A Low Cost, Dead Tree Touch Screen

Remember the “paperless office”? Neither do we, because despite the hype of end-to-end digital documents, it never really happened. The workplace is still a death-trap for trees, and with good reason: paper is cheap, literally growing on trees, and it’s the quickest and easiest medium for universal communication and collaboration. Trouble is, once you’re done scribbling your notes on a legal pad or designing the Next Big Thing on a napkin, what do you do with it?

If you’re anything like us, the answer to that question is misplacing or destroying the paper before getting a chance to procrastinate transcribing it into some useful digital form. Wouldn’t paper that automatically digitizes what you draw or write on it be so much better? That’s where this low-cost touch-sensitive paper (PDF link) is headed, and it looks like it has a lot of promise. Carnegie-Mellon researchers [Chris Harrison] and [Yang Zhang] have come up with cheap and easy methods of applying conductive elements to sheets of ordinary paper, and importantly, the methods can scale well to the paper mill to take advantage of economies of scale at the point of production. Based on silk-screened conductive paints, the digitizer uses electrical field tomography to locate touches and quantify their pressure through a connected microcontroller. The video below shows a prototype in action.

Current cost is 30 cents a sheet, and if it can be made even cheaper, the potential applications range from interactive educational worksheets to IoT newspapers. And maybe if it gets really cheap, you can make a touch-sensitive paper airplane when you’re done with it.

Thanks to [Qes] for the tip.

38 thoughts on “A Low Cost, Dead Tree Touch Screen

  1. “IOT newspaper” really? If you’re connected to the Internet, you don’t need a newspaper and if you’re reading a newspaper you’re probably not online.
    We’ve been digitising paper images for years now, it’s with a thing called a scanner, most printers come with one and they don’t need special paper.
    This is obviously a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist yet.

    1. A smartphone? Really? I already have a phone and a camera. My camera takes better pictures than my phone does, and if I need to read something on the internet, I can wait until I get home to read it on a full-sized screen more suited to my eyes.

      Honestly, who would even use a smartphone

    2. “This is obviously a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist yet.”

      Hmmm… I’m thinking maybe this would be useful for taking “Rubbings” of physical objects with raised surfaces like, credit cards, keys, coins, archeological artifacts, etc?


      “A rubbing (frottage) is a reproduction of the texture of a surface created by placing a piece of paper or similar material over the subject and then rubbing the paper with something to deposit marks, most commonly charcoal or pencil…”

      Just tossing out… I didn’t read the source article (yet). It’s late my-time. So maybe this doesn’t apply here.

  2. Positional accuracy obviously isn’t great compared to a regular touchscreen or a tablet, but given the nature of the stylus and the cost of the system, this isn’t bad.

    That said, the fact that you can only use one side of a page is a big downside. For some applications that won’t matter, but most newspapers for example are double-sided.

    1. Not being able to fold the paper or punch holes in it is another downside. If you bend it or crease it, the touch accuracy suffers because the conductive paint stretches and compresses in places.

      They show a folded answer sheet, but if you look carefully there’s another pad underneath it to actually register the touch, which basically turns that application into this:


      Digital notepads already exist. The only upside with this version is, you can use any pen.

  3. The Commodore Pet had a device called a “BitPad” (aka a digitiser), you could place a sheet of ordinary A4 paper on it, draw on the paper with a pencil attached to the stylus and miracle of miracles you got a stream of numbers from the bitbad representing the movement of the pen. Date… circa 1979
    Maybe I’m missing something critical here, but what exactly does this “new idea” bring to the party?
    Paper at 30cents per sheet? I already pay three million dollars a pint for my inkjet ink, so why not paper at 100 times the current cost per sheet.

      1. what do you mean with “still”?
        My printer uses ribbons and makes a PPPPRRRRRRNNNGGGGGTTTTTTTTWWWWW sound when the head moves from left to right. Am I missing something here?

      2. Pigment inks are superior to lasers for photographic prints because the raster/dither is finer and you can actually use a variety of paper types for effect rather than always getting the same plastic coated effect. Inkjets are also more flexible when it comes to different paper sizes, up to a continuous roll for really long panoramas.

