You probably jotted down something recently on a sheet of paper--a to-do list, some grocery items, a reminder. Wouldn't it be helpful if you could access that note at any time?

This is the idea behind Pulp Nonfiction. Created in a Carnegie Mellon lab, the invention looks and feels like a normal sheet of paper. But thanks to a thin conductive layer, it can track what you write on it, and then digitally transfer the note to a computer or other device. What's more, a single sheet costs just 30 cents to make. 

CMU professor Chris Harrison, director of the university's Future Interfaces Group--which focuses on the various ways people will interact with computers several years down the road--led the team of researchers who created the product.

"Paper has a great quality to it," he says. "We're always trying to make the digital world more paper-like. On an iPad, you turn virtual pages on magazine content. We're sort of pulling the virtual world toward paper, but we haven't had a good means of pulling paper toward the digital world, of reinventing it as a 21st-century medium."

To do that, Harrison's group made use of tomography, the same technology that's used in MRIs. Tiny electrodes are placed around the edges of the sheet, which is lined with a thin plastic layer that acts as a conductor. Small electrical impulses are generated when you press on the page with a pen or finger, and the electrodes interact with one another to map out what's happening in between them. The resulting image is then transferred to a device and digitally stored.

The current iteration of Pulp Nonfiction still needs to be connected to the device with a wire, which is obviously a huge obstacle to its usefulness. Additionally, the sensors can only coarsely reconstruct what's written, so the paper can replicate large letters and broad scribbles but not smaller handwriting.

Soon enough, though, Harrison says, the technology will be wireless and more precise, and thus ready for the real world. His group is refining the idea, for which he has a patent pending, and he says the company is in talks with major potential partners that could facilitate the process of bringing the product to market.

"We're a while away from it, but I think we've taken a big step in the right direction," Harrison says. "I could totally see that in five years you could get a Post-it note with this capability built in, and you won't even think about it. Of course, what you write appears on your phone. Why wouldn't it?"

In addition to everyday note-taking, Harrison sees the paper as being useful in educational settings, where groups of students could partake in lessons while getting real-time feedback from their instructors without the need for a tablet or laptop. Newspapers could have small buttons below each article that allow you to share it or save it for later, and board games could keep score or handle your Monopoly money all on their own. 

Harrison estimates that when the paper is produced in bulk, the cost of a sheet could get down to 3 cents--just 2 cents more than a traditional piece of computer paper. That low cost, he says, has been the primary goal all along. "We could have made a thousand-dollar piece of paper," he says, "but then that would just be an iPad. We wanted to keep it as paper--this single-use item that you can scribble on and throw away without a second thought."

For a visual on how the tech works, check out the video from the Future Interfaces Group below.

Published on: May 4, 2018