Can Conductive Ink Save Print?

By Herbert Lui September 15th, 2014

Remember QR codes?

Ad Age declared them dead in 2013, and there’s a good chance that you haven’t thought of them since. But the spirit of the QR code—connecting the physical world with the digital world—is not dead, as we’ve seen with the rise of technologies like iBeacon. And now, there’s a new player on the rise: conductive ink.

What the heck is conductive ink?

Conductive ink connects billboards, street signs, and posters to the digital world, just as QR codes have promised to do for years. But conductive ink’s particular advantage is that people actually use it by touching it.

“Once consumers touch a product, we have observed that they are significantly more likely to purchase or remember it, and this is what conductive ink enables for printed graphics,” Conductive ink manufacturer Novalia founder Kate Stone said in an interview with MediaPost. Posters create high visibility, while sound is what the concert experience is all about.”

That’s exactly what beer company Beck’s did when they worked with Novalia to create playable street posters for New Zealand Music Month.

“Street posters have been around for centuries, but there have been no significant improvements to its technique of displaying messages,” explains Damn Geeky. “Beck’s Playable Poster presents itself as an interactive alternative, which features 10 pre-loaded tracks from the finest Kiwi artists, played as soon as the poster is touched at any of its 20 touch points.”

But conductive ink’s potential extends beyond the tactile experience. By implementing Bluetooth technology, it can also connect to users’ devices.

Art as content marketing

Synesthesia, or the experience of one sense by the stimulation of another sense, can be a creative spark, as Pharrell Williams, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West—all synesthetes—know well. Drawing on synesthesia, conceptual illustrator Billie Jean visually depicted flavor by creating a sonic poster for herb and spice brand Schwartz’s “Sound of Taste” campaign.

Depending on where the viewer touches it, the poster produces a corresponding sound. As Carey Dunne writes in Fast Co.Design, “Cumin becomes E flat major, chile is A flat major, and fennel translates to F minor. The colors are printed in touch-sensitive inks, which turn the surface of the poster into a musical instrument when it’s connected to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. When you stroke the poster’s spicy plumes, your phone sings a symphony of flavorful piano chords.”

Conductive ink enables this effect, connecting via Bluetooth to viewers’ mobile devices, which it uses as speakers. In order to access the sounds, viewers must download Schwartz’s The Sound of Taste app. The whole piece doubles as an excellent way for Schwartz to turn passersby into users of their mobile app.

Conductive ink is still used sparsely, and remains far from mainstream adoption. As W. Wayt Gibbs writes in IEEE Spectrum, “Conductive inks made from silver nanoparticles have been available for some time; recently, a group at Georgia Tech demonstrated a way to use them in inkjet printers to create custom circuits. But they are quite pricey, and I’m not keen on the idea of pumping metal through my printer.”

Print’s savior?

Conductive ink may just be a precursor to a new type of technology.

Kate Stone, Novalia founder, told The Drum: “Conductive ink is a prototype technology that puts the same type of [capacitive] touch screen you have in a smartphone or tablet into plain old paper, effectively breathing new life into what many believe is a dying medium.”

That means that conductive ink has big-time potential beyond art projects like “Sound of Taste.” It could give the print magazine a whole new life.

When designers Andrew Emerson, Emma Grattan, James O’Neill, and Christoph Gäng were challenged to create a print magazine reading experience with conductive ink, they implemented it into a redesign of Vogue.

As you’ll see in the video above, conductive ink connects the physical and digital versions of Vogue. Highlight text in the print magazine with your finger, and the same text is highlighted in the magazine’s mobile version (or the magazine’s app). Dog-ear a page, and the corresponding article is bookmarked in the mobile version.

This is just one example of how conductive ink could work, but the most exciting aspect is the ability to connect print content to a digital footprint—and reap the data-rich rewards that come with it.

In a brand publisher’s case, the interaction between print and mobile could be used to directly generate leads from a print magazine, bridging the gap between analog and digital. This would make handing out print collateral at conferences much more effective.

Closing thoughts

I’ve written previously about how print magazines are making a comeback, both for brand publishers and for young media companies. If manufacturers can scale production of conductive ink properly, and if magazines dare to experiment with it, it may breath new life into a classic medium—and bridge the divide between analog and digital that the publishing world so desperately needs to cross.

Image by Grey London
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