Little Printer Developer Tools: A Sneak Preview

When Alice isn’t busy becoming famous on the internet for her fingernail landscapes, she’s been applying the finishing touches to our developer tools. We’re providing these to make it as easy as possible for anyone to produce, test and share publications, all without requiring actual physical access to a Little Printer.

What are publications?

Publications are short, designed pieces of content. They can be personalised or generic. Little Printer owners subscribe to publications using our Remote web-app via their smartphones, then receive a combined delivery of any new editions of those publications at a time they choose each day. Editions can be delivered daily (e.g. a news headline service), or only when certain conditions are met (e.g. a service advising people of local traffic problems).

Essentially speaking, publications are small websites designed in HTML, so if you’ve built a simple website you know enough code to get started. Every publication must have:

  • A unique name
  • A brief description
  • An icon
  • A schedule for delivery
  • A sample version of the publication (for users try before they subscribe)
  • An engaging visual design
  • Some predefined endpoints with which BERG Cloud will interact

There’s more about this in the Publisher’s Handbook.

The developer tools comprise of two main features: The Rapid Prototyper, and the Publication Validator.

The Rapid Prototyper
This is where you can preview your design, even before you’ve done any of the configuration that connects your publication to BERG Cloud.

I’ve made a test publication called “Kitten News”, which I believe will be very popular. And I’ve posted the HTML and CSS at Pastebin — so you can see that it’s regular, straightforward HTML.

Now I’d like to preview my design, and the Rapid Prototyper makes it easy. As my design is already available on the web, I can paste the URL into the “Submit an endpoint” field. Or I can paste the HTML and CSS into the field immediately below that.

Kitten News

As I have a Little Printer, there is a third option, which is to send the preview directly to my printer. But it’s not necessary: clicking the “Preview!” button immediately outputs the design directly from our rendering stack to my screen. This is exactly the same as what gets sent to the printer.

And it’s clever: the image I’m referencing in my test publication is in colour, but adding a specific css class to the HTML automatically creates a dithered, black and white image compatible with Little Printer:

<img class="dither" src="http://www.foo.com/bar.jpg">

OK. I’m happy with my design, so I’m ready to test whether I’ve got everything configured correctly.

The Publication Validator
The Publication Validator examines my publication to see if all the necessary endpoints are present (like the icon and the sample edition mentioned above). It checks that meta.json is valid and contains all of the required fields (meta.json is the file listing all the variables that identify my publication to BERG Cloud). It also makes sure that my first edition is ready. Finally, it returns a bunch of errors for things that might be missing.

Once again, it’s a simple as pasting in the URL of my publication and hitting “Validate!”

Kitten Validation

Whoops. Looks like I have some more work to do.

Everything I need to get this fixed is contained in the Publisher’s Handbook. This is currently available as a download, but also forms part of the developer tools as a series of easy to navigate, easy to update webpages.

We’ve got some people testing all this at the moment. And we’re absolutely certain you’ll find it useful.

–FL

Little Printer: more than just a pretty face

expressions

So, what’s been happening the last couple of days?

Remote
We added two new features to the production version of “Remote” this week (Remote is the mobile website you use to configure and interact with your Little Printer). The first is a “reprint” button in activity feed of the Remote user interface. It doesn’t look terribly pretty at this stage, but it works. And you can probably figure out what it does!

The second feature is expressions. This affects the face and the Tamagotchi element of Little Printer, whose facial expressions change according to the degree and type of activity taking place. It’s a visual link between the physical product (Little Printer itself) and the digital Remote. Plus it’s lovely! Little Printer’s smile gets bigger when you receive a direct message. I’ll ask Jack to write some more about this, because there’s a lot of interesting things going on behind it all.

btw – if you’re wondering why the Little Printer referenced in the photo above is named “Andy’s Transparent Printer”, it’s because it’s transparent. Literally.

transparent printer

Supply Chain
One of the important parts of making a product is keeping a stable, low lead-time supply chain. This is the process of getting a product from supplier to consumer, and includes all the resources involved in that process, from parts to manufacturing to packaging to shipping to delivery to storage and so on. Everything has to dovetail perfectly, as a change in one area can affect other parts of the chain. That’s why Matt W and Andy sat down with the suppliers of the print mechanism this week. One of the components is being end-of-life’d 6-12 months from now, and we’ve got to make sure this doesn’t cause us problems further down the line.

