Let’s get physical – Making the Internet tangible

On an average day working as UI/UX designer, around 70% of my time is spent in the “digital world”. I do my work on a computer, communicate with people over social networks and listen to music with smart apps and devices. I collect memories in digital photo albums and finally I work for a company whose product is almost entirely digital (and I gave up trying to explaining that to my grandma). The remaining 30% of my time I spend offline in the real world – meeting up with friends, going on picnics in the beautiful Berlin parks, and sleeping (this is the world my grandma understands).

Back in the 1990s when Internet usage was taking off, people started interacting in two very different worlds – in the “normal”, physical world and on the “information superhighway” online. We would go home to our desktop computers and dial-up modems to use the internet. Choosing between the two worlds then was an active choice – we had to decide if we wanted to be in the digital or in the physical world. Today, these two worlds have become interconnected and the choice we make between the two worlds is more vague. Whenever I see the offline and the online worlds complement each other in perfect synergy, I get really excited. At ezeep, we are trying to do just that. The problem we are facing is a very physical and tangible one: paper printing. And we are working to solve that problem with a digital solution.

ezeep is not the only startup trying to connect the two worlds in new and interesting ways: Quarterly is a digital space, which connects people by sending out physical presents every quarter. Foodzie allows you to find “delicious discoveries” over the internet and have them sent to your home every month. Sifteo Cubes are toys that are both digital and tangible: the cubes have an LCD display and are able to interact with each other. And finally, the Little Printer collects online news from your social feeds and prints a personal mini-newspaper every morning. All of these are examples of companies connecting the two worlds in intelligent ways.

Technology pioneer Kevin Ashton introduced the concept of the “Internet of Things” in 1999, which takes the notion even further. Ashton noticed that the internet is made by humans that input data and that we, in order to broaden our horizon, should empower the “things in the real world”. He claims that if “we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things — using data they gathered without any help from us — we would be able to track and count everything and greatly reduce waste, lost and cost.” [1]

Today, more than 10 years after Ashton’s article, I find all these great digital ideas coming to life and interfering with my physical environment. And I am excited and curious to see how these ideas will affect and change my daily life. For the future of ezeep, it means simplifying the printing process and thereby turning printers into smart digital objects connected to the online world. Making printers not just physical objects, but online devices accessible from other devices connected to the Internet such as tablets and smartphones.

And what comes after that? Who knows. Perhaps it’s being able to 3D print anything we want at home, maybe it is making every object in the world able to print something? I don’t know but I agree with Ashton and his view on the importance of physical things in our world:

“We’re physical, and so is our environment. Our economy, society and survival aren’t based on ideas or information—they’re based on things.” [1]


>> This post was originally posted on the ezeep blog with many thanks to David, who helped me edit the text.


Header image: Urban Cursor a project by Danish designer Sebastian Campion.

[1] Kevin Ashton, That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing, 06/22/2009, http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/view/4986

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