Paper to be an IoT-connected device

Conductive ink radio antennas promise to revolutionize paper. Maybe screens won’t replace paper after all.

Paper to be an IoT-connected device
Credit: Eric Brockmeyer/Disney Research

Regular paper, of the kind one writes and prints on, can be embedded with radio frequency tags, researchers say. That could ultimately allow internet connectivity.

Not only could the internet paper be manufactured with tags added at the mill, but an end user could actually draw the tagged antennas on by hand using conductive ink in a school or the workplace.

By responding to commands via gestures, the paper can be made to “do anything from controlling music using a paper baton to live polling in a classroom,” the University of Washington says in a press release.

+ Also on Network World: Using radio frequency noise detection to identify and track electronic equipment +

The technology works similarly to a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. Those microprocessors operate without a power supply but are uniquely identified through a radio signal from a reader device, such as found in smartphones. The device’s signal wakes the dormant RFID tag.

In this case, the tag’s signal path between the reader device and tag can be interrupted with a hand wave. An algorithm figures out the swipe, or any movement that the hand made, and interprets it as a command.

“Swiping a hand over a tag placed on a pop-up book might cause the book to play a specific, programmed sound,” according to the news release. The uniquely identifiable tags could be tracked centrally per room, say by a reader device in each classroom or office.

Touch technology

Other gestures that can be interpreted might be a finger touch on the tag representing a button-like action. That could be used in a voting scenario, as one example. Likewise sliders and knob-turning gestures could be mimicked with drawn parallel lines and circles.

The researchers, who are from the University of Washington, Disney Research and Carnegie Mellon University, say their technology doesn’t need custom hardware because they’re using existing RFID parts and that it’s the gesturing that is the real invention.

In fact, one doesn’t need to use paper. The tags can be drawn, printed or adhered to any surface that can handle the medium.

“Ultimately, these techniques can be extended beyond paper,” says Alanson Sample, a research scientist at Disney Research, in the release.

I recently wrote about another Disney project Sample is involved in. In that one, electromagnetic energy is unusually used to identify gadgets.

“These little tags, by applying our signal processing and machine learning algorithms, can be turned into a multi-gesture sensor,” says scientific paper lead author Hanchuan Li, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering at the university.

The history of paper

Paper has a fascinating history.

It was invented around 100 BC in order to wrap merchandise to keep it from spoiling. Historians don't think it wasn’t created to write on. The writing came later for the purpose of distributing prayers.

Ink, invented about 2,400 years before paper, was a good match for the medium. It allowed for forgery-reduction, which helped world trade—the paper absorbed the ink and then couldn’t be changed.

And then in 2016, just as some thought paper was on its way out—to be superseded by screens or voice recognizing artificial intelligence—connected paper with its embedded conductive ink radio antennas comes along. That’s about 2,100 years after paper’s invention. And that’s around 4,500 years after traditional ink was conjured up.

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