Plastic
Excitingly, we’ve started to manufacture the polycarbonate for the Bridge units.

The Tool

Here’s the tool. It’s actually a mould, but it’s a truly serious bit of kit, made of steel and weighing 590kg (the one pictured above is for Little Printer itself, but you get the idea). It’s moved into the right place on the factory floor, then heated to above 100°C with water. The tool contains the cavity for one base, one body and two lids, which is filled with hot plastic the consistency of chewing gum. They block off the part that does the body and the base to mould just the lids in clear plastic, then rotate the sprue and flush out the clear plastic from the extrusion screw and fill it with the coloured plastic to mould just the base and the lid. Everything is cooled, then the pieces, now gleaming and Bridge-shaped, are taken out.

If that didn’t make any sense, here’s a handy diagram.

Diagram

The plastic parts for Little Printer have nearly all been manufactured, and they’re currently in the factory too. They’re ready for the holes for the buttons to be drilled out. We’re drilling out these holes instead of moulding them because if you include them in the mould, it changes the way the molten plastic flows and ruins the finish.

–FL

Testing, testing, 1 2 3

I’ve written about Electromagnetic Compatibility testing previously, and it’s the one thing that keeps Nick from being able to relax. He continues to test Little Printer’s bits and pieces, subjecting them to a barrage of emissions testing (in which electromagnetic radiation is measured) and susceptibility testing (which involves the zapping of much high voltage electricity). It’s a little like examining lightning strikes, looking for where the electricity decides to go, and whether it’s had an adverse effect on how everything functions.

We use banks of expensive oscilloscopes and spectrum analysers and machines that go “ping” to probe and pinpoint hotspots directly on the circuit boards. It’s actually quite invasive and intimate – we cut cables apart, scratch off insulation, and generally make things difficult for ourselves. Reports will follow, and graphs will be analysed. It’s very much like waiting for exam results. Maybe we’ll even get a certificate to hang on the wall. Maybe.

While some things dawdle gently along, others gather pace, and people are beginning to do some very cool things with the API. Alex Forey, for instance, is developing a Little Printer publication for his Markpond bookmarking site. Remarkably, Markpond is hosted on a server farm constructed from two Raspberry Pis and a heap of LEGO®. Even more remarkably, Alex is 14 years old. And Open Pen (London’s first ‘Open Literature’ magazine, it says here) are also getting involved, planning to publish a weekly short story for Little Printer.

Other people are coming up with angles we could never have predicted — we loved Simon Orr’s thoughts on organisation and novelty. Simon has also written a small program which might be useful for anyone developing a image-based publication for Little Printer, which you can fork from GitHub.

—FL

Attention to Detail

Little Printer Packaging

Alex sent the Little Printer instruction manual off to be printed this week. It’s another step, and it’s really neat to see how elegantly this small gatefold booklet fits in with the rest of the packaging. Open the box up and one of the first things you see is the Bridge. And tucked underneath, as if to answer any questions this might prompt, are the instructions, almost pleading to be read.

A lot of thought has gone into the whole “opening experience”. We collaborated with the brilliant paper engineers at Burgopak, who’ve won all sorts of awards for their packaging. Various gauges of cardboard were folded in ever-more unusual ways, designs were batted back and forth, and all sorts of issues were tackled.

  • should we use coated (white) or uncoated (brown) paper? Or another colour entirely?
  • how do different types of paper affect print quality? Does uncoated paper soak up more ink than coated?
  • warehousing: where and how do we store all the pre-made packaging? Should the boxes be glued? Or tabbed and folded? Should they come flat packed? And if they do, how long will it take the people packing the product to make up the boxes? If they’re not flatpacked, how much space will that take up? And how much would that cost?

All this was being done before the final sizes were 100% agreed, but Burgopak were brilliant at making minute, millimetre adjustments to incorporate different cables and plug adaptor heads. A real example of hardware and packaging working hand in hand. We think the results are lovely, with everything fitting together incredibly snugly.

But it’s not just pretty. It does a job, too. One of the things Alex did as the packaging design was in progress was to drop it — with Little Printer tucked cosily inside — from a variety of heights. Again and again, testing not only the flat sides but every corner. Little Printer emerged from the experience unscathed (our nerves less so), and while we don’t recommend that anyone try this at home, it’s nice to know the packages will be well protected as they journey across the globe.

Away from the studio, people continue to write thoughtful things about Little Printer. Our e-mail was buzzing this morning with talk of Geoff Pugh’s blog, which refers to the thinking behind Little Printer as thoroughly lateral and thoroughly British.