        The downside is of course that the ink costs a ton, but then again companies like Epson have started reversing the traditional model of selling a printer for $50 and cartridges for $40 and are now selling models that cost $300 for the printer but the inks are in big re-fillable bottles.

        1. In complement to your comment, I include:

          I’ve got a HP DeskJet 450 with a battery. Is there a laser/wax printer with a battery and fits in a briefcase?

          Some fun info about my printer:
          I got it from the boot-sale for a fiver spares-repairs, repaired it* and I found the printer will happily print full colour blank pages from the long empty cartridges after I canceled the warning about no ink…
          I foolishly chucked away those cartridges. Hopefully the cartridges I currently got are from the infinite-print batches of cartridges.

          *it had a paper clip jammed in the rollers.

  4. Regarding the project. It’s cool that they went through a lot of effort to create capacitive touchscreen using regular paper. But as long as the paper itself doesn’t contain any electronics connecting it to the outside world, then what is the benefit over a regular touchscreen covered by a regular sheet of paper?
    Unless the real intention is to create a market for a new type of overpriced paper?

    A much better example of improving paper is perhaps recordable paper. Where the paper becomes a cheap writable medium carrying audio. The 3M soundpage as recently talked about by Techmoan on his youtube channel


    1. That’s just recording on iron dust, like tape or floppy or any other mundane thing. No reason, or advantage, to apply it to A4 paper. The secret, if you haven’t seen the video, is a motorised read / write head that moves in a circle, placed on the magnetic coating on the back of the paper.

  5. They might check patents, in the 90’s I worked for a touch pad company that had patents on sensors that use resistance to find where you touched and how much force was applied. Look for patents from Interlink Electronics.

  6. So much negativity here :( This is absolutely amazing!!! a dirt cheap touch sensor that looks simple enough to DIY opens up the possibility to so many projects.

    Obviously you won’t see this on a smart phone but imagine the amazing DIY user interfaces you can make, no need to buy hundreds of buttons and switches

    1. Was just going to say that. The researchers focus on the application the mainstream media could understand but at a price point of $0.3 a sheet the possibilities for hacking in totally unrelated applications are endless.
      i.e. you could even carpet the walls and floor with that or for you americans your guns.

    2. Well, the idea is a good one, just maybe not as practical as being made out. They’re very cheap by comparison to regular touch sensors, but at 30c a sheet; a 250 sheet ream of these would cost $75.

      I could see this being useful in textiles; if you can apply this to a sheet of paper, you could probably do it with metallised threads in cotton sheet and do all manner of creative things. The concept isn’t bad, but maybe the humble A4 sheet of paper is not the best application.

      1. The reason depictions of the “paperless office” worked is because the technology was so cheap, one could have as many as they wanted. We saw it in TNG with Picard having a desk-full of PADDS. It also retains the resolution of paper, if not the pressure.

  7. So you have to connect electronics prior to writing on the paper? Assuming the electronics were already embedded inside a notebook full of these pages…well that’s not too silly. Although it still consumes relatively expensive pages.

    If it could also be combined with this reusable ink/notebook concept, maybe it would make more sense?
    So as you write in the Rocketbook this “electrical field tomography” electronically stores your image, no need to take a picture with your cell phone later.

    Resolution would have to be competitive with a cellphone camera though…. and that’s where I’m skeptical. They’re already using prohibitively expensive electronics in ideal circumstances and it looks like it’s only good for big smiley faces.

    Best of luck to them. I would love a refined way of transferring my paper to PC.

  8. Pretty cool idea tbh, i just hope they can up the polling rate or something a bit so the digital version is more in line with the real world one, that said theres gonna be concessions if they wanna keep it cheap, so doubt they will go fully 1on1, but a little better wouldn’t hurt.

    At all the people bickering about how theres other ways to do this etc, sure there are, but theres one thing the article failed to mention that imo is the biggest reason why offices still use paper, paper is nice to work with, its as simple as that. Even today the most expensive tablet/’drawing surface’ you can get can only barely hold up to a good old and a piece of paper, so why not this approach?

