Written by Daniel Latto in Latest News

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I love paper, and I love technology, and what I do is I make paper interactive. And that’s what I say when people ask me what I do, but it really confuses most people, so really, the best way for me to convey it is to take the technology and be creative and create experiences.

So I tried to think what I could use for here, and a couple of weeks ago I had a crazy idea that I wanted to print two DJ decks and to try and mix some music. And I’m going to try and show that at the end, and the suspense will be as much mine if it works. And I’m not a DJ, and I’m not a musician, so I’m a little bit scared of that. So I think, I found the best way to describe my journey is just to mention a few little things that have happened to me throughout my life. There’s three particular things that I’ve done, and I’ll just describe those first, and then talk about some of my work.

So when I was a kid, I was obsessed with wires, and I used to thread them under my carpet and thread them behind the walls and have little switches and little speakers, and I wanted to make my bedroom be interactive but kind of all hidden away. And I was also really interested in wireless as well. So I bought one of those little kits that you could get to make a radio transmitter, and I got an old book and I carved out the inside and I hid it inside there, and then I placed it next to my dad and snuck back to my bedroom and tuned in on the radio so I could eavesdrop. I was not at all interested in what he was saying. It’s more that I just liked the idea of an everyday object having something inside and doing something different.

Several year later, I managed to successfully fail all of my exams and didn’t really leave school with much to show for at all, and my parents, maybe as a reward, bought me what turned out to be a one-way ticket to Australia, and I came back home about four years later.

I ended up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It was in far western New South Wales. And this farm was 120,000 acres. There were 22,000 sheep, and it was about 40 degrees, or 100 or so Fahrenheit. And on this farm there was the farmer, his wife, and there was the four-year-old daughter. And they kind of took me into the farm and showed me what it was like to live and work. Obviously, one of the most important things was the sheep, and so my job was, well, pretty much to do everything, but it was about bringing the sheep back to the homestead. And we’d do that by building fences, using motorbikes and horses, and the sheep would make their way all the way back to the shearing shed for the different seasons. And what I learned was, although at the time, like everyone else, I thought sheep were pretty stupid because they didn’t do what we wanted them to do, what I realize now, probably only just in the last few weeks looking back, is the sheep weren’t stupid at all. We’d put them in an environment where they didn’t want to be, and they didn’t want to do what we wanted them to do. So the challenge was to try and get them to do what we wanted them to do by listening to the weather, the lay of the land, and creating things that would let the sheep flow and go where we wanted them to go.

Another bunch of years later, I ended up at Cambridge University at the Cavendish Laboratory in the U.K. doing a Ph.D. in physics. My Ph.D. was to move electrons around, one at a time. And I realize — again, it’s kind of these realizations looking back as to what I did — I realize now that it was pretty much the same as moving sheep around. It really is. It’s just you do it by changing an environment. And that’s kind of been a big lesson to me, that you can’t act on any object. You change its environment, and the object will flow. So we made it very small, so things were about 30 nanometers in size; making it very cold, so at liquid helium temperatures; and changing environment by changing the voltage, and the electrons could make flow around a loop one at a time, on and off, a little memory node.

And I wanted to go one step further, and I wanted to move one electron on and one electron off. And I was told that I wouldn’t be able to do this, which, you know, as we’ve heard from other people, that’s the thing that makes you do it. And I was determined, and I managed to show that I could do that. And a lot of that learning, I think, came from being on that farm, because when I was working on the farm, we’d have to use what was around us, we’d have to use the environment, and there was no such thing as something can’t be done, because you’re in an environment where, if you can’t do what you need to do, you can die, and, you know, I had seen that sort of thing happen.

