Jun 20

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

bLink: Completing the Connection Between Analog and Digital

This morning's keynote speaker at TOC, Manolis Kelaidis, received a standing ovation as he described his project to integrate digital content into physical books via circuits printed in conductive ink on the same page as the text. From the description of his session:

Books have inherent qualities that make them an irreplaceable medium, even today. They have survived unchanged for centuries and are one of the most familiar and bestselling products we know. For a particular type of user experience they simply have not been bettered. Digital media (portable devices, touch-screens, etc.), however, has been offering seductive new possibilities to readers, especially in terms of interactivity. Can these two worlds, the digital and the physical, co-exist in a product that would offer the benefits of both? Manolis Kelaidis demonstrates his elegant ideas for next-generation books.

Manolis Kelaidis' blueBook project

What's particularly fascinating is that, consistent with our thesis that alpha geeks, who explore technology for the fun of it, are often those doing the most interesting work. Manolis doesn't have a startup he's pitching (yet - he has apparently filed a patent). He's a lecturer at the Royal College of Art and a Fellow at Imperial College's Tanaka Business School in London. Whether or not his project ever becomes commercially viable, it's the kind of sideways thinking that gives the publishers audience more hope for the future than dozens of me-too ebook startups or big company offerings.

What the BlueBook teaches us, along with some of the electronics-infused craft projects that Dale Dougherty of Make talked about in the keynote right before Manolis, is that we are moving towards a future in which the physical world will be infused with computing. It's not a story about the future of the book so much as it's a story about new ways to integrate digital and analog. It's the other end of the same string that brought us the Nintendo Wii as an innovation in gaming. Manolis is asking us to think about a future when a "computer" isn't just something with a keyboard and screen.

the chip in the back of the book

There's more information at from a presentation Manolis gave at the Royal College of Art summer show last year. (The pictures in this post are also reproduced from the booktwo report. There are more photos on Flickr. We should also have Manolis presentation at TOC up online soon.)

P.S. Thanks to Timo Hannay of Nature, who put Manolis on our radar in the first place.

tags: publishing  | comments: 16   | Sphere It

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Comments: 16

  Justin Watt [06.20.07 11:05 AM]

Not to be too snarky, but I think next generation books are called laptops.

  Sarah Milstein [06.20.07 11:28 AM]

Hey, Justin. I think that is a bit too snarky. Manolis got a standing ovation because people made a real emotional connection with his demo.

While most of us appreciate the benefits of digital products, we also love the physical properties of books. When Manolis touched a page in his prototype and it automatically started playing "Yellow Submarine" on his laptop, he wasn't just suggesting a hybrid model, he was giving us a glimpse of a book that we'd personally find magical and practical to read and use.

Coincidentally, Danese Cooper commented yesterday that it would be great to have a novel that would play the music in it. There was a little ripple in the room when she said that, and a big ripple today when Manolis made that seem truly possible.

Laptops are great. But there's a lot to love about books--and it seems Manolis has pointed the way to even more.

  Tim O'Reilly [06.20.07 12:24 PM]

I have to agree with both Justin and Sarah. I don't think that Manolis' bluebook project represents a real commercial opportunity per-se, at least not as currently formulated--the costs are way too high. And laptops and phones are already electronic.

But what alpha geeks teach us, in "searching the possible for its possibleness", are new ways of thinking about the future. People disdained the WWW at first because it didn't work very well compared to CD-ROM hypertext, or the complex interfaces of PC applications. People disdained the PC itself as a toy.

I've updated the entry to say a bit more about why I think that this story is important.

But Sarah's comment is also really crucial to understand: "people made a real emotional connection." Why was that?

  Roberto Bonini [06.20.07 01:05 PM]

The emotional connection comes in because of the format: books. People can and do form emotional connections with books, I mean, I still have a huge pile of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books in a cupboard - I refuse to throw them (no matter what the improvement to the order in said cupboard). I can't imagine forming such an emotional attachment to an eBook reader, laptop or webpage.

  Rasmus Olufsen [06.21.07 03:15 AM]

What is unique about using books as a metapor is its direct mental model to perecieving technology and making it usable. The dream of the ebook has been around for quite some time now but apart from technical limiations it has not found a ressonace the same way printed books have for centruires. Directly mapping an analog real world object to a digital system is not always the answer to making elegant solutions. Some other attempts have also been there to use a book as a platform for digital content like this book radio ( ) which i assume tried to explore this analog vs digital connection in an unconventional sort of way.

  Sarah Milstein [06.21.07 08:32 AM]

Tim, I'm going to disagree about the commercial potential for Manolis's book. One of his slides (which are now up at showed the technologies he expects to use this year, in one year and in three years. All of the components are things that are likely to be widely used in other applications, probably to the point that their costs will approach zero.

RFID, for example, was one of the technologies Manolis is looking at, and it happened to be the subject of one of our other sessions. In that presentation, Jim Lichtenberg noted that by 2016, the US Post Office expects to be tagging a trillion items a year with printable RFID chips. When we reach that scale, the technology costs will be negligible (which put me in mind of Matt Webb, But Jim noted that they're already quite cheap.

I'd guess that at this stage, the costs are too high to be incorporated into every kind of book where you might want the bLink technology, but it would probably work for a number of books where people are willing to pay more. And whichever publisher can be the first to fold it into just one title would garner some big-time PR.

  Tim O'Reilly [06.21.07 10:00 AM]


I don't disagree about the long term potential of the idea. However, there are other technologies such as e-ink, electronic paper, etc. that are also in the long term race. And when you consider the manufacturing cost of a current book is usually only a couple of dollars, that printers will have to make very large investments to produce the first few of these, it seems likely to me that there will be other applications of printed electronics that drive the costs down before this kind of thing makes it to books.