  9. I don’t see anything fancy here. I’ve seen a BUNCH of “Notepads” and “Smart papers” that allow you to digitize what you write with special paper.
    Every manufacture does his own variant on it so you are dependant on THAT specific thing. And if they upgrade or go bancrupt, you’re screwed. This is bad. Let paper be paper and instead innovate the way documents are handled.

    WHY is it still necessary to have paper?!
    Answer that question and you can start getting into paperless offices.
    You need paper because no office or official department ACCEPTS digital signed documents. So screw that.
    I’m sick and I need to inform my employer and my insurance that I’m sick.
    The insurance gives me the ability to send them a photo of that document. Great – But what about my company? Nope – they still require the paper. And why do I even get that freakin’ piece of paper anyways? The doctor has my insurance card – DIGITAL. Just freakin’ send them a signed document as soon as I’m sick and the insurance company is fine. After that, the company tells my employer that I’m sick. Skip the Effin paper that I have to send by post!

    Same with Banking and stuff I buy. You want to buy an iPhone (yeah yeah – I know) on a subscription-based model?
    Sure thing, just ID yourself via APP. That’s fine.
    Oh but you STILL need to print the documents and send them to the credit-giver so he has your signed contract.
    Great … Why not completely make that stuff digital?

    SAME for my work.
    I don’t need paper. My desk contains a freakin’ Post-it pad. No paper.
    But when our technicians are out there, installing stuff, they need to get signed documents and installation references from the customer. Why?! Get that stuff digitally signed like DHL, UPS and whatever shipping company does.
    Skip the paper alltogether.

    1. Instant-addon:

      /rant – Sorry but stuff like this is neat and all – and I love tech. But it’s just mad that we try to engineer AROUND the original issue in the first place.

      Paperless office is a thing – but only as long as you don’t need signed documents – and this is the big issue. Start engineering solutions for PROPER signed documents around the world that every company and every authority can use.

      1. Aren’t there already legal standards in place for legally accountable electronic signatures? I think at least the Europeans have one.

        Of course it doesn’t mean everyone takes it, but the technology and standards are there.

  10. I’m just waiting for someone to invent some way to cheaply produce e-ink screens, add this technology for input and IBM’s tiny chip: https://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2018/3/19/17140116/ibm-worlds-smallest-computer-grain-of-salt-solar-powered to make a cheap computer-paper.
    Even if it’s not individually powerful, you could “print” to a stack of those and have reference material you can spread out rather than take up monitor space.

  11. I’ve been using a Bamboo folio for years now every day for meeting notes and idea sketching.
    It’s better than a scanner since it captures the vector of the pen stroke. Using the basic free subscription service “Inkspace” I can upload my pages, combine them, convert to text or svg files or the proprietary WILL format. Useful sometimes, not so others.
    I am worrying about the reliance of some functionality on the website, but all in all very useful.

  12. When batteries cannot be had nor uniformly dispersed elec, paper is a handy reference on how to grow stuff and make crude gun powder etc. It is awkward and ungainly and sensitive as some digital memory banks are, but can be read by humans, if… there is any sunlight… Like ink jet versus other, each has pros and cons, but while sensitive to destruction it is less ungainly than carvings on a rock. Compared to rock, paper is microfilm with a built in 2D reader. We trust oaper. Digital stuff changes SO often it is hard to keep up old readers or transfer old info to the latest memory mediums. Paper is its own legacy support.

    1. Paper’s only so convenient because we live in a world with huge paper factories, bleach manufacturers, ink factories, etc. As well as stationers and all the rest. It seems convenient and self-supporting because of all the support that nobody really thinks about. The Egyptians had papyrus but it was only in the hands of scribes, and I bet it wasn’t cheap. You could make paper in your kitchen from twigs if you really had to, but it’d be hard work and produce pretty shit paper.

  13. While this different sort of paper may seem redundant compared to the touch interfaces that are currently out there it may still find a use when it comes to prototyping new interfaces for electronics or for allowing Makers/Hackers to create inexpensive custom interfaces for their projects.

    One idea is to attach a strip of paper to the back of a smartphone/tablet that could function like a scroll wheel for when your scrolling down a webpage.

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