Paper will become smarter

The promised but elusive paperless office is the goal of an unlikely team: 15 engineers at Pitney Bowes Inc., the mail and document management company.

They’ve volunteered to do their jobs in a “paperless office zone” in order to understand the value of paper in a modern workplace.

“It’s an experiment. They want to understand how they can survive without paper, and say that unless they try to live in this future, it’s difficult to come up with new ideas about products in it,” says Cheryl Picoult, director of Pitney Bowes mixed-media technology.

The fate of paper in an increasingly electronic world is the subject of a conference this week at the National Press Club here. Organized by a paper industry group called World PaperCom Alliance, it was intended to help industry executives find ways to deal with the impact of an increasingly wired environment on their businesses.

“It’s clear that paper won’t go away,” says Jim Euchner, vice-president of Pitney Bowes. “But it’s a new world, and paper’s role will change.”

Paper Gets an Upgrade

We’re using more paper in offices than ever before, says Phil Seder, a product manager at Digimarc, which develops digital watermarks. But instead of paper being phased out in the future, he expects its function will be augmented, creating “smart paper.”

Paper products such as photographs, financial documents, and event tickets will be embedded with a digital identity, like a watermark, so that each can be linked to the Internet, tracked, and copyright protected, Seder says.

“Smart paper has an identity built within it,” according to Seder. You can do more than simply read it. If it’s linked to a data source, smart paper can save time by linking you directly to additional information online.

“Everything that is digital before it goes to print, like magazine advertisements or baseball cards, has a digital life at some point. We just embed a message in it,” Seder says.

Paper products can carry a bar code that provides some intelligence. Or they may have a chemical or biological marker called a taggent, a radio frequency identification, or a digital watermark, Seder explains. All of these provide traditional paper with the capability to function interactively.

Balancing Form, Function

Consider bar codes. Often found on retail merchandise, the printed codes adhere to a standard format and carry product or linking information that lets a computer identify an item and its cost.

Yet while bar codes are inexpensive and familiar to consumers, they have an “unacceptable aesthetic impact” on business cards or print advertisements, Seder says. That constrains use of this particular kind of link from paper to technology.

“In general, consumers haven’t warmed to this technology. They even consider it a bit tacky,” he adds.

Alternative methods embed technology in paper without changing its appearance or feel. Taggents put a chemical or biological additive into the paper to identify it, and radio frequency can provide identification and location.

Athletes at the Sydney Olympics wore identification badges with taggents. They contained strands of each athlete’s DNA as a unique identifier.

Radio frequency identification is used mainly for inventory control in product packaging. For example, a shipping box may contain a radio frequency identification so company scanners can track the location of individual boxes within an entire shipment of goods.

Watermarks Go Digital

Seder expects consumers will most often use digital watermarking, which is produced by his company, Digimarc.

If you hold a digitally watermarked magazine ad or product box to a Web camera, the embedded message is scanned directly into a browser, which takes you to product information or promotions on the Web.

For example, a company may award a prize to the 100th buyer of a product, identifying her or him upon the purchase through a link embedded in the packaging.

“The eye doesn’t see a digital watermark, but a computer can read it,” Seder says. Reading the digital watermark takes only a few seconds, he says. And it’s a good use for Web cams, he adds.

“We’ll see applications by sports card manufacturers using digital watermarks” this year, Seder says. For example, a card of Michael Jordan will contain an embedded link to his home page. You’ll simply hold up the card to a Web cam attached to a PC, the camera reads the information, and the browser jumps automatically to the Web page.

But using digital watermarking in general print media ads will take longer, Seder says.

“The market is not quite ready for this yet. This kind of new technology requires consumer education and camera penetration,” Seder says. Consumers aren’t eager to add yet another peripheral to their PCs.

Paper’s Role Changes

Yet the current climate of interactivity at work and at home could help with this transition.

“We live in a networked world where wherever we go we can be connected via cell phones, laptops, and Palm Pilots. And we don’t always have paper along with us,” says Picoult, of Pitney Bowes. “Paper is a transient medium that used to be for display and transport of information from person to person.”

Now that most information can be handled electronically, paper’s role as a display medium is more important, Picoult adds. “Ideas and concepts are often more tangible on paper where groups of people can share and collaborate without the need for specific equipment or software.”

And Patricia Sachs, a workplace anthropologist, says paper will always serve an important function in the office. Her company, Social Solutions, works to improve the design of work systems, products, and technologies within companies.

“The printed form slows information down,” Sachs says. “We’re living and working in a pressure-filled environment filled with the demand for fast turnaround, but paper provides the environment for reading and annotating at a human pace.”