing expectations—what Berg calls character—that will need to be defined earnestly in product design.
"If you think of something like a Roomba, it starts to feel difficult to think of it as a remote control Hoover," says Schulze. "There are behaviors inside the Roomba. You sort of know what it will do but you can’t predict exactly how it will do it. I think the objects will need change to manifest that character. I don’t think it will be okay to have it be completely invisible. It’s conspicuous that the Roomba doesn’t look like a normal vacuum cleaner. It’s a new style of object."
So, yes, Berg built a printer that draws its own face because they built a printer that’s more connected, more social and, sure, a bit more adorable than any built before. Our beloved quirky appliances—our Kitchenaids and Bodums—and our soulless silicon-loaded metal and glass—our iPhones and every clone—may at last be finding a post-dot-com equilibrium. Our toasters will be smarter, and the cloud will be more personable for it.
Little Printer is on preorder now for $259. The Berg Cloud Bridge and international power supplies come included at no additional cost.