I’m up in London for PaperCamp. I arrive late to find Aaron Straup Cope in full flow. I saw Aaron at XTech two years ago talking about the idea of the papernet. Here we are today having a whole event devoted to it. His talk today sets the scene nicely, packed full of ideas.
Tom Taylor has an awesome analogue mashup. He bought a cheap little till printer, the small dinky kind that is used for printing off shop receipts. As he put it,
If A4 is a blog, this is Twitter. He has hooked it up to an arduino board which connects to his computer which is connected to the internet. That’s the hardware side of the things. The software side of things is pretty simple. Every day at 8:00am, a programme pulls in data from various places: appointments from his calendar, the movements of his fellow travellers on Dopplr, and when Tower Bridge will be opening and closing (of course). This gets output to a queue and a few seconds later, that gets output—via the arduino board—to the till printer. Tom now has a small slip of paper with all the little reminders he might need for the day. It is, as I said, awesome. I want one.
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is talking about making stuff with paper. But enough talk. Let’s actually make stuff. We are all seated around a table covered with paper, pens, scissors, tape, stanley knives and other tools. We have fifteen minutes to make either a piece of furniture, a building or an object we love. I don’t know what to build so I look up at the ceiling and start trying to build a scale model of it. It was fun.
Chris Heathcote loves guidebooks. Venice for Pleasure is the ur-guidebook, beautifully written. Wallpaper do guide books for people who live a clichéd designer lifestyle and take taxis everywhere. In Japan they have the concept of mooks: magazine books. They aren’t replaced every month; a new one comes out every month but you can buy the previous mooks too. Guidebooks are getting smaller which is a good thing. Chris tends to rip things out of his guidebooks—they tend to be for one-time use. He does the same with maps. Like Aaron said, you don’t want to be the tourist with the big map. Moleskine make notebooks with maps and tracing paper. And of course now, thanks to the papernet, you can make your own foldable maps, turkish or otherwise.
Nick O’Leary is talking about graphs. He wants to represent them with paper rather than simply on paper. He came up with some code that generates an image including lines showing where to fold and cut. Print it out, cut it and fold it and voila!, 3D graphs. He holds up an example. It’s beautiful. He wants to make a pop-up book of statistics. Absolutely bloody brilliant! This is data porn and paper porn rolled into one. Aaron asks if Nick has thought about applying this idea to creating topographical maps which, let’s face it, would be really, really handy for somewhere like San Francisco.
We break for lunch and a bunch of us gravitate towards a bar called Camino, the only place in the vicinity that shares its name with a web browser. Some of the people I know, some I don’t. The conversation turns to code and hacking. I start to mention one of my favourite hacks at HackDay, Above London. Turns out that the person sitting next to me is Paul Mison, one of the Above London hackers and also creator of the machine tag browser that I blogged about.
After lunch, Sascha Pohflepp talks about Export to World. This looks familiar. Ah yes, I remember this being presented as the dinner entertainment during Reboot last year. He’s been taking objects out of Second Life and modelling them in the real world.
Now everyone gathers around a laptop for a demo from Durrell Bishop and Tom Hulbert from Luckybite. They have a printed book based on their music collection. Each page of the book contains an image—usually an album cover—and a barcode. If you scan the barcode from a page in the book, the corresponding music will play on your computer (or your phone). The book is the UI. The wireless barcode reader is where the magic happens. If these guys can make a cheap version of this reader, it will fantastic …for all us. Right now the only expensive bit is the reading head but the price could come down as low as a dollar or two. Sign me up!
James Wheare now gives a quick demo. He’s making a daily physical lifestream. Overnight, it pulls in blog entries, Flickr pictures and twitter messages from his friends and in the morning, he prints out a foldable A4 page. He can fold this down into a little booklet to take with him when he leaves the house.
Karsten Schmidt begins by talking about print on demand. He shows beautiful computer-generated algorithm-driven book covers from Faber Finds. He then shows the most gorgeous unique identifiers I’ve ever seen. These are printed on to postcards for the end of year show at the London College of Fashion—one per student. These cards are machine readable at interactive tables. But what about generating machine-readable identifiers without using a machine? Right now you still need a computer and a printer. What if you could use origami instead? If you think about it, that’s what’s going on with Edward James Olmos’s unicorn in Bladerunner. Take a piece of paper, configure it in a certain way; now it contains a machine-readable message.
