Disney working on way to ‘magically’ control devices using paper

12 May 2016

Offering a future where you can make anything into an internet of things (IoT) device, a team of researchers has cracked a way to connect everyday paper online using cheap and readily-available sensors.

As one of the oldest writing materials, paper has stuck with us in our everyday lives despite the abundance of devices that now surround is at school, work and the home, but now it could be about to become an advanced IoT device with help from Disney.

According to the University of Washington (UW), a team of its researchers, in conjunction with the entertainment powerhouse of Disney and Carnegie Mellon University, has developed a way of taking ‘dumb’ paper and making it a lot smarter using inexpensive radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

Sticking, or even printing, the RFID tag onto a piece of paper gives the sheet sensing capabilities, allowing it to respond to gesture commands and connect to the digital world.

In principle, the researchers said that this technology would allow the user to do anything from controlling music using a paper baton, to live polling in a classroom.


Called PaperID, the technology is not only cheap, as it is only using off-the-shelf $0.10 RFID tags, but it also works without the need of batteries and can be detected by a reader device placed in the same room as the tags.

Can register different movements as actions

When a user’s hand waves, touches, swipes or covers one of the unique identification tags, the hand disturbs the signal path between an individual tag and its reader.

Using algorithms that recognise these interruptions and movements, PaperID can determine what the user actually wants the IoT paper to do, such as swiping a hand over a tag placed on a pop-up book causing the book to play a specific, programmed sound.

The tags could even be used to track the velocity of movement of devices, allowing a tagged paper conductor’s wand to adjust the pace of the music based on the tempo of the wand in mid-air.

With each tag having a unique identification, a reader’s antenna can be picked out among many. These tags only cost about $0.10 each and can be stuck onto paper.

According to one of Disney’s research scientists leading this work, Alanson Sample, the same PaperID technology could one day be applied to a whole range of other materials, not just paper.

“Ultimately, these techniques can be extended beyond paper to a wide range of materials and usage scenarios,” Sample said.

“What’s exciting is that PaperID provides a new way to link the real and virtual worlds through low cost and ubiquitous gesture interfaces.”

Magical book image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic