Tech Industry

A design firm dares to reinvent the printer

The Seattle-based design firm Artefact has reimagined the lowly printer, coming up with a concept that Apple-loving gadget freaks might appreciate.

When it comes to innovation, the printer is the high-tech industry's version of the paper clip. Sure, people keep trying to improve it, but no one is going to tag you the next Steve Jobs for improving printer efficiency.

In recent years, printer makers have added all sorts of features, everything from memory card readers to wireless network connectivity. But the peripheral is such an afterthought in a consumer-electronics world enamored with new gadgets that the humor Web site The Onion recently joked that new Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook was going to set the company's sights on printers.

The touch-screen interface of Artefact's prototype SWYP printer. Artefact

That lack of innovation or interest got the Seattle design firm Artefact thinking. The company, which helped develop the CR200 controller for the Sonos music system and worked on the user experience on RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, saw an opportunity to reconsider the printer because, well, no one else was.

"That's always a good reason to look at a category and reimagine what it could be," said Jonas Buck, a designer at Artefact.

Buck has come up with a printer concept that's unlike any out there. His idea, which Artefact is showing off in a video, looks like a printer that Apple might someday actually make.

Dubbed SWYP for See What You Print, the matte black device features a touch screen interface that seamlessly connects to cameras, computers, phones, and tablets. Once connected, the screen shows the various photos and documents on the device that can be printed and that users can tap to select.

Users can then select the image or document and crop and edit it with their fingers. And when the image or document appears the way a user wants, a simple swipe downward prints the page.

While Artefact has created the concept based on existing technology, it's not a working prototype. The firm has no intention of manufacturing the product. Rather, it wants to show its design chops, as well as prod the printer industry to rethink its approach to product innovation.

"There are so many companies stuck in this space throwing on more and more features," said Fernd van Engelen, Artefact's director of design, who worked with Buck on the SWYP.

It's clearly a market that could use some innovation. In the second quarter, the worldwide market for so-called hardcopy peripherals, which includes printers as well as copiers, fell 0.3 percent, according to the research firm IDC.

Of course, it's not clear that clever design is going to reverse that trend. The SWYP doesn't seem to address what's probably the biggest complaint users have with their printers--the cost of ink cartridges. For Artefact, though, that's not really the point.

Artefact's prototype SWYP printer. Artefact

"The design of SWYP shows that even familiar devices that have stagnated in terms of innovation can still be dramatically improved by making them simple and delightful to use," said Rob Girling, co-founder and principal of Artefact. "Our primary goal with SWYP was not to take a concept to market, although we're finding out that daring to rethink even the most mundane products opens up business doors that could lead to commercializing ideas."

The firm's first exercise in reimagining consumer products came in January, when it unveiled its WVIL concept camera. That device looks a bit like an iPhone with a detachable camera lens snapped on. But the lens has its own computer processor and connects wirelessly with the iPhone-like body. That way, a shutterbug can place the lens on a table, for example, and focus a shot with the touch-screen camera body from across the room to snap a self-portrait.

As with the SWYP, the WVIL, which stands for Wireless Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, was created to prompt industry reconsideration. But Girling said camera makers have reached out to Artefact to discuss licensing the technology.