Matt Webb sips from a cup at Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, never blinking. He pauses as his lips near the cup, trains his eyes on me, and says, “there will always be a place for disposable things.” The deceptively simple statements that come from his mouth sound like axioms of design, or technology. He tells me the story of how he built Little Printer, an internet-connected thermal printer for your home, but it sounds more like the story of Jesus’ conception. Webb is boyishly handsome and effervescent. He doesn't seem to care much about money or competition or IPOs. He cares about performing experiments on the way we experience physical objects in a world where possessions are becoming increasingly digital. "It's pretty obvious that all your products will soon be connected to the internet, but everything connected today is hidden behind glass," he says. Little Printer is the offspring of Webb’s latest experiment, up for pre-order today for $259 (£199).
Sticky TOC engaged! Do not remove this!
Webb co-founded BERG, a design consultancy in London known for cranking out innovative and often odd projects that are hard to classify. He has a degree in Physics from Oxford, but has experimented with magazines and newspapers since he was a teenager. At BERG he created SVK, a futuristic graphic novel with author Warren Ellis that shipped with a mysterious credit card-sized device. Halfway through the graphic novel, you're asked to go back through what you've read and use the device (revealed as a UV light) to expose context written in invisible ink. "We are at the crossroads of media, technology, and experience, playing with what each medium allows in letting you tell stories in new ways. The next place to be transformed is the front room or table top," Webb says.
Each morning Little Printer polls the web for information you might've checked your smartphone's home screen for. On one slip of ordinary receipt paper, you can find friends' birthdays from Facebook, today's weather, your to do list from Google Tasks, headlines from The Guardian, a sudoku puzzle, and inspiring black and white photos of design firm Arup's most famous projects, like the Sydney Opera House. Little Printer can be customized to print out friends' locations on Foursquare each Friday evening before you head out, and can even ping messages directly to a friend's Little Printer. With one button press, Little Printer spits out a mini newspaper you've curated — a slip of paper meant to both evoke nostalgia and perhaps even some utility in place of our daily mix of feeds, streams, updates, and messages.
"It's making things more legible by making them physical."
Little Printer wasn't made in a day, or even in a year. Seeds germinated in Matt Webb's head for almost a decade, only recently taking shape as a physical object. Today he affectionately refers to Little Printer as LP, a "family member" you can choose to welcome into your home after years of gestation. The roots of the project lie in a blog post Webb wrote in 2006 titled "The Social Letterbox," about a "desktop printer meets social software meets fax machine." UK-based engineer Tom Taylor took up Webb on his challenge and built the Microprinter, calling it an "experiment in physical activity streams and notification."
Microprinter was not much more than a repurposed receipt printer connected to the weather and status updates. "We tried doing that and it got dull quickly," Webb says, who helped Taylor with the project. "On paper you need a very high signal-to-noise ratio, since paper is valuable. We've been trained by seeing receipts in shops so that we imagine receipt paper as frivolous or can be discarded. When you look at other paper in our lives, you only print out important things you want to carry with you." Webb decided that he would someday build a printer of his own. It would print things he'd slip into his wallet or notebook for scribbling on later, or for pinning on the fridge.
"We need to stop thinking about the physical and digital as separate realms."
BERG didn't yet have the resources to produce one, so Matt Webb and company built something else to indulge his scientific curiosity. In 2006 BERG debuted Availabot, a voodoo-like figurine meant to represent a friend's instant messenger status. The figurine popped up when a designated friend signed online and flopped down when they signed off. It was undeniably phallic and humorous in nature, but it worked. "It's tech that doesn't feel inhuman," Webb says, "giving things character that represents a real life behavior." Only a handful of Availabot units were ever produced.
As Little Printer sits nearly completed, tightly enclosed in his hands six years later, other ideas are already fluttering through his head. "Wouldn't it be awesome if when your phone was talking to the network you could tell by observing tiny movements in the surface of the phone?" Webb asked. He shows me the back of his iPhone and wiggles his fingers around as he looks at me. "Then you could see when background apps are doing something — it's making things more legible by making them physical," he says. "It leads you down a form of design that's more human." A BlackBerry LED light does not emote exuberantly enough for Webb. He knew that unlike Microprinter, his printer would need to create lasting value, and unlike an LED, would need to be very specific. "We need to get back to where paper is something you want to keep in your pocket or give to someone," he says.
