Imagine listening to music on your laptop by touching an interactive album cover or receiving a digital reminder from your prescription medicine packaging that it’s time to take your next dose. Packaging has always been about communication, but today’s technologies are enabling the interactive communication of brand identity, company values and far more information than in the past.
The concept of interactive packaging isn’t new, says Andrew Streeter, who runs the packaging innovation company CPS International. Take the Coca Cola bottle label designed to be folded out and turned into a bow.
Interactive packaging has an established mechanical presence; salespeople are now exploring the newer printable technologies. The desire for communication is very strong and takes many forms, of which digital is potentially part of the exciting future.
UK-based Novalia is among those innovating with interactive touch technology. Founder Dr. Kate Stone talks about putting a ‘digital soul’ into packaging—about a product having value because of its interactive packaging.
Often packaging communicates the value of something that might otherwise seem too small or lightweight to communicate its true value. So in itself, packaging is a way to communicate.
The Internet and connectivity is all about communication. And print is all about communication.
Packaging is everywhere and it is the most pervasive form of high-volume manufacture and also en masse or one-to-one communication. By combining print—regular flexo or screen—with regular conventional electronics, we are creating packaging that can connect to the Internet and has become incredibly interactive.
Touch-Tech Digital Packaging
Novalia’s technology involves printing with conductive inks that respond to touch on paper, plastic or cardboard. A small circuit board is pressed onto the track of the ink using regular adhesive and the entire product is powered by a battery 1.6 mm thick. In this way, the package, book or poster can connect to a smartphone, laptop or other device via an embedded Bluetooth chip.
When you touch these pieces of print, you could effectively connect to the world. The possibilities are vast. You are talking about packaging being a portal into the digital world.
The interactive album cover is a prime example. Touch the packaging and the message goes via your phone to the Internet and unlocks some sort of immersive experience.
The computer has gone from filling a room a few decades ago to pocket size, and it’s getting smaller and smaller. Ultimately, it will disappear into the everyday things around us, so things like packaging will have touch communication and data.
And the possibilities are endless. Such packaging can, for example, embed information on the contents of a ready-to-eat meal. It can also offer recipe ideas using a product being purchased. It can even tell more about where and how it was sourced. All of that content could be downloaded via touch-sensitive interactive packaging.
Novalia worked with Becks Beer to develop interactive street posters that play music when touched. For DJ Qbert, Novalia created the world’s first interactive DJ decks in an album cover—a cross fader and an array of sound effect buttons in the form of electronics printed onto paper.
The company is pursuing a number of pilot projects using its touch technology; point-of-sale displays in stores and multipacks are of particular interest.
The challenge, unsurprisingly, is the price point. Volume delivery of this packaging technology costs between 4€ and 12€ per item; apart from high-end and luxury products, it’s point-of-sale where it really makes sense. But further development will doubtless push costs down.
Andrew Streeter says:
People traditionally spend a lot of time stripping the cost out of packaging, so when new technology comes along, price is the issue. The benefit, of course, is that packaging can be very high volume and that helps to bring the cost down.
For him, point-of-sale will drive the adoption of innovations such as touch technology or more basic features such as micro batteries and LED lighting to attract attention.
In packaging applications, it isn’t always about putting codes on the pack. It can be as simple as smartphones and other devices recognizing surface graphics as if they were QR codes. Interestingly, that requires quality precision printing and depth of color:
The industry will need to trade up; it could well see a revival of graphic design and high-quality printing.
The Revival of Graphics?
Graphics which can be read by a handheld scanner or other device could deliver major benefits. For a start, if there’s no need for a barcode, more space can be devoted to the branding.
At the same time, the packaging would be able to talk to devices—for example, at checkouts, for stock control or for anti-counterfeiting measures.
Reducing cost will be key, but interactive packaging solutions could be adopted more quickly for expensive items where control is critical, such as in the pharmaceutical sector.
Imagine expensive drugs where the interactive packaging can play a role, sending a signal to take the drug via your smartphone. Where you have drugs in units of several grams, the cost of smart packaging could be justified. A lot of effort in prescription medicine is under way.