One of the crowd favorites of the poster presentations at UbiComp 2013 was Yoshihiro Kawahara’s Instant Inkjet Circuits project, which demonstrated a technique for printing fully functional electronic paper products, using the inkjet printer you might still have at home. Leading a team of researchers from Microsoft Research and Georgia Tech, Kawahara was able to show off many examples of his work, which included a paper-based plant moisture sensor, and an electrically conductive business card.
Inkjet printed circuits have been around for many years in various different research projects, but Instant Inkjet Circuits is focused on using off-the-shelf printers, cartridges, and ink to make the technology more available – they claim the initial startup costs for anyone should be around $300. Printed circuit technology like this would allow engineers and researchers to rapidly try out new circuit designs, but the real value may be found with a non-technical audience.
Conductive paper prototypes present new opportunities for designers and crafters to explore new interactive opportunities, using simple digital drawing tools to create finished circuits. Prints can be produced on paper or plastic film, and components can be easily applied to these circuits using conductive epoxy and tape. In this method, simple folds can create powerful features, such as switches and sensors, and open up a new world of interactive origami.
This work breaths new life into the inkjet printer, and places it a group of emerging low-cost rapid prototyping tools, such as the Makerbot. While the researchers behind this project have made no immediate announcements about the commercial availability of any new products, their paper goes into great details on the processes and materials they used to make this technique possible. Count this as one more step in narrowing the physical/digital divide.