We’re almost certain he means this as a compliment.

—FL

Little Printer Update

Hello. My name’s Fraser. I’m at BERG helping out with Little Printer as production ramps up and the pre-orders come in, and it’s great fun. I’m learning a lot of interesting stuff (my background is in the music industry, and in kittens), and new words and phrases are being added to my vocabulary at an almost alarming rate.

One such addition is EMC (electromagnetic compatibility) testing. This is a process all electrical goods must go through before they’re manufactured. It seeks to ensure that a product isn’t susceptible to unwanted electromagnetic interference, and isn’t producing such radiation itself. Passing is a legal requirement. In other words, if you switch on your gleaming new espresso machine and the toaster starts to hum, it’s possible the EMC testing wasn’t as robust as it might have been.

Nick and Andy prepared a number of Bridge units for testing on Monday (the Bridge is Little Printer’s connection to the BERG Cloud, enabling us to introduce new services without owners having to update anything). These were whisked off to a laboratory in Cambridge, who sent back the results yesterday, and those graphs are being examined now. We didn’t pass, but we’ve failed the test before, and we’re much closer this time.

Next steps? Some tweaks will be made to the boards in Slovenia. They’ll be re-built, and re-tested. Tweak and test. Tweak and test. When we’re okay, we’ll do some more formal testing. And all this will be completed before we ship.

Elsewhere this week, the latest version of BERG Cloud Remote was rolled out to our internal staging server. Remote is the mobile web-app that enables owners to manage their Little Printer subscriptions, and several staffers at BERG have Little Printers at home. They’ll be testing the new functionality we’ve added, and reporting back.

Out on the web, Andre Torrez said some nice things about Little Printer, and about the API. We liked this passage a lot:

If you make things for people on the web and you take some time to read the API documentation the little gears in your head will start turning. This isn’t just a printer you print documents with. It is a content delivery service that doesn’t require a computer.

Little gears turning? Download the Publisher’s Handbook for more detailed information and a practical guide to our developer API.

More as it happens…

—Fraser Lewry

Two days in

Wow. We started taking pre-orders for Little Printer on Tuesday and what a response! Thank you everyone who is adopting one of these little fellas! We’re super excited that Little Printer will be in your home before too long. It’s a privilege.

If you’re new here, read about Little Printer and how to pre-order.

A little round-up:

We had some awesome articles from The Verge (“Paper lives: Little Printer and the rebirth of the hard copy”) and Fast Company (“It’s Finally Out: A Little Printer That Delivers A Tiny, Custom Newspaper”) who had access before we opened the doors. Thanks guys!

And – just to pick some favourites from the rest – an online piece in the Daily Mail, a round-up in the Huffington Post, a real-world newspaper piece in the Independent (the photo above), and some very smart observations about the strategy with BERG Cloud (Frankie, you’re pretty much spot on). Dan Catt blogged his insightful commentary too.

We’ve read all the comments, and we read Twitter avidly. Commonly used phrases? The two that jump out for me, reading the huge volume of tweets, are

  • adorable ♥
  • too expensive!

Certainly a love-it-or-hate-it response.

So let’s talk about the price, because that came up a bunch! We wanted to create a beautiful product that has a different place in your life than “printing.” Something able to do work for you, and to bring unexpected delight. For publishers and website owners, something that will best frame their design and content.

The product must reflect the experience, and you’ll find that in the magnetic clasps holding the body together; the over-the-air updates that always bring Little Printer the latest software; and the character design of Little Printer in the object and in the web app. We see a future where the Web and character fill every product in the home, and the products we want in our homes should delight and be fit-for-purpose all at once. Little Printer is our particular starting point.

And we are just getting started. Products get cheaper the more you make, and while I’d love to have the high volumes of Samsung or Apple, we’re not there yet. I’m inspired by the Web, where lightly-staffed blogs and massive publishing empires have equal access to audience and tools. The world of manufacturing is also moving in that direction, and one day the small product companies will be on an equal footing with the Mattels, Mujis, and Microsofts. The way we achieve that is to start building, and I’m proud that a lot of people – ourselves included – are making a go of it.

I hope that gives a bit of insight!

For those people who did query the price: I hope you check in as our product gets into people’s hands and houses, and I hope you’ll find that Little Printer is much more than you expect!

