Countdown to Drupa: This is what real innovation looks like, Part I

Innovation. We all know what it means; at least, we have some idea.

19 Feb 2016 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

Sometimes, however, innovation is not just doing the old job in a new way, but about doing something entirely new – finding a new element, or finding a hitherto unexplored segment where print can make its mark. As we prepare for Drupa 2016 to explore the possibilities of innovation, PrintWeek India brings you five inspiring stories of innovation from across the world.In the first part of the series, we focus on time-lapse ink, interactive newsprint, self-heating packages, walls that can hear, and books that can speak.      

Ink researchers find magic in algae
There has been a lot of talk about sustainable ink lately, which mostly mean soy-based inks. Now, a start-up called Living Ink from Fort Collins, Colorado, the US, is taking a radically different approach. Its inks are made from algae. And, some of the inks disappear and reappear when exposed to sunlight, allowing for designs with a touch of magic.

During his research on algae, Scott Fulbright, co-founder and CEO of Living Ink, found that algae had many characteristics that would make them well suited for ink. There are naturally occurring strains of algae with different colours, such as yellow, red, orange and blue. Additionally, algae can be coaxed into changing colors either by exposing them to environmental stresses or through bioengineering. Since algae grow fast, they are renewable and they do not compete with food, which is the case, for example, with soy. Since the algae cells used by Fulbright and co-founder Steve Albers are small, they are well suited for printing.

Living Ink is currently working on methods to print algae cells with traditional printers; the algae specialists are also teaming up with a company to develop sustainable packaging inks using algae cells.

While more research is needed to produce algae ink for printers on a commercial scale, there is one algae ink product that has captured the imagination of the founders, the team, and the Kickstarter community: The Living Ink pen that reveals what people write, draw, sketch or paint over several days.

Living Ink uses living algae cells and cyanobacteria for its Living Ink Pen. The cells are diluted in the liquid and cannot be seen by the human eye. When the ink is exposed to sunlight, the cells multiply and become so dense that they become visible to the human eye and the writing or drawing reveals itself. Living Ink has manufactured two kinds of pens, one with ‘slow’ ink, with a lower density of cells and one with ‘fast ink’ with a higher cell density, in addition to special watercolours for artists. The pens come with special paper and a closed glass frame that serves as a greenhouse. Even after the algae cells have died, the drawings remain intact. The company expects to start shipping the Living Ink Pens in mid-2016.

You can find more about Living Ink at

Interactive newsprint points to the future
A team of researchers at the Media Innovation Studio at the University of Central Lancashire looked closely at newspaper pages. They saw much more than just ink and paper: They envisioned the printed page to become an interactive surface connected to the internet of things (IoT) that would respond to touch and offer audio playback and other unexpected features.

Advances in conductive ink technology and data connectivity lie at the core of the researchers’ explorations. Their work aimed at developing a publishing platform that can exchange data and bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. The team focused on paper since it has been used for hundreds of years in publishing but has lost some of its attractiveness due to its limitations regarding personalisation and dynamic content compared to digital platforms.

During the research, the team developed a product named EKKO that connects the pages with conductive ink to the IoT. EKKO consists of a clip, a companion app and a publishing platform. The EKKO clip recognises touch and connects the page with a web-based content management system and analytics suite. While the researchers were interested solving complex technical challenges, they also looked at what types of analytic data could be derived from print and, more importantly, what kind of data publishers require. They team took a broad perspective, including business models and cultural practices for both the web-based and print publications.

To test their invention in real life, the researchers collaborated with the agency Uniform and the Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Liverpool Echo. They created an interactive print supplement, the so-called Super 8 prototype, which took eight of the most memorable moments from the career of Liverpool Football Club’s former captain Steven Gerrard. The EKKO clip was the bridge between static content, the printed page, and dynamic content, audio clips and additional information.

Newspaper readers could connect the EKKO clip to the page like a bookmark and trigger online interactions by pressing the buttons printed with conductive inks. A press of a button would activate an audio file on the user’s smartphone. Since the content is dynamic, it is possible to connect different audio or video files to one button. If the publisher changed the audio file connected to a button, every printed page in circulation will be instantly updated. The team designed EKKO to run independently of the publication so that any interested publisher or advertiser can use it.

Packaging that heats itself
There are not too many options for warm, healthy and convenient meals or beverages that don’t involve a stop at a restaurant. HeatGenie, a company based in Austin, Texas, the US, has now developed a self-heating packaging solution that could take the concept of smart packaging to a new level.

