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How to Print a Super-Thin Touchscreen Display on Just About Anything

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We've kept a close eye on the 27th ACM Symposium on INTER Software and Technology in Honolulu this week, given that it's already produced dozens of fascinating prototypes. But this award-winning paper is perhaps the coolest we've seen: It lays out a new technique for printing cheap, simple touchscreen displays with conventional printers.

It's called PrintScreen, and it's a system that allows the user to print on nearly any material: Wood. Mylar. Marble. Leather. Metal. A piece of office paper. And what's more, these super-cheap, super-fast displays are touch sensitive. They can be double-sided. You can roll them, smoosh them, fold them. And you could print them in your own home.

In the words of the researchers behind PrintScreen, the process of making flexible displays—much less touch-sensitive ones—normally requires a "high-end print lab, complex machinery and expert skills." But using the techniques outlined in their project, the process is made vastly simpler and cheaper.


In the full paper, which just won the Best Paper Award at the symposium, authors Simon Olberding, Michael Wessely, and Jürgen Steimle explain how their system functions. Normally, if you wanted to integrate a display into something you were building, you'd have to buy the full components, which of course look like this:


But the trio propose something much simpler, beginning with designing a simple circuit using any kind of desktop image editor. When you have your display set up as a vector file, you print it using any number of conventional printing processes, from inkjet printer to an actual analog screen printer.

What's more important than the application method is the ink you use—and in what order. The ink is applied in four layers: First there's the silver conductor, then a dielectric layer, a phosphor layer, and finally, a translucent conductor. Those two outer conductors sandwich the phosphor layer, which emits the light when a charge is run through the ink.

So what can you do with it? In their paper, the authors show off five prototypes. There's a touch-sensitive watch strap:


As well as a fake plant that acts as a way to answer phone calls, a tiny game of Pong, and an interactive postcard. There's also a prototype that demonstrates how such a simple display could be integrated with other components to create a more advanced system:


These novel little concepts are just that—novel, one-off applications, a tiny glimpse of what's possible. In reality, there's an almost limitless number of ways in which such a display could be used.

We've spent a lot of time wondering when flexible displays, cheap displays, or print-at-home displays would become a reality. In one fell swoop, these researchers have demonstrated all three in a single paper. [Embodied Interaction]