For those who said adorable ♥ — I totally agree, thank you, and thank you from the whole team :)

–MW

Little Printer – Now Available to Pre-order!

Little Printer

It’s been an amazing few months in the studio. Since we made the announcement last November, Little Printer has received loads of attention. The introductory video received half a million views in the first five days alone. Over 60,000 of you signed up to hear news, and we’re very happy to be able to bring you some.

For eight months we’ve been getting a mirror finish on the plastic, folding steel, fixing radio interference bugs (there are some war stories there), designing characters, creating beautiful packaging, making the best possible API for developers, getting set up with credit cards… and today, finally, we’re manufacturing. Which means:

Little Printer can now be pre-ordered from the BERG Cloud shop!

Features:

  • Subscribe to publications like news headlines, puzzles, and your friends’ birthdays from publishers including foursquare, Google, and the Guardian
  • Receive printed, direct messages from your friends via Little Printer
  • And a new one! Choose from one of four characters to bring your daily news. Little Printer prints its own face!

Read more about Little Printer’s features here.

Little Printer is £199 GBP ($259 USD) plus shipping.

We’re shipping Little Printer in 60 days*. The first run is big but fixed-size to warm up the factories. Then we have a second, unlimited run some weeks later as we move to a regular production cycle.

If you’re a developer, publisher or website owner, you have 60 days to produce bespoke publications for Little Printer! It’s easy, and won’t take long, seriously. Our Publisher’s Handbook is available to download now.

Pre-order Little Printer in the UK and EU or the USA and Canada

* Update 28.09.12: the shipping date for Little Printer has changed to late November. More details.

Little Printer Hack Day

Several months ago we decided it was time to pick a date to host a Hack Day for Little Printer.

We’d been kicking around the Hack Day idea since about December and for me personally it was something that made a lot of sense: James and I started building the Publications API and developer tools in January, slowly growing it to fulfil our needs. As with all projects that grow with you, most of the choices we made were well reasoned and borne out of discussion, but some were snap choices that we thought were of little consequence at the time. All of our systems made sense to us, but when they’re introduced to a new person, or twenty-five new people, how do those decisions hold up? Saturday was our test for that.

Berg hackday

At 10am on Saturday morning twenty-five friends came along to have a first run at using our API. They also let us practice hosting a Hack Day. If you came along, thank you so much, your input was invaluable and I’m already excited about getting together with Nick and James to work out what’s next for the API, based on your feedback.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be planning another Hack Day once the dust has settled from this one. We have plenty of things to tighten up with our developer tools before unleashing them for a wider audience. If you’re interested in attending, we’ll be letting people know well ahead of time – and this time it’ll be open to a wider audience.

informal

The day was informal (as you can see in the above shot, by Dan Williams), starting with some basic housekeeping messages from Simon. I then gave a quick and fraught run down of the developer tools, how to get set up with a printer and what to do if you got stuck.

Demos came at the end of the day and these were a lot like a larger version of the Friday Demos we have at BERG every week. Everyone grabs a beer and there’s a lot of clapping. The output from everyone was outstanding! Here’s a quick rundown of the things people made…

Some stats: At the end of the day we had 73 publications registered on the system and 443 deliveries had been made to our 10 Little Printers.

Richard Pope made Calendar Forecast, a publication that summarises your calendar to-do symbols. Like a weather forecast, but for Google Calendar.

Matt Biddulph made Little Twitter Trends, a publication of interesting things concerning the people you follow on twitter and what’s happening in their world.

James Stewart, James Weiner and Chris Heathcote made three things, firstly, localondon, a publication of things going on in London. Secondly, Seasons Eatings, a publication based on some work James W had done before based on seasonal food. And finally, Southbank Today a publication of information about events on the Southbank today.

paper pet

Ben Firshman and Devin Hunt made Paper Pets, a charming publication containing instructions to make origami animals (one shown above!).

Adrian McEwen made Printernet Fridge, an actual Arduino hack! Three buttons that sit on the side of the fridge; one to press when the milk was out, one for orange juice and one for cheese. Little Printer then gives you a reminder whenever these things have been requested.

Chris Adams made Little Printnik, which is a publication to help you to learn and use new words (often quite esoteric), using the Wordnik API.

Tom Armitage went back to his own “Hello World” of connected things, creating Tower Bridge, a written and visual representation of the Bridge’s activities for the day, with reference shots of the ships that are passing.

Nick O’leary and Kass Schmitt made ASCII Meterogram using data from the Norwegian Meterological Institute and NRK.

