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Commercial printers embracing the digital age

Technologies that allow consumers to interact with print seen as the sector’s future
Scott Gray, centre, with staff at Metropolitan Fine Printers, says printing companies are continually adapting to changing technology | submitted

Commercial printing might not typically be considered a cutting-edge industry, but with the proliferation of interactive technologies like augmented reality, new life has been breathed into print.

Scott Gray, vice-president of branding at Metropolitan Fine Printers, said a conference that he attended last summer organized by trade association Print Industries of America hammered home the message that simple words on paper, or “print that informs,” was quickly losing ground to digital alternatives. However, “print that performs,” material that consumers can interact with, is here to stay, conference speakers stressed.

Technologies like augmented reality (AR) and near-field communications (NFC) are allowing printers to offer clients more services than just delivering ink on paper, Gray said.

“Big companies like Apple and Google are putting billions of dollars into it; what people don’t realize [is] that these technologies already work with most phones out there.”

Because of Metropolitan’s experience in AR, clients have been asking the company to take on more tasks in designing the experience. To meet the demand, the company hired its newest employees based on their video production and computer programming background, Gray said.

One of the keystones of designing print for AR is the creation of “trigger” images that, when scanned by an AR-enabled device using image recognition, activates a video version of the material.

Gray believes augmented reality will have much more staying power than QR codes. Although QR codes can convey a variety of information, such as a line of text or a hyperlink, they can perform only that one function. AR experiences can change based on geographical location or time, giving consumers a more targeted experience.

The use of NFC chips is another contender in the print-meets-digital arena. The technology is most commonly used for mobile payment systems. A recent Deloitte report forecasting the growth of NFC payment estimated that between 600 million and 650 million NFC-capable devices are in use, and that by the end of the year, 5% of them will be used at least once a month to make a payment. As of last year, only about 0.5% of the devices were being used to make payments.

Gray sees some potential for the use of NFC in print, particularly in educational fields such as museums or in textbooks, to bring up relevant information, but he said that for his company, “the jury is still out” for adopting the technology.

“We’re not the creative guys; we’re going to show these tools to ad agencies and clients and that’ll be the trigger for them to find the perfect application for it.”

The company recently bought a 3D printer as well as a virtual reality headset, in what Gray calls a “black-ops” way of staying current with technologies that can influence the future of printing.

“Anything that expands the capability of printed matter, we’ll need to stay on top of.”