Technology TED Conferences

Manipulating electrons, playing with paper: Kate Stone at TED2013

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Kate Stone loves paper, and she loves technology, so she resolved to combine the two, which she shows us in a magical demonstration on the TED stage. But first, three key moments that got her to where she is today:

1. An obsession with technology: As a child, she hid switches behind the wall in her bedroom, ran wires underneath the carpet — and hid an FM transmitter inside a carved-out book. She used the book to eavesdrop on her parents, though she says she was more interested in the idea of technology hidden within a generic object than in what her parents were saying. “I liked the idea of an everyday object doing something different,” she says.

2. Successfully failing exams: “As a sort of reward,” she says, her parents shipped her off to Australia, where she ended up working on a remote farm in the middle of nowhere, deep in the outback, mustering sheep, gathering them from paddocks, and bringing them back to the homestead. “I thought sheep were pretty stupid, because they didn’t do what we wanted them to do,” she says. “But they weren’t stupid at all. We’d put them where they didn’t want to be, and they didn’t do what we wanted them to do.” So she mastered tricks to guide the sheep to the places they didn’t want to visit.

3. Physics is just like farming: Exams or no exams, she later headed to Cambridge to study for her PhD in physics, where she realized that moving electrons was akin to moving sheep. Told she couldn’t possibly move electrons individually, she determined to prove her detractors wrong. By adapting the conditions in which she was working, she made her theories work.

Now Stone works in printing, and she determined to use conventional printing techniques to make paper and card interactive. Once again she was told it couldn’t be done, and once again she resolved to overcome the naysayers. Nearly bankrupting herself, she bought a printing press and learned to print, figuring out a way to make regular old paper genuinely interactive. “It’s pretty simple really,” she says, though it’s clearly nothing of the sort. “It’s things that have been done before but brought together in a different way.”

TED2013_0049231_D31_3046She’s brought some examples with her, including a large interactive poster that can determine a viewer/user’s favorite type of cake. Or interactive newsprint, for which a reader can connect wirelessly to listen to music in a record review, or eavesdrop on a press conference. The third project was a poster to influence people to use energy more wisely. “If your energy usage was trending better, leaves would appear,” she describes. “If they didn’t, there’d be graffiti and the leaves would fall off the trees.”

And now, the moment of truth, the live demo. Stone is clearly nervous as she approaches a poster pinned up nearby. It has a drumset printed on it, and she taps one of the drums gingerly. Yes! It works! It’s truly charming, and she taps on all of the drums, including the high hat, a few times for good measure.

More confident, she moves to her grand finale, a set of DJ turntables and a mixing board printed onto a neat square of cardboard. She plays us a piece of music recorded by her 15-year-old niece Charlotte, manipulating the volume and effects of the music as she does so. “I’m not a DJ, I’m not a musician,” she says. But it’s clear she’s rightly proud of her invention. “I love bringing technology together, having fun, being creative,” she concludes. “It’s not about technology. It’s about creating a great experience.”

Kate Stone’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on »