Tom Taylor made Low Flying Rocks to highlight when meteors are flying close to the earth, and giving some vital statistics about them.

Tom Insam, Natalie Downe and Simon Willison (aka TEAM LANYRD) made a publication for Lanyrd. It shows information about the conference you are attending today, including a Stamen map tile for the location and which of your twitter contacts is also attending. Over on the Lanyrd blog you can see a quick write up of their hack.

James Wheare made Exquisite Paper, a daily random collection tweets collated on Exquisite Tweets. I love the serendipity of this one, a random conversation that somebody decided was interesting enough to save from anywhere in the world every morning. Yes please.

Natalia Buckley and Linda Savik made Cat Grindr, the exceptionally named publication that prints out photos of cats that people have shared near you, meaning you can track them down and pet them. A lot of the photos returned by Cat Grindr were not technically cats, but that made it even more entertaining.

Mark Hurrell and Louise Downe used Your Sky to generate printouts with the idea that you could use it to project the night sky onto your wall by shining a light through the paper. I’m not sure the final projector actually worked, but they made a valliant effort — and the only publication to involve the BERG soldering iron!
(edit: Louise also wrote an excellent post about the day, which you can check out on her blog)

Roo Reynolds made Today’s Google Calendar Events. A list of today’s events printed every morning, to curb that constant phone-checking.

Matt Webb blew the cobwebs out of his coding brain and made a publication for Conway’s Game of Life. Give it a seed and each day you get the next iteration of the generated game in ASCII.

And last but not least, Dan Williams made Little Emma, a publication sharing the location of the world’s largest container ship each day. Dan also posted a great write up of the day, with his own thoughts, and a video of Little Emma as it prints.

Well done and thank you to everybody who demoed, I’ve kept samples of all the publications made and am going to display them on a pin board on the studio like a proud mother.

–AB

A postcard from Milan

This week it’s Salone del Mobile in Milan, Italy — both the world’s largest furniture show, and a massive city-wide design fair.

I went along with Little Printer to demo and present at the Triennale Design Museum, as part of an event curated by Vodafone and Italy.

It was a fun and hectic day trip! LP travels in a silver travel case practically chained to my wrist. We were out of the door in London at 4.50am, and in the museum in Milan at 11am. Then leaving again for the airport at 3pm!

This photo (by calao) is me presenting:

Matt W presenting

I spoke about Little Printer and its publications – what makes a good publication, mainly – and did a live demo of a delivery and direct messaging.

It was great fun — thanks to Zero for organising. The Lytro light field camera folks were also there. Awesome to see their product.

This will probably be LP’s last trip abroad… in this form. For demos I’m still using the prototype you saw in the film way back in 2011. All the other prototypes are being used in development. But now we’re assembling the first models with parts from the Little Printer production line, and soon I’ll be toting around one of those for demos instead.

Bright Spark

Before I skip to the science, an update on timings for Little Printer.

For those of you who’ve asked for dates and details, we can now say that the beta product will launch in the first half of this year. We know email inboxes are busy places, and so if you’ve signed up to receive news via the mailing list, please don’t think our silence means you’ve been forgotten. We’ll mail you just as soon as we have news you can act on—like the dates of the launch itself and the chance to pre-order.

The latest news is that tooling for production is well underway. Below is an action shot of electrical discharge machining (EDM) also known as sparking.

EDM, or sparking

EDM is used to make some of the more detailed or complicated shapes for injection moulds, where mechanical machining techniques would be ineffective. In this instance, the mould will be used to form some of the internal components for Little Printer.

The liquid you can see is dielectric, acting as an electrical insulator, which is polarised when an electric field is applied. The photo also shows a large workpiece – the steel block, which will become the mould itself – and the electrode, the copper coloured piece in the vice.

Both metal parts are submerged in the dielectric fluid and connected to a power supply. As the electrode approaches the workpiece a spark jumps between the two pieces, and the surface of the workpiece is eroded, ultimately carving an inverse shape of the piece to be created as the fluid flushes the removed metal away.

As detailed as it might be, this is just one section of the mould—you can see another piece below (you might be able to spot the shape of some legs in there too).

Aside from the physical manufacture, work is continuing in earnest on every part of Little Printer, both digital and physical. We’re just about to finalise the packaging design, and work is coming to a close on the second (and final) round of visuals for the mobile UI.

…So, we’d better get back to it!