Google Docs has broken down the barriers between collaborators who live thousands of miles apart. But researchers at the University of Tokyo are working on a new system that could let users collaborate digitally on actual paper documents. Last week, DigInfo reported that the University’s Naemura Group unveiled a proof-of-concept for what they call "paper computing technology," a system that lets users draw, edit, and erase paper notes using a computer.
Here’s how it works: The pen is filled with Frixion thermo-sensitive ink, which disappears when heated at a certain temperature. Once you’ve drawn something, if you want to erase or edit your work, the computer uses a super-precise laser (rigged up underneath the workstation) to heat the specific areas of your drawing that you want to get rid of.
That covers digital erasing—now onto copying and drawing. The paper is coated in a light-sensitive photochromic solution, which makes it change color when you expose it to ultraviolet light. Above the workstation, a UV projector can "draw" on the paper using targeted rays. If you want to copy something you’ve already drawn, an overhead camera tells the projector to replicate it.
As you can see from the video, the prototype is still unwieldy and imprecise, but it’s easy to see where the technology could go with some refinement. "In the future, we’d like to enable several people to create one document, like with Google Docs, actually using real-world paper while far apart," Naemura Group researcher Tomoko Hashida told DigInfo. "We’d also like to enhance the rendering that’s possible through collaboration between people and computers. For example, by giving more detailed access than you get by hand, and enabling you to draw large areas at once."
The Naemura researchers aren’t alone in attempting to create a viable paper-based digital display system. In 2010, University of Cincinnati Electrical Engineering Professor Andrew Steckl discovered a process that could turn plain old paper into an e-reader to rival the iPad or Kindle, using electrowetting, a technology that uses low-voltage charge to rearrange pixels of pigment. Companies like LG’s Liquavista typically use electrowetting on pieces of glass, creating thin, high-resolution displays (check out the prototype above) that are extremely bright, but use less energy than LCD screens or traditional tablets. But Steckl was the first to find that the process could take place on a sheet of paper, too. A paper-based e-reader that can display video, text, and images at the same speed as an iPad or Kindle would be a huge breakthrough. Plus, it’s disposable.
While paper e-readers and collaboration tools are still a few years off, all signs point to the possibility that a readily-available organic material like paper (or Graphene, for that matter) could represent the future for mobile computing.