Co.Design

Watch: A Simple Rig Turns Paper Into A Touch Screen

With a cheap webcam and a projector, Fujitsu gives regular old books a little touch-screen magic.

With today’s devices, it’s easy to enhance the reading experience--to bake in all sorts of multimedia and give readers tools for sharing and saving and annotating on the fly. What’s hard is doing it all while maintaining the fundamental simplicity and usability of paper. But perhaps the way forward isn’t to make devices that are more like pulp; maybe we could make paper behave more like our high-tech devices.

That’s the idea behind this new concept from Fujitsu, a simple system that uses image processing to bring printed materials into the digital world. As detailed in this clip by DigInfo, the rig is as simple as it is clever. Using nothing more than a run-of-the-mill webcam, a commercial projector, and some smart software, it lets readers scan images and digitize text with their fingertips, essentially overlaying touch-screen functionality onto any printed page.

Of course, this concept has the inherent limitation of restricting activity to a single surface--without the camera fixed overhead, it’s useless. That’s a huge bummer. One great thing shared by print magazines and their tablet counterparts is that they can be enjoyed anywhere, and it’s hard to imagine the books or magazines of the future, whatever they might look like, being tethered to a table of the future. The presenter in the clip sidesteps that issue by pointing to some specific applications--"we think this system could be used to show detailed information at a travel agent’s counter, or when you need to fill in forms at City Hall," he says--though none of those are especially exciting life moments crying out for a new interface.

But that doesn’t mean we should scrap the smart-paper approach altogether. Even in this crude prototype, we see how software can account for things like finger size and page curvature. It’s pretty impressive. So maybe it could take a less cumbersome form. What’s to stop us from applying the same concept to a pair of enhanced reading glasses? A pair of smart bifocals, like Google Glass, that incorporate a camera and a screen could foreseeably adopt a similar approach to paper enhancement without relying on a stationary set-up. It gives us one particularly useful subgenre of augmented reality: augmented reading.

That may be a lot of work to keep paper relevant, and it’s certainly possible that within the next few years, flexible e-ink displays could emerge to one-up paper in a way that today’s bulky, battery-devouring devices haven’t. Still, I can’t help but like the idea of augmented books, as opposed to completely electronic ones. If nothing else, it’s one way we could imbue books with a little high-tech magic without losing things like bookshelves and bookstores and new book smell entirely.

[Hat tip: Gizmodo]

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