Before we had apps that let us annotate and share screenshots instantly, responsibility for saving scraps of on-screen real estate fell on a single, dedicated piece of plastic: the print screen key. But its very name betrays that key’s origins in an earlier era of computing, before graphical interfaces, when command-line text filled computer screens and occasionally needed to be printed out on paper. So, in a way, that tiny little square, hovering unassumingly at an unused edge of our keyboards, embodies two distinct ways of preserving our computing experiences, one physical, one digital. The Polaroid Cacher, a project by graduate student Adrià Navarro, explores that very same interplay in the form of a clever little peripheral—a printer that turns screenshots into snapshots.
Like all Polaroid products, Navarro’s is actually two devices in one: a camera and a printer. The camera element takes the form of a piece of browser extension that dresses screenshot-grabbing up as analog picture-taking; summoning the app lets users view their screen through a grainy, resizable viewfinder, which they can then position over the on-screen subject of choice. Once lined up, the image is sent wirelessly to the Cacher itself—modeled after Polaroid’s Automatic 210 Land Camera—where it’s pumped out as a glossy Zink print.
The project, which Navarro created in collaboration with DI Shin for an interaction design course in NYU’s ITP graduate program, is, superficially, pretty pointless. No one needs a memento from their Facebook feed; no one wants to adorn their walls with snapshots of their Twitter timeline. In fact, sites like Facebook and Pinterest, which are relying increasingly on layouts based on Polaroid-style squares of digital content, are actively positioning themselves to be cork boards for our online lives—digital updates of the scrapbooks that stored our collective pre-Internet memories.
But if you think of it not as a product but as something closer to an art project, a device that tries to play with some of our habits and assumptions about photography, physical media, and permanence in the digital age, the Cacher is doing some interesting things. And even as a product, I’d argue, it’s hovering around an area that’s worth exploring. Printers largely suck, but there are still times when it makes more sense to have something on paper than on a screen—recipes, directions, etc. Simple, Internet-connected devices, like the Little Printer, that put digital content on paper without the fuss of standard inkjet monsters are worthy of our attention.
Conceptually, though, the Cacher pushes us to acknowledge the fact that our idea of the Internet is typically defined by whatever flashy redesign our favorite mega-sites are currently sporting. And it makes us consider how we might lose the unique digital experiences that do exist today, even on an increasingly homogenized web. When the entry for "Tumblr" is added to the Encyclopedia of the Future, it will be something about "a microblogging platform that allowed users to easily post multimedia content to their own personalized blogs." To remember what those blogs actually looked like, we’ll have to rely on screenshots. And of course, beyond Facebook and Tumblr and the rest, there are even more obscure experiences that we might feel even more compelled to look back on some day. In Navarro’s mind, we’re already there.
"I personally have been using the Internet for long enough to look at old things and feel some kind of nostalgia," he says, "like nostalgia for online games I spent lots of hours playing … or even for old software interfaces. I read a tweet about someone feeling nostalgic about a video codec. I think these experiences are as valid as the 'real life’ ones, but they are not documented well enough." Granted, you might not treasure a three-inch photo of yourself playing Doom as much as a snapshot of a boozy birthday party, but in terms of a document of what you actually spent your time doing in the '90s, the former may be more accurate.
Navarro did, in fact, try to chronicle some of those early online games, but they were lost in the shuffle of endless upgrades. "I took a lot of screenshots" of those games, he says, "but I lost them in some old computer anyways." It’s a fate that reinforces the somewhat backward notion at the heart of his project: Sometimes, even when you’re talking about saving pixels, you might be better off with something tangible.