Consumer Electronics

“Smart” Paper is Digitally Connected, Responds to Commands

11 May 2016

Paper is a common part of everyday life—and now it’s been given a high-tech upgrade.

Researchers from the University of Washington, Disney Research and Carnegie Mellon University have figured out a way to connect real-world items, such as a paper airplane or a classroom survey form, to the Internet of Things using off-the-shelf technology and a pen, sticker or stencil pattern.

The team gave an ordinary piece of paper sensing capabilities by employing a method that relies on small radio frequency (RFID) tags. The tags are stuck on, printed or drawn onto the paper to create interactive, lightweight interfaces capable of doing anything from controlling music using a paper baton, to live polling in a classroom.

"Paper is our inspiration for this technology," said Hanchuan Li, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering. "A piece of paper is still by far one of the most ubiquitous mediums. If RFID tags can make interfaces as simple, flexible and cheap as paper, it makes good sense to deploy those tags anywhere."

An example of PaperID in which the speed of the spinning tag on the pinwheel is mapped to onscreen graphics. (Image Credit: Eric Brockmeyer/Disney Research) An example of PaperID in which the speed of the spinning tag on the pinwheel is mapped to onscreen graphics. (Image Credit: Eric Brockmeyer/Disney Research)

The technology, which the team calls PaperID, comprises inexpensive, off-the-shelf RFID tags, which function without batteries but can be detected through a reader device placed in the same room as the tags. Each tag costs only about 10 cents and has a unique identification.

When a person's hand waves, touches, swipes or covers one of the tags, the hand disturbs the signal path between an individual tag and its reader. The team’s algorithms can recognize the specific movements, then classify a particular signal interruption as a specific command. So, for example, swiping a hand over a tag placed on a pop-up book could cause the book to play a specific sound.

"These little tags, by applying our signal-processing and machine-learning algorithms, can be turned into a multi-gesture sensor," said Li. "Our research is pushing the boundaries of using commodity hardware to do something it wasn't able to do before."

The team learned that different tags used in different ways could result in different desired interactions. For example, a sticker tag may work well for an on/off button, while multiple tags positioned side-by-side on a piece of paper could act as sliders and knobs.

"The interesting aspect of PaperID is that it leverages commodity RFID technology, thereby expanding the use cases for RFID in general and allowing researchers to prototype these kind of interactive systems without having to build custom hardware," said Shwetak Patel, the Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor in Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

This new technique is not limited to use on paper. The researchers chose paper because it's universal, flexible and recyclable, and helped achieve their goal of a simple, cost-effective interface that can be made on demand.

"Ultimately these techniques can be extended beyond paper to a wide range of materials and usage scenarios," said Alanson Sample, research scientist at Disney Research. "What's exciting is that PaperID provides a new way to link the real and virtual worlds through low-cost and ubiquitous gesture interfaces."

Story via University of Washington.

Video Courtesy of: Disney Research Hub

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