From Web to Print: Little Printer, Cardagram and Instaprint

On: October 2, 2012
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About Lucas Reehorst
I study Media Studies (research master) at the University of Amsterdam. In 2010 I finished a BA in Media & Culture and in the summer of 2012 I received a master's degree in History: American Studies. An interest in the efforts of the Digital Methods Initiative has brought me here (to New Media at the UvA). Other research interests include metaphor, editorial cartoons, medium specificity and media history.


The emulation of older forms of media has, as Bolter and Grusin (2000) have famously argued, always been a central part of digital media. Nostalgic callbacks to older media abound. To offer just a few examples, Instagram revives the aesthetics of the Polaroid, while the recent Dutch satirical YouTube program Panache reminds its viewers of the television of a bygone era through the inclusion of an old fashioned announcer, who introduces the evening’s entertainment. One aspect of older media, however, seldom is transferred to the digital realm: their physicality. In this review we look at three tools that bring the digital into the physical: Little Printer, Cardagram, and Instaprint.

The satirical YouTube program Panache features an old fashioned announcer, complete with an antiquated accent, who introduces the evening’s entertainment: “Thank you all for once again watching YouTube, once again we’ve compiled a beautiful Monday-evening program. We have a compilation of bizarre car-crashes from Russia, a daftly dancing North-Korean, a lib-dub of I Got A Feeling, and of course as always a lot of funny animals, but we start of the evening with Panache…” [my translation, Lucas Reehorst]

Little Printer

One very sympathetic device that aims to bring our experience of the Internet back into the physical world is BERG’s Little Printer. As the video embedded below shows this friendly looking little printer takes the web’s recommendation and personalization culture offline by printing content from the web, ranging from news (via The Guardian), images (via Instagram) to Sudoku’s, and calendar info (via Google Calendar). While the Little Printer certainly is sympathetic, at just under £200 it comes at a rather hefty price tag. Moreover from an environmental perspective it may well be seen as the worst of both worlds as it combines a dependence on the energy wasting data centers that make up the so-called cloud with a lavish use of paper.


Cardagram is a service that allows users to send physical postcards to anywhere in the world by uploading photos from one’s Facebook, Instagram, or smartphone photo albums. Following Instagram’s successful use of smartphones’ camera capabilities, the app uses the native qualities of a smartphone to create something tangible in the real world. One of us (Joe Mier) has used the service a number of times: when he received an offer to send an unlimited  amount of free postcards, he quickly started sending photos to family in the US, a friend in Australia, friends in Amsterdam, and a few to himself as a free way to have printed iPhone pictures. From an aesthetic point of view, the result was quite nice from what you imagine an iPhone picture taken in a semi-dark train would produce. There were a few poor results due to the photo’s dimensions of a 9.5 x 9.5 cm square distorting some wider photos. Additionally, the interface design itself could use improvement in terms of representing how the finished product will be as the experience lends itself more to guessing what someone across the world will receive from you.


Another model for mobile-to-print technology is the Instaprint, a location-based photobooth for Instagram. It uses WiFi technology to automatically grab and print any Instagram with a selected hashtag and/or geo-location. The booth has a slick design, but is prohibitively expensive. One review notes, not insensibly, that a figure just shy of $400 is quite high for a wireless printing service: “At $399 a piece, we’re not sure if the convenience of wireless printing is enough to justify the price.” A visit to however shows that $400 bucks would actually be something of a steal, as the company actually charges $7.500 a day in rent (although you do get 4 booths at your event for that price). Instaprint also suffers from the same environmental concerns that plague the Little Printer, as it also makes use of the environment unfriendly combination of cloud-computing and thermal printing.


The three tools reviewed above present one manner in which the ethereal world of the digital is brought into contact with the physical world: all three facilitate the printing of web content on old-fashioned paper. Whereas digital media usually digitize the logic of older media (e.g. Wikipedia has taken the encyclopedia online, the possible examples are nigh infinite), Little Printer, Cardagram and Instaprint take the logic of the digital and apply it to print, resulting, for example, in a mini-newspaper (as the Little Printer’s output is often styled) that makes use of the recommendation culture of social media to provide you with photo’s and news relevant to you. The tools thus provide one illustration of Bolter & Grusin’s assertion that “remediation operates in both directions” (2000: 342).

What are we to make of these tools and their turn from the web to paper? Certainly it has resulted in a number of raised eyebrows. “My first knee-jerk reaction to Little Printer was bemused bewilderment–really? this?”, John Plavlus wrote in a preview article on Little Printer for Co.Design, and this sentiment is echoed in many of the publications on the three tools reviewed above, and even more often in the comments sections accompanying them. Little Printer and Instaprint especially have had to endure more than their fair share of skeptical and incredulous online comments, both receiving much flak especially for their high prices, which at just under £200 and $7500 for a single day respectively indeed seems rather exorbitant. Even Cardagram with its much more moderate prices might still to be to expansive a service for many, considering the fact that Joe only made use of it when he could do so for free (perhaps it is telling that Lucas, the other author, likewise made use of a comparable Dutch service only once, when he received a special offer of a number of free postcards). Moreover from an environmental viewpoint the combination of data clouds and print paper is far from ideal. It certainly seems a possibility that these objects, like the literary examples of “reverse remediation” discussed by N. Katherine Hayles (2004) will remain niche products that are primarily of interesting conceptually (like their distant cousins: the iTypewriter and Instagram Socialmatic Camera, a typewriter attached to an iPad and a camera with cloud functions modeled after the Instagram logo, both apparent instances of Vaporware.)

The suggestion that the physical has its benefits certainly has its merits, even if the ethereal qualities of the digital often are exaggerated (i.e. think of terms like cloud computing that suggest atmospheric intangibility rather than massive data centers on the ground). Whether this will translate in a future for tools that bring the digital to print paper remains to be seen (3D printing is one example of a candidate that seems more promising). As Ellis Hamburger concluded in a recent article on Little Printer for The Verge (2012) “Little Printer could very well become the first massively popular “ambient device,” or it might end up behind glass at the MoMA.” Indeed these tools may well remain curiosities of a sort, but Little Printer’s endearing design and the attraction of the physical might also be able to attract a larger audience.

Authors: Joe Mier & Lucas Reehorst




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