We’ve already sung the praises of paper in general. Let’s sing the praises of thermal printers in particular.
You’d know thermal printers as the things that receipts come from. They work by selectively heating up parts of thermochromic paper. The parts that are warmed up turn black, the rest stay white. There’s a lot to recommend them: They don’t need ink; they are cheap to run; they’re fast, quiet, and reliable; it’s easy to replace the paper. This is why so many cash registers use them, along with shipping labellers, and undersea explorers.
“Recently, a few accidents of implementation gave more life to my tinkerings than I had originally intended.” So begins James Adam’s introduction to Go Free Range’s Printer, an open source kit “for exploring the possibilities of internet-of-things printing.” He adds two more reasons to dig thermal printers. First, their serial port makes it easy for hardware hackers to work with them. Second, “thermal printers are smaller than normal printers, which makes them seem far less intimidating and more playful.”
Printer is a suite of tools that enable a network of servers to send beautifully laid-out content to a distributed network of printers. If this is immediately exciting to you, you can check out the code here. If it isn’t, stick around and we’ll explore the state of the art of internet-connected thermal printing.
Where It All Started
Matt Webb’s 2006 blog post describing a social inbox is a good place to start. In it, he describes a personal printer that is connected only to your inner circle.
The idea is that this trusted group would have the ability to send you a physical message or photo. If you doubt the power of that simple gesture, pick someone you love and try leaving them a note on a scrap of paper instead of sending a text.
Inspired by Webb, Tom Taylor built a project in 2009 calledMicroprinter. He used a webserver that talked to an Arduino connected to a thermal printer to generate printout reminders and his day at a glance.
Tom’s work started a chain reaction of mods, including Roo Reynolds, who thought that “the soft sound printing and the ‘clunk’ of the auto-cutting blade will be a nice start to the day,” and Chris Wood, who used it to print weather reports and status updates about London’s Tube service. In short order,several more people got in on the act.
All of them, in one way or another, pull stuff off the internet and put it on paper.
An Alternative to Pictures Under Glass
Why? Because we can’t quite let go of the tactile pleasure of reading that way. In this brief rant on the future of interaction design Bret Victor makes an eloquent argument. In it, he indicts the “pictures under glass” world of most contemporary design fiction (those speculative videos of future gadgets and digital lifestyles), which seems to think that all of our content is going to end up behind touchscreens.
He points out that a world of touchscreens is a world where our most useful sense, touch, has actually been shunted aside, in favor of “an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist.”
He’s right. If the last two decades were about the digitization of everything, the next decade is going to be about healing the digital-physical divide by pulling bits back into the world of atoms.
“If internet printing is an island, then Little Printer is like a lighthouse, signalling its presence,” says Adam. If Adam is right that part of the appeal of thermal printers is how playful they feel, then BERG’s smiling-faced Little Printer wins for cutest implementation.
BERG is best known for their pioneering work in interaction design and thoughtful design fiction. Matt Webb is one of the founders. They announced Little Printer back in November and it is clearly in the lineage of the social inbox Webb described in 2006.
The printer part of Little Printer is the front end of a cloud service. Taken as a whole, it’s neither a product nor a service but a slippery combination of the two. The cloud component of the product assembles updates from the web and makes you a little newspaper…thing on a scroll of receipt paper.
BERG’s Little Printer imagines printable check-ins, to-do lists, and severed bits of the newspaper like a daily puzzle, all professionally laid out and designed. Arup, foursquare, Google, the Guardian, and Nike have signed up as launch partners.
Responses to Little Printer have ranged from cautious enthusiasm to outright bafflement (check out the comments). Adam, for his part, views Printer as a DIY compliment to BERG’s polished service. “I love what they are doing, and now I have had a small taste of how much work it takes!” he says.
And Then There’s Arduino
“Paper is interesting,” says Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit, “Once you commit to using something physical to display data, you tend to think about it more.”
Adafruit sells a kit called the IoT Printer Project Pack. When completed, it’s a networkable thermal printer powered by Arduino. It uses the same basic hardware that Adam used to prototype Printer, making it a great choice for getting started.
Fried says that Adafruit decided to make the kits after seeing some of the projects people made with the Arduinos and thermal printers they stocked separately. “Our favourite was Ian’s Thermal Tweeter,” a service that would print out messages you sent to it, live on webcam.
A Markup Language for Receipts
Both projects allow makers to skip over hardware level communication with the device and begin to work as a more abstract level.
The difference is in approach. Where Printer works by rendering webpages as receipt-size images and relies on networks to make it all work, RML is focused on rendering native text. It can handle a variety of layout and character style commands, along with native barcode rendering, for that authentic receipt feel.
“Most of the projects I’ve seen that use these printers use an Arduino and print very specific things,” Bielenberg says, “I wanted an easy way to print anything.”
Bielenberg’s reason for wanting a general mark-up language for thermal printers hints at possibilities beyond tweets, check-ins, to-do lists, and forged expense accounts. He wants to use receipts to tell a story — a tale told through lost receipts, notes, fortune cookie fortunes, Google maps printouts, and other paper detritus.
Lighting the Fuse of Innovation
Imagine the possibilities. Imagine an automatic walking-tour generator, customized for every visitor to a tourist bureau. Imagine a game spread over a city, with players given secret instructions. Imagine a poetry dispenser at a fancy coffee house or a thermal printer photobooth at a bar.
Printer’s network architecture allows anyone to put up a service, server, or printer.
Printer’s content services allow anyone used to formatting for the web to format for a printer. By opening up thermal printers to display HTML and CSS, Printer opens a range of possibilities as wide as the web. If you can think of an idea that looks great in black and white 384 pixel-wide columns, you can implement it with Printer.
Early responses have been amazing, Adam says. They’ve got rolls of test prints from people who have tried out the demonstration text and paint apps. And, in the spirit of sharing, Go Free Range is offering loaner printers to people who want to get their feet wet.
There’s even an iOS printer simulator by Ben Griffiths which allows your iPhone to connect to the network as if it was a thermal printer, allowing people who are more interested in experimenting with the software than wrangling hardware to join in.
“My talent is not in producing great design,” Adam says, “but I figured if I made it easier for the lucky people in the world who do have the right blend of inspiration and design to throw up simple HTML-producing applications, then maybe we’d start discovering uses for printers that nobody had ever thought of before.”