At this stage, my mind is well and truly blown and we aren’t even finished yet. Sawa Tanaka is now going to show some of her work. Here’s a book called Spot Nocturnal Animals which is all white in the daylight but once it gets dark, you can shine a UV light on the paper to expose animal tracks and information. The Egg Book uses thermochromic ink. When you warm it up—Sawa blows on the page at this point—baby birds are revealed. Here’s the missing piece of the papernet puzzle: edibility. Sawa has made edible prints on rice paper: English breakfast, fish’n’chips, soba …this is making me hungry. She has also created a beautiful box of pictures of Hiroshima with pictures from 1945 burnt onto pictures from 2007. Every one of her projects is wonderful.
Next up is Beeker Northam who speaks about photographing paper. She doesn’t like throwing away books. She photographs her books. There’s something about photographing them that’s different to scanning them. She’d like to have some kind of web-based way for people to share those bits of books that have had an emotional impact on them but she hasn’t found it yet. There are book sharing sites out there but they all take a library-based approach.
I’m up next. I feel bad because, not only do I not have a demo or prototype to show, I don’t even have any slides. All I have is an idea. And ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s following through that counts. But still …I’m using PaperCamp as a real-world LazyWeb; running an idea up the flagpole; opening the kimono; attempting a landing on the Hudson.
I had this idea a while back of doing a location-based audio service. I heard about a site that offered user-generated audio guides for museums. Download the MP3, stick it on your iPod, go to the museum and press play. I thought it would be good to do the same thing for any kind of location. For example, I could walk around Brighton recording my thoughts about the architecture or talking about the best restaurants, and then I could upload that audio file and geotag it so that somebody else can later retrace my steps and hear my words. The problem I’ve found with this idea is the lack of good recording devices. We have ubiquitous listening devices—iPods—but the ubiquitous devices we talk into—mobile phones—aren’t the right fit for this, I fear.
So the idea of location-based shared audio languished on the back burner. Then I saw Aaron speaking at XTech about the papernet and I begin to think that words on paper might be a better medium than words in headphones. Paper is compact, durable and portable. Then Moleskine came out with their city guides and that’s when I joined the dots: what I want is a guide book that grows over time. It could work something like Book Crossing, with people passing the notebooks along to the next person visiting a place. To begin with, the notebooks are sparse, containing only maps but then they get filled with notes, stories, tips and recommendations.
It strikes me that the internet is superb for communication and collaboration over distance: Wikipedia, Flickr, blogs …physical distance collapses completely. Meanwhile, the physical world has an emotional immediacy and tactile feel that can’t be captured online. I’d like to bridge those worlds using guidebooks as the glue: physical objects in the real world that benefit from the collaborative environment of the internet. I’m not sure if Moleskine city guides are necessarily the best vessels. That would limit the potential places to just those cities that have guidebooks. A print-on-demand book containing maps from OpenStreetMap, photos from Flickr places and text from Wikipedia could make for an equally good starting point as long as the physical dimensions are notebook-like.
That’s my idea. I can foresee some serendipitous side-effects growing out of this infrastructure—games and treasure hunts, perhaps—but I can also imagine some challenges—like co-ordinating the physical shipping of the books from person to person (maybe drop-off points are a better idea). Then there’s the fact that all this information that’s being accumulated is stuck in a physical object that isn’t machine-readable without some scanning and OCR—it seems a shame that the information can’t easily flow back from the real world onto the internet.
I’m done pitching my idea and ask what people think. Aaron says he wants to help me build this. Yay! He also says that my worries about getting the information from book to internet shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern. I agree: it’s certainly not a show-stopper. Alex likes the idea of the time-sensitive nature of recording thoughts about a place; the places that you visited when you were in a relationship, for example, will be coloured by how you felt in that relationship. I hadn’t thought about that, but yes, these notebooks could be vessels for messages from your past self to your present or future self. Denise reckons that this might not even be a technological undertaking at all: she mentions a notebook of sketches that was simply passed from designer to designer, filling up over time. I think that’s largely true but there’s also great potential in the social aspect of sharing the books: I’m going to want notebooks that have previously been used by people I know or whose opinion I trust. But yes, fundamentally all I’m proposing is a web-based admin system for co-ordinating the sharing.
With that, I’m done. I hand the floor over to Matt Ward who closes the event with his thoughts about everything he’s seen today. Keywords are augmentation, materiality and craft-bioinformatic-origami-unicorns.
The other Matt finishes by thanking us all for coming and turning a drunken conversation in the pub into something that will keep him thinking for all of 2009. Hear, hear! Thank you, Mr. Jones, for organising this inspiring gathering.