He cites a piece of twitching string as one of the main inspirations for Little Printer's utility. Called "Live Wire," or simply "dangling string," it hung from the ceiling at Xerox PARC years ago, serving as a glanceable indicator for how congested the company's servers were at any given point. The string would twitch frantically when the network was busy, and less so during off-peak hours. PARC chief scientist at the time Mark Weiser called it calm technology. "That's all it did," Webb says. "Everyone had this ambient awareness of how busy things were. If the string is twitching and you're trying to download a file, perhaps you'll leave the room and try again in a few minutes." The string represents a distracted boss that can't respond right now. As you approach his or her desk, a waving hand or furrowed brow indicates that you might want to come back later. "It's giving us a new sense looking into the virtual world," Webb says.
Inspired by the dangling string, Webb wrote a piece of software called Glancing that sought to create a digital fifth sense for humans. Glancing was a menu bar app for Mac with an eye for a logo, and depending on the status of others near you, the eye might be open or closed. "It's a representation of how much people are looking around, but in a virtual way," Webb says. "In an office, if you look up and you see that everyone's looking around, you all get up and get coffee. All of that is built on something simple: glancing and eye contact." Webb's application evolved into a totem he frequently mentions, a symbol of his desire to reproduce human behaviors digitally. "In cyberspace there's no visibility," he complains. "Back in 2003 when I wrote this software, there was this idea that you were present or not present. Nobody really believes in offline anymore."
Looking even further back, Webb told me about a prototype mobile answering machine built in 1992 by Durrell Bishop, who is more recently a BERG collaborator. Instead of interacting with an answering machine using buttons, Bishop's answering machine used marbles that each represented a message. When a message was left for you, a marble would pop out of the machine. You could put the marble in your pocket for later, or you could drop the marble back into the machine to play your message. "Bishop made an invisible and complex interface completely legible by doing it with physical things," Webb says. "We need to stop thinking about the physical and digital as separate realms."
Building a family member
Webb works on the web, in print, and occasionally in Python, but with Little Printer, he knew he'd have to get his hands dirty again with manufacturing. He has drawn some inspiration from the Nest thermostat, a personable piece of technology with analogous "smart appliance" goals. "Knowing it's going to be hot means it can handle home heating differently" Webb says about the "learning thermostat." Nest, like Little Printer, seems to work effortlessly, but building hardware as a small startup is difficult. "Most of the hardware talent has moved offshore," Nest founder Tony Fadell explained to Joshua Topolsky. Only because of Fadell's 25 years in the hardware space was he able to secure funding and resources to take on Honeywell and other appliance giants. "The time and effort involved in doing that with physical things is prohibitive," Webb says.
Figuring out injection-molding and building Little Printer from the ground up proved a huge challenge. "We just ask people what to do and experiment lots," Webb says. It's certainly helped that BERG resides in London's "Tech City," which provides the company with a large network of freelancers and contractors to learn from. Also, BERG principals Matt Jones and Jack Schulze had a bit of experience working at hardware companies — Nokia, and RCA, respectively. "Availabot was a big learning process. It was clear that one day we'd build a product we really wanted to make, and we didn't want that thing to be the thing we were learning on," Webb says. "‘Oh crikey! What if we manufactured it in this kind of way?'"
BERG spent months prototyping Little Printer, which is now about as big as a stack of Post-it notes. "You need to see how it looks on a table," Webb says. "You have to get the clay under your fingernails to figure out what the product wants to be." Only after examining Little Printer prototype units did the team at BERG realize that it needed to tilt up, like a child grinning up at you. "The way Little Printer looks accidentally refers to things we grew up with, like Playmobil, and even the BBC Microcomputer everyone had," Webb says. He admires the cream and orange function keys on the BBC Microcomputer, a sign of life in otherwise bland computers of the time. "I like that Little Printer is not completely simple," Webb says. "The trend at the moment is devices that are frames for content — frames that look like nothing, like stark black rectangles." He murmurs Apple and Samsung under his breath. "The Nokia Lumia 800 has character. Little Printer isn't just a sleek print device. Character sets expectations for what something does, and where it fits into your life," Webb says. "You wouldn't let a dog into your house without knowing it had a dependable kind of character, and the same is true with products."
A couple "ambient devices" played an especially large role in the character and identity of Little Printer. One was Ambient Orb which launched in 2002, a sphere that changed colors based on whether the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up or down that day. Another was Nabaztag, which launched in 2005, a rabbit-shaped device created by Rafi Haladjian and Olivier Mével that wiggled its ears when you received emails. "I can see what a chair or a flower pot can do. They look like what they are," Webb says. "But as soon as you connect something to the internet, the ‘big brain,' it can do anything."
"The Nokia Lumia 800 has character. Little Printer isn’t just a sleek print device."
A cloud service
"Noise is the signal with Twitter and Facebook."
