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The University of Surrey’s Professor David Frohlich has won £1.17m funding from the Digital Economy programme, to research and develop paper materials that would allow readers to “interact” with printed materials like Harry Potter portraits.

The project is called “Next generation paper” and will develop a new form of paper with hyperlinks to the web. Readers will be able to obtain related information on nearby digital devices, just by turning a page or touching the surface of paper documents, photographs, posters or books. This could lead to documents “interacting” with their readers as they impart information – like the fictitious portraits in Harry Potter which are magically able to react to their viewers.

These interactive documents, which are a hybrid of “print-and-digital” information, could have links to video clips, animations, sound recordings or music which play at the touch of a printed button. These would appear on TVs, music players, smartphones, tablets and computers, with documents effectively paired with a device using the project technology.

People currently scan printed QR codes with a smartphone as an early method of linking paper and digital information. But the project will go beyond this into full document recognition and even instrumentation of the paper itself with electronic sensors and chips.

Professor Frohlich, from the Digital World Research Centre, said: “We plan to give physical paper a whole new lease of digital life. Elements of interactive paper have been around in prototype form for some time, but we hope our research will help create a mass market next generation paper for the 21st century.

“The project will create new business opportunities for the digital economy that we will research in parallel with the technology. For example, publishers will be able to add value to print products and services by connecting them to digital material, while web companies will be able to use paper as a tangible interface to online information.”

The project will assist in travel and tourism technology where people already read a combination of printed and digital information, by using travel brochures, guide books and leaflets alongside smartphone apps, e-books and TV programmes. However, interactive paper would link up these sources, making it easier to move between them in the reading process.

People will also be able to “write” interactive paper materials, like photobooks with associated video clips or sound recordings. These could be assembled as interactive e-books online, and then played back from the printed version. Optical or other sensors would be needed to recognise which page is open and where someone is pointing in order to play the associated media.

Many other applications are also possible wherever paper continues to be used alongside digital information. These include printed textbooks linked to online teaching materials, patient records linked to test results, and office documents linked to their electronic versions and associated reference material – all making it easier and faster to get the extra information.

The new project builds on several previous projects involving University of Surrey staff. As well as Dr George Revill from the Department of Geography at the Open University other Surrey academics and groups are involved, these include: Professor Miroslav Bober from the Centre for Speech and Signal Processing, Dr Radu Sporea from the Advanced Technology Institute, Professor Caroline Scarles from the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and Professor Alan Brown from the Surrey Centre for the Digital Economy.

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