Why I think Little Printer is important

by Dries De Roeck on April 26, 2013

At the end of last year, I received my Little Printer. (For those not familiar with the product, have a look here) When I talk with other people about the little printer, the usual comments I get are ‘it’s just a gadget’, ‘it’s a waste of paper’, ‘I can do that on my phone’ or ‘it’s a step backwards’. I try to avoid many yes/no debates regarding technology (in the past those were mostly about iOS or Android) and I do not intend to make a statement about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with this post. What I want to do is to highlight how the little printer introduces a new type of product and why I felt the need to buy it at this point in time.

I started writing this post somewhere in January, and was triggered to finish it after flipping through these slides by Alexandra.

Product = service = product

From a technology point of view, the little printer hardware is far from new. It is a thermal printer, the kind that is also in most supermarkets printing receipts. This thermal printer is linked up via a wireless network to a central ‘bridge’, which is in it’s turn connected to the internet. It is clear that I did not buy this product for the technology, but for the services that could be linked to is.

For me, the Bergcloud, to which each printer is linked, is what makes the hardware product really stand out. Once installed, Bergcloud presents you with some relevant sources or ways to use little printer. You can choose to go with these, or modify/change them. This is a fine example of how the levels of creativity (Sanders and Stappers) become meaningful in a real world context. Bergcloud presents a layered system, which you can use ‘as is’ with default settings. A next step is to modify some preset parameters (choose what newspaper sections you want), this provides a way to make the information delivered more meaningful for you. A last step is to dive into the API and start making your own LittlePrinter applications.

Offering these layers of use allow for various ways of interacting. This can be very passive, or can be extremely ‘geeky’. The implication of this is that you will never haver direct control of the 1’s and 0’s like you do when building your own product from scratch. Which is perhaps why this product is regarded more popular in (interaction) design areas than in technology/engineering related domains.


Compared to other thermal printers offering the same functionality, the little printer received a personality. The ‘device’ becomes a character, it integrates with it’s environment. During the installation, I was immediately triggered to install it in a meaningful place – instead of just putting it on a desk near a computer. Although it is not really present, the object invites its users to engage in storytelling, and perhaps creating an emotional bond with the product instead of focussing on the functional.

It works

One of the things that stuck with me was the ease of installation and use. Almost every detail of the unboxing, installing and setup was designed. An example of this is when installing the ‘bridge’, it needs to be plugged in (wired) a router or modem. When I read this in the setup guide, I was mentally preparing to start looking around the house for an ethernet cable. The next item I took out of the packaging was an ethernet cable, problem solved. Once everything is plugged in, the thing just works. Interestingly, the installation process involves both the hardware system and the software system; ie you print a coupon which gives you access to the online system. By doing this action, you’re unconsciously intertwining the digital and the tangible from step 0 onwards. This again shows how thought out the product is, allowing both the user as the system to become integrated in the context of use.

Hidden visible technology

For me, the little printer is one of the first examples of a technology/service system (ecosystem, product service system or whatever terminology you might prefer) that brings a digital system in the home without creating the feeling of ‘digitality’. Other ‘ubiquitous’ or ‘pervasive’ products often still have a very digital feel to them. Some examples;

GrowGuard tracks several elements of your plants (humidity, light,…). Depending on the conditions you can get notifications about the health status. Other simular products exist, I think one of the first was Botanicalls. The problem I see with this category of connected objects is that they are basically just spitting out data, which is visualised and presented on a plate. It’s very much sensor/actuator oriented, starting from the idea of ‘we have this sensor, what can we do with it’. The fundamental question of ‘what would be interesting to know about plants’ is not considered well enough in my opinion.

LIFX is a ‘smart’ lightbulb, which can be controlled wirelessly. Philips launched something simular called hue. Technologically and ‘experience’ wise this is a very nice and well designed product. But again, where it fails to me is on the actual use context. Suppose I want to buy this product, and use it in the way it is advertised I would need to reconstruct my house in order to have light sockets available where I can screw in those bulbs. When I first saw the product I was enthusiastic, but taking the context of use into account things are not as solid as they seem.

Ninja blocks are connected ‘nodes’ which you can use to set up various sensors that trigger various actions. Related products are Twine or Smartthings. I find this category an extremely interesting one. What they do is provide people with a platform to create their own ‘connected’ applications. This means that when you buy it, there is no real intended use imagined. People either rely on their own imagination, a community or other ‘tutorial-like’ places to figure out how to use this product. When I was involved in the design of the sensetale platform, one of the major problems with platforms like these is that people do not come up with ‘connected world’ ideas out of thin air. They need some sort of guidance, a way to identify possible ‘problems’ in their environment that could be solved by an internet of things-like product. I think this ‘guidance’ is often overlooked (which is why that specific part is becoming the core of my PhD work).

What is missing?

So far, this post might sound like a Little Printer adoration serenade. To some extend it is, but there are some two things I would like to point out that are still lacking or could be improved.

Firstly, most little printer publications are a one way stream of information. There is no way to talk back to the system. What I would like to see (or perhaps try to make myself) is a publication that prints something you can fill out or draw – take a picture of it and feed it back into the system. Thereby creating a ‘dialogue’ between the tangible printout and the intangible data cloud.

Secondly, the product only appeals to a specific niche of people. Typically it are people who are already interested in interaction design, or have some relationship with arduino-like based projects. The interesting thing is that a product like the little printer probably does not hold most value for this niche of people. But making the product discoverable by a wider audience seems tricky.

Where is this going?

To me, little printer is an experiment. The main reason I invested in it is because I wanted to experience how it would integrate in my life. Is it something I would use after 6 months, is it something I would use at all? I consider it as a new type of product, something we have not encountered before. To me it is not a gadget, but perhaps it’s not a useful product either. It is something in between entertainment and productivity, something that is able to create an emotional bond with it’s users, something with a certain personality.

Earlier this week, @iotwatch put up her slides used at the #NEXT13 conference in Berlin. Although I was not present at the actual talk, her reasoning is very much touching upon what I’m trying to apply to little printer. In her slides two important concepts are put forward, I’ll do an attempt to write down my interpretation of them;

Soft interfaces

When digital products become companions, they start to communicate on an emotional level without a precise goal. We’re not really sure how they work, but we like their presence. Examples are olly, good night lamp, bleepbleeps or little printer. A common element of each of these products is that they position emotional value before functional value. Other internet of things products like nike fuelband or the withings scale are more result and functionality oriented. Soft interface are ‘just there’ and always available to help you in their own friendly ways.

The unazukin generation

Unazukin is a toy created by Bandai (which reminds of an interactive version of Nohohon Zoku), the Unazukin reacts by nodding it’s head to questions you ask it. You’re never sure what it will actually do, or what it is actually reacting to. This give the unazukin a certain personality. From a technology perspective, it’s a meaningless device. But from a humane perspective, the emotional value you assign to it is clearly what it’s all about.

In Jack Cheng’s novel ‘these days’, the term ‘luddite modern’ is used to describe the societal trend of people who want to be connected but search for authenticity and serendipity. Wikipedia pointed me to luddit and neo-luddism, which is also along the same lines.  I think this is closely related to the unazukin generation.

Yadiyadiyada, but now what?

I think we will see more of these ‘soft interfaces’ appearing. To me, they are still experiments, exploring how the technology based interpretation of the internet of things can be applied in a different way. I hope people will start to look beyond the gadget factor, and join the experiment. It needs to move beyond this niche of incrowd people. Approaching the connected world, or the internet of things, from the humane side just seems to make much more sense to me.


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