HeatGenie is led by Brendan Coffey as the CEO and CTO and Mark Turner as the president. In 2009, Coffey, Turner and their team began developing a series of criteria their product needed to fulfill – safety, recyclability, cost-effectiveness and ease of use.

After receiving funding, the team set out to develop a compact modular heat source the size of a tea candle. The heating element contains aluminum and silica, two benign materials, which in a mixed powdered state can undergo a chemical reaction to give off a large amount of heat. HeatGenie has created a method to control the oxidation reaction to generate heat energy safely and efficiently. The mix in each heating device is also exactly measured to provide the right amount of heat for each type of food or beverage. This is important because coffee, for example, heats faster than stew.

The consumer can activate the heating process by pushing a button on the bottom of the can that starts the oxidation reaction and creates heat. Once the fuel is spent, the heating process stops. According to HeatGenie, the result is a cup of hot coffee or a bowl of soup in the hand of the consumer in less than two minutes.

HeatGenie sees itself as the developer and licensor of the patent-pending convenience packaging technology and plans to work with licensed manufacturers to sell an integrated packaging solution to brand owners.

Printed walls with eyes and ears
A smart home, where all appliances are connected, has long been a vision. In reality, few homes are smart enough to react to even simple commands. Connectivity works, if at all, via smartphone apps. A research team from Singapore is working on improving the situation. They have developed printed wallpaper with sensors and microphones that can interact with people and support them when needed.

Joseph Chang, associate professor at School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, heads the group that came up with the printed smart wallpaper. The idea originated when Chang realised that most devices in a smart home were connected via smartphone apps. “To improve the man-machine interface, we figured that the easiest means of interaction are what everyone does naturally – conversation: just speaking to give instructions and listening to receive a reply,” he says. The microphones work in a way that they can tolerate background noise and identify a person’s voice in a group of people.

To print the smart wallpaper, Chang used a screen printing process, which is low-cost, environment-friendly, and scalable. Most importantly, though, it is additive.

While there were many technological challenges in the process, one of the main problems was how to increase the speed of the transistors. “We worked out a special surface treatment to improve the compatibility between the electrodes and the semiconductor of the transistors”, Chang explains. Another challenge centred on making sure that the electrical current had low voltage to improve the safety of the wallpaper.

The wallpaper can take on a variety of functions: It can act as a sensor for temperature and light and then adjust the heat and light settings accordingly. It can be used for emergency calls and information gathering. In addition to a listening and talking wall, Chang also envisions an interactive touching wall.

The wallpaper is not yet commercially available but this may change soon. “We are now exploring collaboration with commercial partners for mass production”, says Chang and with a bit of luck, there may be an interior designer soon that offers wallpaper that is much more than just decoration.

A book that speaks volumes
A picture is worth a thousand words. Yes. But how about pictures that actually speak to you and tell real stories? The book accompanying the World Press Photo Award 2015, called the T-book, is such a book: It combines high quality printed photographs with embedded loudspeakers. When a reader turns a page, the loudspeaker turns on and tells a story, providing rich and engaging background information about the image’s origin and meaning. The sound files also incorporate the voice of the photographer and at times the voices of people who witnessed the scene, providing a deeply emotional experience that was previously impossible.

To produce the unique book, the agency Serviceplan Campaign contacted a research team around Prof Arved Hübler at the Technical University in Chemnitz, Germany, who had worked on this technology for the last seven years. Hübler had already presented its printed loudspeakers at Drupa 2012 but at that time, nobody seemed to be ready to employ this innovative technology.

Thus, Hübler waited for the ideal project to integrate printed pictures and sounds while perfecting the technology and working on other projects such as printed solar cells. The World Press Photo Award Book 2015 seemed like the perfect candidate.

The innovative printing process involves printing electronic components onto flexible substrates. The pages consist of two parts and the ultrathin loudspeaker is embedded between the two parts. An SD card in the book cover conveys the data to the speaker. A printed sensor indicates which page the viewer is opening so that the correct sound file can be played.

Hübler believes this technology will be widely adopted in the future. He even envisions tablets printed on paper. Since the printing technology is less expensive that manufacturing conventional electronics, this scenario seems at least in part realistic. And until then, the ‘T-book’-technology may catch on, showing not only important images but taking viewers on a journey.