So now my obsession is printing, and I’m really fascinated by the idea of using conventional printing processes, so the types of print that are used to create many of the things around us to make paper and card interactive. When I spoke to some printers when I started doing this and told them what I wanted to do, which was to print conductive inks onto paper, they told me it couldn’t be done, again, that kind of favorite thing. So I got about 10 credit cards and loans and got myself very close to bankruptcy, really, and bought myself this huge printing press, which I had no idea how to use at all. It was about five meters long, and I covered myself and the floor with ink and made a massive mess, but I learned to print. And then I took it back to the printers and showed them what I’ve done, and they were like, “Of course you can do that. Why didn’t you come here in the first place?” That’s always the case.

So what we do is we take conventional printing presses, we make conductive inks, and run those through a press, and basically just letting hundreds of thousands of electrons flow through pieces of paper so we can make that paper interactive. And it’s pretty simple, really. It’s just a collection of things that have been done before, but bringing them together in a different way. So we have a piece of paper with conductive ink on, and then add onto that a small circuit board with a couple of chips, one to run some capacitive touch software, so we know where we’ve touched it, and the other to run, quite often, some wireless software so the piece of paper can connect.

So I’ll just describe a couple of things that we’ve created. There’s lots of different things we’ve created. This is one of them, because I love cake. And this one, it’s a large poster, and you touch it and it has a little speaker behind it, and the poster talks to you when you touch it and asks you a series of questions, and it works out your perfect cake. But it doesn’t tell you the cake there and then. It uploads a picture, and the reason why it chose that cake for you, to our Facebook page and to Twitter. So we’re trying to create that connection between the physical and the digital, but have it not looking on a screen, and just looking like a regular poster.

We’ve worked with a bunch of universities on a project looking at interactive newsprint. So for example, we’ve created a newspaper, a regular newspaper. You can wear a pair of headphones that are connected to it wirelessly, and when you touch it, you can hear the music that’s described on the top, which is something you can’t read. You can hear a press conference as well as reading what the editor has determined that press conference was about. And you can press a Facebook “like” button or you can vote on something as well.

Something else that we created, and this was an idea that I had a couple of years ago, and so we’ve done a project on this. It was for funding from the government for user-centered design for energy-efficient buildings, difficult to say, and something I had no idea what it was when I went into the workshop, but quickly learned. And we wanted to try and encourage people to use energy better. And I really liked the idea that, instead of looking at dials and reading things to say — looking at your energy usage, I wanted to create a poster that was wirelessly connected and had color-changing inks on it, and so if your energy usage was trending better, than the leaves would appear and the rabbits would appear and all would be good. And if it wasn’t, then there’d be graffiti and the leaves would fall off the trees. So it was trying to make you look after something in your immediate environment, which you don’t want to see not looking so good, rather than expecting people to do things in the local environment because of the effect that it has a long way off. And I think, kind of like going back to the farm, it’s about how to let people do what you want them to do rather than making people do what you want them to do.

Okay. So this is the bit I’m really scared of. So a couple of things I’ve created are, there’s a poster over here that you can play drums on. And I am not a musician. It seemed like a good idea at the time. If anyone wants to try and play drums, then they can. I’ll just describe how this works. This poster is wirelessly connected to my cell phone, and when you touch it, it connects to the app.


And it has really good response time. It’s using Bluetooth 4, so it’s pretty instantaneous. Okay. Thanks. (Applause)

And there’s a couple of other things. So this one is like a sound board, so you can touch it, and I just love these horrible noises.

(Sirens, explosions, breaking glass)

Okay, and this is a D.J. turntable. So it’s wirelessly linked to my iPad, and this is a software that’s running on the iPad. Oh, yes. I just love doing that. I’m not a D.J., though, but I just always wanted to do that. (Scratching) So I have a crossfader, and I have the two decks. So I’ve made some new technology, and I love things being creative, and I love working with creative people. So my 15-year-old niece, she’s amazing, and she’s called Charlotte, and I asked her to record something, and I worked with a friend called Elliot to put some beats together. So this is my niece, Charlotte.




So that’s pretty much what I do. I just love bringing technology together, having a lot of fun, being creative. But it’s not about the technology. It’s just about, I want to create some great experiences.

So thank you very much.


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