Berg’s Little Printer has received something of a mixed reception. In essence it’s a receipt printer that connects to the Internet. It queues up a collection of content, when you press the print button on the top you get a printout of your content. It could be that day’s Guardian articles, a weather report, your Nike+ report, whatever, you can choose from their menu.

It costs £200, which is a lot of money, and a reason for some of the criticism. Another reason is that it’s bad for the environment to print things out unnecessarily. This I think is something of a marginal point; the average British person emits 9.2 tonnes of carbon a year, a couple of rolls of paper aren’t going to make any difference.

Really, the root of the criticism of the little printer is that it doesn’t seem that useful. But wait! Berg are design geniuses, why have they made something that isn’t that useful? First, perhaps we’re all wrong and it is actually very useful. Text messages and Twitter are both examples of an extremely limited format which has been successful exactly because of their narrow scope.

I don’t honestly think that’s what’s going to happen though. I think what happened was that it’s a very early step exploring the “Internet of Things” and first steps are always uncertain.

When I refer to the Internet of Things, I mean the idea that the future of computing is going to be less ‘virtual’ and more ‘real’. It’s an appealing idea: who isn’t fed up with staring into a computer screen all day? People choose their careers based on avoiding being etiolated in front of a computer. We’d never put up with it if it wasn’t so damn productive.

To the end of understanding this concept I’ve spent a long time thinking about what ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ mean: my conclusion is that there is no coherent definition. The world virtual only got the meaning of “having the essence or effect but not the appearance or form” in 1959, with the birth of computers.  Two related points that capture some aspects of virtuality:

  • Computers are virtual because they require humans to connect them to the real world, to put information in.
  • Computers are virtual because their output is non-physical, text or pictures. Humans have to take this and then cause the effect on the real world.

The IoT movement is about breaching these barriers. It’s worth noting that they only exist in respect of consumer electronics, in the industrial sphere computers have been controlling production lines and HVAC systems in building for decades. In doing this they have real-world sensors and real-world output. IoT happened years ago for industrial computing.

This conception of virtuality has mislead people into believing that what we want in our homes is for our computers to connect to the real world. But we already know this isn’t the case. When Bill Gates founded Microsoft he thought that he would sell PCs for spreadsheets, desktop publishing and home automation.  Home automation, almost a synonym for IoT, hasn’t ever taken off, it’s the nut that Microsoft didn’t crack. The use case simply isn’t there.

I don’t want my computer to know much about the real world: what items I have in my fridge, what temperature living room is, if someone is having a bath. I also don’t want my computer to have much physical world output: I’m not going to turn the oven on before I get home using my phone, I’m not going to 3D print myself a guitar and I’m not going to print out my day’s reading on a receipt. Domestically, there just isn’t the desire to have a computer interact with the real world.

But, as mentioned previously, we do like the idea of getting away from the computer screen. This brings me to second idea of virtuality: that a computer is virtual because it does everything. From buying and selling stocks to writing music to playing games, you do it all on the same device, and see the results on the same screen and through the same speakers. How could a device that exhibits this degree of flexibility be anything other than virtual, some remote of abstraction of the underlying processes?

In the consumer setting the Internet of Things is about UX, it’s about being able to access the power of a computer without having to do it through my laptop. This is where Little Printer fails, because although it offers a physical interface with your computer, it does it with worse UX than a computer screen. Being able to use Photoshop on it’s own tablet, having the calendar that hangs on my wall connected with Google Calendar, having an interface for my music collection that’s part of my HiFi – these might be valuable UX wins. 3D printing ticks the box of connecting the virtual with the physical, but it doesn’t solve a UX problem.

It’s interesting to see how audio equipment deals with the interface problem. Below, the blue item is an entirely analogue (tube-based!) mixing desk.  It couldn’t be more real, everything about it is totally physical. Open it up and there will be glowing valves inside. The grey one is a digital mixing desk, it’s totally fake, a laptop in a box, but for the sake of the UX, the outside is more or less identical to an analogue version.

Knobs, dials, real buttons and purpose-specific displays are what IoT really offers the consumer.


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