Little Printer: Meet the palm-sized, werewolf-spotting, cheeky face of the internet of things

Summary:When Little Printer surfaced last year, it quickly built up a cult following for delivering dinky portions of printed entertainment. But don't be fooled - its makers have big plans for Little Printer.

Little Printer, with its Guardian publication
The Guardian is one of 70 publications for Little Printer. Image: Berg

Little Printer is so cute butter wouldn't melt in its mouth. But don't be fooled – this dinky peripheral may be sweet looking but it's also very serious.

While the common wisdom is that the web has pretty much done for print media, Little Printer would respectfully disagree — it takes online content and repurposes it for print. Once users have subscribed to a set of publications through an iOS app – think snippets of news, reviews, games, and entertainment – then Little Printer takes delivery of the content, printing it off on a piece of paper the size of a receipt.

Berg took delivery of the first production run of 1,000 printers late last year, and had sold out of them three days later.

Beware of werewolves

As companies are prone to do these days, Berg is now working at building an ecosystem around Little Printer. Berg has held two hack days for Little Printer so far, throwing open the doors to its (correspondingly little) London offices for anyone wanting to know more about the project or build a publication for the device. "We had everyone from magazine publishers to 15 year-olds [turning up]," said Matt Webb, Berg's CEO. "The 15 year-old made a publication that only comes out at full moon, and it says 'beware of werewolves'."

There are now over 70 publications for the printer, 55 of which are made by third parties. Among them are daily headlines from The Guardian or a crossword from The Times, pint-sized science fiction from Jeff Noon, personalised to-do lists compiled from users' Google Tasks, or a list of your friends' upcoming birthdays from Facebook or check-ins on Foursquare.

Little Printer was first sighted in the wild in 2011, when design consultancy Berg released a video of the palm-sized, cube-shaped networked printer on YouTube. It was still almost a year from launch at that point, but already Berg had managed to sign up some of online media's bigger names as partners: Google, The Guardian and Foursquare had all agreed to make publications for the printer well before it was released to the public, for example.

So why would web companies want to get involved with plain old paper? "It's high engagement, it's reusing the media they are already have without the getting into the matrix of having to print something on paper and all that," says Webb.

The company is currently waiting for its second shipment of devices – this time it's ordered 5,000 Little Printers, which are expected to arrive in the middle of the year.

When technology becomes a pet

Little Printer was initially aimed at consumers – "a public object" that would be used both by individuals and families.  In some cases, the right to press the button on the side of the printer that triggers content delivery becomes a fight between siblings – or kids and their parents. And for some users, says Webb, Little Printer is where "technology stops being technology and becomes a pet".

It's no wonder families have adopted it in such a way, given Berg has played up the anthropomorphic side of Little Printer. When it's not printing, it shows a face, the hair on which grows day after day.

Designing in the machine's humanity was part of the design process for Little Printer: Berg created character notes for hardware, trying to work out what sort of personality would suit such an object best. The end result, nicknamed Barry, was somewhere between a paperboy (it delivers newspapers and magazines, and it might have a quick look at them on the way past) and – that pet metaphor again - a cat (aware it's small and its human counterparts are not, but not fazed by the size difference, apparently).

But for all its cuteness, it seems sooner or later Barry will have to go to work like the rest of us. Berg is hoping to find him a job in the world of business.

At present, to get your hard copy from Little Printer, you press a button on the side of the device. In future, Little Printer might take matters into its own hands with on-demand printing. The idea behind the change is to make the printer more retail-ready: a cafe with a Little Printer on the counter could greet a customer that just checked in with a personalised message, discount coupon or a greeting. Berg is working on enabling such functionality with push APIs, and is already in the testing phase.

More e-commerce tie-ups are on the drawing board, including allowing users to make purchases by pressing the printer's button. Advertising and couponing is also likely to appear at a future date, once more users are onboard. Partnerships with payment providers like iZettle or Square would seem another obvious future move for the company — conduct a transaction on the phone, and get your printed receipt or appointment reminder sent straight to your Little Printer at home.

