• 02.18.14

How This Startup Designed A Printable Bluetooth Keyboard

Inside Novalia’s unconventional product design process.

How This Startup Designed A Printable Bluetooth Keyboard
[Image: Flickr user Cheon Fong Liew]

The next time you need a new keyboard, you may be able to use one printed on paper. Novalia, a U.K.-based startup, recently announced a super-thin, Bluetooth-enabled keyboard that can be printed on paper. For Novalia founder Dr. Kate Stone, the outcome wasn’t a triumph, but a compromise. “Identifying compromises and [letting] those compromises affect the design of the product itself,” is what guides her team, she says.


Novalia’s Design Methodology

Stone hinges her entire design theory at Novalia on an old saying from her grandmother: “Cut your coat from the cloth at hand.” In other words, use what already exists to reach the next step of transformation.

Because of this approach, the team finds themselves turning toward generic, unexciting objects as a jumping-off place from which they can discover innovative technology. For instance, when it came time to decide what type of ink to use in the control board, the decision wasn’t a trivial one.

“We don’t use the most conductive of inks,” Stone says. “We use inks that work on a label press. This influences our choice of electronics and then the software we create.”

How A Printable Keyboard Works

“For several years we have been exploring how to add interactivity and connectivity to printed items using traditional print,” Stone says. Eventually, one team member was able to write the code for something that would be both Bluetooth and touch enabled, a fundamental aspect of the current keyboard’s features.

The actual keyboard, currently just a prototype, will be printed on industrial printers using a Nordic Semiconductor chip, which houses the Bluetooth and capacitive sensor tech. The Cambridge-based Novalia created “two type[s] of printed touch, one is segmented, discrete touch points, the second is a touch matrix, where touch points are defined in software,” Stone says. The only active part on the keyboard is the ink.

Through coordination, the capacitive sensors communicate via the chip and Novalia’s own software that runs on Bluetooth. For easy integration with other products, all of the technology is contained in a sheet that is only a few millimeters in thickness.


“We really believe in connecting everyday objects to smartphones and tablets, and creating low-cost ways of extending ways to input to these devices,” Stone says. For instance, the hardware could be embedded within the pages of a book and once someone touches a certain region the page could play music or an app could consequently open on a smartphone or tablet.