"With all of our products, there's an itch we want to scratch," Webb says. Little Printer is a beautiful art project, but it also hopes to provide a real utility in your life. While factories in Asia assembled prototypes for Little Printer, Webb and company were hard at work creating BERG Cloud, a server built to handle thousands of Little Printers. It's the "big brain" that feeds information to a small BERG Cloud Bridge that hangs out next to your router. The Cloud Bridge connects wirelessly to Little Printer, which you place near a power source somewhere in your home. BERG Cloud connects to sources like The Guardian and Foursquare, combines them all on a virtual strip of paper, then beams the paper to your Little Printer for printing. Any time Little Printer is ready to print, a light on its top pulses. With one button press, your newspaper is printing. You control it all through BERG Cloud Remote, a web app that works on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
You can customize Little Printer to print specific "publication" modules once a week, daily, or at random. You can also choose the time of day each publication will be delivered. For some publications like the daily Sudoku puzzle, you can choose a difficulty level (between Easy, Medium, and Hard). You can also choose to print only headlines about specific topics in The Guardian publication settings. BERG Cloud Remote is meant to help you organize all the snippets of information you'd want on any given morning, but Webb prefers to mix things up and print different publications on different days. "It can be like an advent calendar," he says. "You open a door, and you don't know what chocolate you're going to get."
BERG began by printing Facebook and Twitter feeds. "Noise is the signal with Twitter and Facebook," Webb says. "Just printing out updates on Little Printer seemed to be missing the point. You need to do interpretation with it." While BERG had some ideas about the kinds of media that fit on a 2-inch-wide roll of thermal paper, the company needed some new inspiration. BERG hosted a hackday where 25 developers produced 73 new publications in the course of one day. The publications varied greatly; one was a chart of what's trending on Twitter, and another was a daily dose of origami instruction you can do at your desk. Yet another publication was a daily comic. And of course, the "Cat Grinder" publication aggregated cute cat pictures and printed them out.
Little Printer launches with four official partners (Google, Arup, Foursquare, and The Guardian), but is designed to eat whatever content you can feed into it using a dead simple API BERG is launching in beta. "Really, each publication is just a 384 by 800 pixel black and white web page," Webb says. "That's how easy it is to make a publication for this." BERG offers a lengthy guide (essentially an SDK) for publishers to use in creating publications, with many tips on designing for thermal paper and abiding by the company's many design standards. Little Printer ships two months from now in order to give developers ample time to create publications on the platform. Publications from The Times (UK) and BBC are already in the works.
"For the moment there's something so interesting about a mini newspaper, so we are going down that path," Webb says. He admits that printing a tiny newspaper for yourself might not work in the long run, so he designed BERG Cloud to be flexible and capable of powering anything from connected watches to "smart infrastructure for a new city block." Webb would also love to someday automatically print coupons each day from stores he likes. "People want ads!" he says as he laughs. "If I have a relationship with a store, I'd want a coupon for that store. We can create a form of advertising we really desire," Webb says. Once again, Little Printer is about scratching an itch in whatever way possible. Fortunately, Little Printer's brains are stored on the web, so updating the hardware is more akin to pushing out code to a website.
A gadget with character
As we prepared to leave Four Barrel Coffee after our first meeting, Webb ripped off the Little Printer paper he'd been talking about and handed it to me. As I savored my pre-launch artifact, I glanced back at Little Printer and noticed that it was Little Printer no more. De-faced, Little Printer is just an odd-looking box with orange legs and a black button on top. I couldn't help but notice Webb's incredibly scuffed and scratched black polycarbonate MacBook. He says, "I used to have an 11-inch MacBook Air, but I was burgled. Shenanigans."
There's no doubt Webb's house is filled with things, unlike many of the homes you find in today's architecture magazines and Tumblr blogs — barren and sterile museum homes that put minimalism first. He exclaims, "It feels like a blip to be in this world full of squares of glowing glass, and it doesn't seem plausible that we'll have that forever." For many of us, Little Printer might be nothing more than the Game Boy Printer Nintendo stopped producing, but to Matt Webb, it's the sum of years of hypothesizing and tinkering and experimenting. Ultimately, he may have built it for himself. "Money is an important thing, a good proxy for telling whether what you're doing is liked or important," he says. "But it's a bothersome service for a designer." Little Printer could very well become the first massively popular "ambient device," or it might end up behind glass at the MoMA. Either way we'll have learned something from BERG, which stands for the British Experimental Rocket Group. BERG is exploring whether there's space in our lives for media that refuse to be swiped or pinched and zoomed. "There is so much to be gained from doing stuff physically," Webb insists. "The fidelity of analog is not to be fetishized!"
Microprinter image courtesy Matt Biddulph