Internet of things

But Berg has bigger plans for the Little Printer. The company created the device ostensibly as a Trojan horse for its wider internet-of-things ambitions.

Little Printer connects to the internet via Berg's Cloud Bridge, which attaches to the user's home router and is, according to Berg, the starting point for a future series of connected devices.

"The thing that we can't get around is that Little Printer has a face. That suits some brands really well, but it doesn't suit others. We're going to make something for them in the near future," said Webb.

That something is a Berg Cloud dev kit, which can be used to help develop a prototype networked object.

The dev kit also includes two dev boards which act as shields. Shields clip onto, say, an Arduino in order to extend its capabilities – connect to a GPS module, for example, or give it a joypad. In Berg's case, the shields also work with other common hardware prototyping platforms Raspberry Pi and mbed as well as Arduino, and are used to communicate commands from the Berg developer platform to the hardware, carry out those commands, and if required, report back to the user.

The connection to the developer platform is also provided through the shield, which gives the object a plug and play Zigbee connection to the Cloud Bridge. The Cloud Bridge, connected to a nearby router via Ethernet, in turn gives it a window to the wider web. Devs can also install more than one Bridge, turning a small area — say, an office or factory floor — into a physical sandbox for their prototype.

The firmware in the dev kit gives the object web APIs, and access to the same tools (such as user management and endpoint validation) that underpin Little Printer — essentially, the publications for Little Printer are written in HTML and CSS, and then rendered into a .png file and sent to the printer.

And, using the Berg web APIs, the connected object can be controlled or monitored remotely via Remote, an app for Windows Phone, iOS or Android. It will also display updates from the object in a user's Remote activity feed.

What the #Flock?

While Berg is currently working on turning one campus (though it won't say where yet) into a sandbox, it's made a concept device in connection with Twitter – a four-house cuckoo clock, called #Flock. The houses react differently depending on what's going on on the user's Twitter account: if they get a retweet, a bird pops out of one house, if it's a new follower, it surfaces elsewhere.

Berg's Twitter cuckoo clock
Berg's Twitter cuckoo clock, known as #Flock. Image: Berg

Berg hopes that, through the dev kit, the cloud platform will become the prototyping platform of choice for makers, researchers, schools and universities, enabling them to stick a toe in the water of internet-connected objects and machine-to-machine communications.

"The idea is that people can use the platform to make connected products. The question then is 'why don't you do it?' Well, we're a small company, and we used Little Printer to show that you could do it," Webb said.

People are looking at connected objects as hitting the living room first, he adds, but it's in the bathroom – yes, the bathroom – or the kitchen where the real opportunity lies.

Connected kitchenware or white goods would be an obvious step forward, Webb believes – perhaps a washing machine that, after a certain number of washes, automatically adds a box of washing powder to the home's online shopping basket. The machine could be sold with a subscription to a certain brand, who would take out some of the upfront cost of the appliance in return for securing the owner's ongoing business – much like the way mobile operators give away a phone, ostensibly for free, in order to sign up a user to a 24-month contract.

It's still early days for such products, and the balance between building enough intelligence into objects to make them useful but not unpleasant has still yet to be worked out to everyone's satisfaction.  

"When a washing machine tells you that it knows how much washing powder you've been using, that could seem creepy, and we don't have understanding yet of how not to make it not intrusive. It needs to be not off-putting – you need to build the proof that the brand is safe," Webb said.

The company envisions a future where, much as the advent  of the web enabled smaller companies and start-ups to start online businesses without needing a huge corporation behind them, connected objects will allow them to get into the hardware game too. Rather than a future owned by "a few huge companies making shiny black things", smaller companies will also have a say in working out questions that the growth in connected objects presents: those questions of privacy, and of finding the right tone for machines to talk to humans. 

Meanwhile, Berg is doing its own experiments. "What we learn from Little Printer we'll bake into the OS," says Webb.

"Would we take VC funding?" he adds. "If you asked me last year, I would have said no. But this year, it's different. It feels, with connected products, like being in the middle of electrification — the wave of connected products is going to happen. It feels like we're sitting on a rocket right now, and what would happen if you gave it rocket fuel?"

Topics: Networking, Printers

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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