Q&A | Electronics on Paper

Conductive Postcards to Trigger Sound: Printed Electronics

In 2013 Uniform’s Pete Thomas presented the Postcard Player to SxSW in Texas as part of joint discussion about the comparative ways we interact with music through digital and material platforms. The player works by reading a code on the surface of postcards printed with Electric Paint and then plays a relative track. Graphic buttons at the bottom of the cards function with Arduino and Adafruit’s audio Wave Shield so the participant can start, stop, and flick through tracks by touching paper. The prototype went on to be shortlisted for the Design of the Year 2013 at the Design Museum and was on display for several months in the Southbank space this year.

As the link between audio experiences and tangible objects has fractured since music went digital, the way we listen to and recall tunes has undoubtedly changed forever. I view the dematerialisation of music’s physical platform as a tragedy: sleeve graphics support the message music delivers and are crucial historical artefacts from a different time. For this reason the dislocation of artwork from produced sound is damaging to our understanding of creative voices past and present. But is music’s narrative that simple? I got in touch with Pete to ask if paint and paper can save the music industry, or if the music industry really needs saving at all.

Why did you start working with Electric Paint?

We had been working with silver conductive ink but wanted to start exploring other materials and then someone I was working with introduced me to Bare. It was basically a conversation between John Rogers [from the Product Design Research Studio at the University of Dundee] and some of the guys at the micro label Fence Records in Scotland who had the idea of going to SxSW with a joint project.

What were your joint aims while developing the project?

We really wanted to just explore what would happen after a forced mash-up of a hyper-local record label and printed electronics. What we wanted to find out was if we could add value to both those domains by working together. Particularly from Uniform’s perspective we were interested in solutions that had more plausible service design element to them. When we chatted to Kenny Anderson, founder of Fence, he said the lack of tangible artefacts makes it very difficult for micro labels to make money. So ideas we put together at the time were a poster that would encourage people to listen to live music at local venues and inform them of gig info, and the postcard player. The aim behind these concepts is to give those digital formats a physical presence at a relatively low cost. Certainly something people could keep and swap and pin up on their wall. A physical reminder of experiences I guess.

Have you always had an interest in music?

Well I’ve recently relocated to a small fishing village in Scotland [The Uniform Studio is in Liverpool]. One of the reasons we came here was that there was a really good independent music scene going on. So yeah, I’ve always been interested in records and buying music.

Album sales have been on continual decline in the UK and 99% of singles bought are digital. Do you think the absence of physical objects has made people less likely to buy music?

Kenny Anderson from Fence presented very much as the anti-digital voice at SxSW. He would argue that record sales have been in constant decline since the CD was introduced, but I think if you look again at the figures they present a different story which is much more about entertainment sales. The volume of entertainment sales still remains quite healthy in terms of paying for content, but what you are seeing is a distribution of sales across other media that didn’t actually exist when vinyl was at its heyday. When vinyl was at its peak there wasn’t the same market for films and video games as there is now, those things have basically eaten into the entertainment market that was previously mainly the domain of music.

How did you connect the visual prints with the function of the player?

Each time we’ve shown the Postcard Player we’ve done different things with it. The first time we had album artwork on it done by FOUND artist , and then the ones we did with Fence we had photographs of the artists, which was well received because you could emote a bit more about the people behind the music. We then developed some much more abstract designs because the cards were doing something slighter more difficult for the viewer/user to grasp. They went from playing songs by local bands to linking up to the web and using a Raspberry Pi. So they were doing things like playing the most popular song on SoundCloud or linking to Radio 4. When we went to the design museum we wanted to show something somewhere between the two but also something that was not too loaded in terms of the visual meaning of the cards- we had lots of photos of bearded men with accordions which might have been a put off for the kids in the space! So when we went with something that just suggested that music could be played it worked well.


What challenges did you face working with paper?

Everything we have done previously had been done in a fairly hacked together space; we’ve always screen-printing ourselves and used laser copied card and so on. When the postcard went into the Design Museum we had to rethink how it was going to be presented and made to become indestructible while on display for six months and that was challenging, but its exciting to review your working conditions in this way. We approached GF Smith which gave us the opportunity to use paper with a really natural texture and colour right the way through it as well as getting thickness from it. We got them screen printed professionally by K2 as well.

How did you find people interacted with the cards on display?

Some people were a little disappointed when they realised there are no electronics in the card! Kids love it, they view it slightly differently and get really excited by it which allows us to see the purity of the interaction.  I think a lot of older people who have a connection to physical platforms are heartened by it and equally people who are excited by print generally love the tangible quality of it.

How do you explain the Postcard Player to people new to these kinds of concepts?

One thing I try to say often is that it is a prototype. So its not designed as a commercial product, it’s a object to explore whether or not we can discover more engaging physical interactions with digital data. The musical element is really a minor part of what it does. It could be controlling or organising any kind of media. The question it asks is much broader than music, it is asking us about touching other materials than just a phone screen or keypad to engage with data.

Check out the SxSW panel discussion here

Grace Attlee