To give a concrete example -- I met the other day with Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse. SRI patented it, but never saw a dime, both because the patent had expired before mouse-based computing actually took off, and because the ultimate design of the commercial mouse was substantially different from Doug's original SRI design.

But I'd love to be surprised.

As I said in my addition to the post, what seems most important to me here is not the possibility of the actual artifact that Manolis showed, but all the ways that computing is bursting the bounds of "the computer" and infusing every day life.

  Sarah Milstein [06.21.07 11:00 AM]

Fair points. I do agree that the bigger story is in the morphing of computers. And I'd add that it's exciting to think that publishers may be able to lead some of that change.

  Kathleen Meyer [06.21.07 12:52 PM]

I think that Manolis' presentation resonated with many of the book people in the audience because he came across as genuinely impassioned by enriching the experience of reading. He was one of the first/only presenters who spoke to the love for books and that je ne sais quoi that lures most of us into the book world in the first place (must be something keeping us all here other than the incredible profit margins).
In what for some was a real "deer in the headlights" conference -- I speak of the many publishers who have been doing their darndest the past 10 years to stave off the scary world of digital publishing, Manolis' demo helped transform that "dizzying sense of too much possibility" into something relatable and beautiful, rather than daunting. Perhaps it's just a dream as a viable product, but Manolis' BlueBook symbolizes the goal we should all be shooting for, the best of both worlds -- digital "booky books" with heart and soul. (And the capitalist in me is really happy he has a patent on it:)!)

  Robert Kasher [06.22.07 02:27 AM]

One of the reasons why I mentioned in my question both costs and product degradation is that I like this. The sensuality of touching the book, words, letters, while engaging with it digitally is amazing, beautiful, kabbalistic even. I'm of two minds as per cost and commerciality (if that's a word). On a limitd edition basis it could work. On a mass market basis I remain to be convinced. Polymers could work better than inks but polymers break. I would however love to do a creaive textual experiment with this. Its an amazing media.


Bob Kasher MPS Mobile

  Jill O'Neill [06.22.07 08:15 AM]

On the trip back from San Jose, I realized what my own emotional resonance with Manolis' presentation stemmed from. He brought to life that childhood illustration of sailing ships and dragons floating up from the pages of a storybook held in a child's lap. Hitherto nothing else offered up as an ebook has managed to do that. I am sure that there are significant barriers between the presentation and bringing a product to market, but this device was the first thing I've ever seen that could move me to pay for a digital reading experience.

  Jay Ven Eman [06.22.07 09:30 AM]

To Jill’s comments, are we running the risk of dictating too much to a child’s imagination? From the movies, we all now know what Harry Potter looks and sounds like. Is that a good thing? Yes, it helps to know what Beethoven looks like and to hear his music as you read his biography, but for fiction? It will start with textbooks, reference books, engineering manuals, and the like. The ability to “project” concepts from a book to an interactive environment with supportive tools is very compelling. One can work out problems and play endless ‘what if’ scenarios. This can be done now on your computer, but marrying it with your textbook has some tremendous advantages. Other attributes of books not mentioned include they are still more reliable - no batteries and they still work after being dropped among other great features. To be successful, Manolis' BlueBooks need to avoid compromising these.

  Sabina Richardson [06.22.07 01:42 PM]

I think in a lot of ways we are limited by our current understanding of books and the current iterations of ebooks and ebook readers. If you've ever read the fiction of Neal Stephenson, particularly his book The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, you will will see the real interesting concepts are not the future iteration of the physical book or e-reader device but the potential created by convergence.

Convergence of media and of technology.

Essentially the concept is that we will all have personal devices which teach us when we have underutilized time, entertain us when we are bored, tell us when to shop and what we need (Refer to the software agents research done by Pattie Maes of MIT's media lab), and ultimately give us personalized health profiles and allot exercise time.

Essentially, we will have devices that will serve as communicators, teachers, entertainment, personal agents, and personal trainers. Like a cell phone, laptop and Wii all rolled into one.

The personal device, created in the form of a traditional book, a tool the human mind has developed itself alongside throughout centuries of evolution - would be an amazing thing. Opening pages that changed according to our needs, current interests, etc etc. The possibilities are endless.

Children in poorer countries will have the benefit of a personal device, an 'OLPC' on steroids that will raise and teach them - it would be an amazing leveling technology - allowing even some of the poorest children to have some of the benefits that currently only the wealthy can have.

I love the research that people like Manolis are doing because it brings us closer to the future.

I think in a lot of ways the benefits of thinking about the future of the ebook is only possible within the boundless imagination of a fairytale like Neal Stephenson's - amusingly a fairytale I read from a traditional paperbound book.

  Robert Kasher [06.22.07 05:44 PM]

Actually it just dawned on me that I'm surprised nobody referenced the 'Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy' from Douglas Adams. This actually is a first step in that direction.

  bowerbird [06.24.07 10:17 AM]

this is kinda cool. i mean, who hasn't wished
that we could have "hyperlinks" in a paper-book?

but, based on this photo, i'm missing something:

in this case, "clicking the link" has brought up
a photo on a nearby computer screen. so that computer
could have been used to deliver the content that
was in the book as well, couldn't it?


  Tim O'Reilly [06.25.07 12:54 PM]

bowerbird -- you aren't missing something. The whole point is to use the book to control other electronic devices via bluetooth. The book is an interface, not a display. In that sense, what Manolis is doing is analogous to what you can do with semacodes (but the book itself is the sensor, and doesn't require an external device as semacode does.)

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