There’s a tussle in the head of Osmotronic founder Matthew Falla, between the endless, captivating possibilities of digital technologies and the lure of good old-fashioned paper, card and ink. Supplied with an array of electronic gadgetry while studying interaction design at London’s Royal College of Art, Falla yearned for the craft of traditional printing techniques. But given access to a wealth of screen-printing and letterpress facilities on the graphic design course at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, he was drawn instead to the technologies of interaction design, a discipline focusing on dynamic human interactions with materials and environments rather than the static layout of graphics on paper. ‘It was typical of me to be attracted to the opposite of what I was doing,’ notes Falla, wryly.
As it transpires, the solution to this dichotomy was simply to marry the two approaches. So, a sheet of printed paper comes alive with interactive qualities, responsive to touch and the movement of a finger. Or a poster bursts into projected animations when its surface is pressed, rendered interactive thanks to the electrical conductive qualities of special screen-printed inks. Titled Interaphics, these posters stem from an Osmotronic collaboration with graphic design studio Build and illustrator Danny Sangra and made their debut at last year’s London Design Festival. Now, Falla is in talks with publishers about creating the world’s first fully animated magazine cover, using digital ink technologies.
It was to explore exactly these kinds of possibilities – commercially for clients, as well as through self-generated projects – that Falla approached the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, looking for a grant to set up a business. His bid was successful and about 18 months ago Falla launched Osmotronic as part design consultancy, part vehicle for exploring how interactivity and digital media can be seamlessly embedded into non-digital, physical objects.
An early project called Connect Draw Remix used the conductive qualities of graphite to create a CD case ‘toy’ for mixing music, connected to a computer via USB. By drawing pencil lines on the case’s electronic ink, circuits are opened and closed, telling the software how to play the music. Anything you don’t like can be rubbed out with an eraser and redrawn. ‘The reaction to this showed me that maybe there was something in interaction with physical formats,’ says Falla. ‘It gave me the confidence to think that maybe I could build a design consultancy around these ideas. So I did some research into the printed electronics industry and approached Nesta. A lot of printed electronics technology is sitting around in R&D departments, but there are not many people looking at potential applications from a design point of view.’
Falla’s first desire was to draw people away from electronic screens and their virtual, digital content and back to the experiences of using physical, tangible objects. But in developing Osmotronic he has begun to take a more balanced approach. ‘I used to see interactivity as a hook to get people away from digital stuff by giving them some fun. But now people demand connectivity, searchability and traceability all the time and it would be an inconvenience if these digital things weren’t there,’ he says.
Osmotronic’s current commercial projects, all based around interactivity, include the development of toy concepts for Hasbro and Android 8, signage for a London museum and marketing materials for a large property developer, the details of which Falla is keeping under wraps. He is also in discussions with mobile phone companies to develop Osmotronic’s Mobipak design, a system which again combines electronic printing with cardboard packaging, allowing users to set up their phones simply by touching printed ‘buttons’ on the pack’s surface.
Although a number of Osmotronic projects are concept developments or prototypes, it is not the one-off wow-factor projects that excite Falla, but the idea of ubiquity. And his investigation of reactive surfaces and materials leads inevitably to visions of a future where all manner of surfaces blink, flash and play out video messages, where media is ubiquitous.
‘Ever since Bladerunner I thought the idea of screens everywhere would be great, but when it comes – and it will – it could be a nightmare/ shelves in Tesco winking at you constantly. But I’d love to work with flexible printed displays. It would be nice to lead by example, to perhaps influence how things are developed in a mass way. There’s an opportunity to create things that are beautiful or a joy to watch.’