The future of portable printing is rolling slowly across a piece of A4 paper on a hot Thursday afternoon in Jerusalem's early summer. After what seems like an eternity compared to an inkjet device, the prototype creates seven characters with two spaces; the end result looks like it was spit out of an aging dot matrix printer.
"It's slow," Tuvia Elbaum, co-founder of Zuta Labs, says for about the third time after the printer finishes its work. And while it may be slow now, the idea driving this start-up is nonetheless engaging.
The Zuta Pocket Printer is not your typical boxy tabletop inkjet or even a miniaturized version of one. It's a robot that's a little smaller than a CD case, with four wheels and a printer cartridge currently tethered to an Arduino board.
How it works
Instead of feeding paper through a stationary device with a moving cartridge, the robot distributes ink by roving across the page on two sets of bi-directional wheels. It's literally an out-of-the box solution for anyone that needs to print an insurance form or a term paper while waiting for their latte at Starbucks. Fresh off a successful Kickstarter campaign in May, Zuta Labs is now working on creating a faster, smaller device with higher quality output.
The final version of the printer will be cut down in size by roughly a third. It will be tear drop-shaped, untethered, offer one hour of full usage on a single charge, and able to churn out an A4 page of grayscale text or images in 45 seconds.
At least that's the goal. The prototype I saw wasn't anywhere near that fast. Compared to the speeds with which a modern inkjet can produce whole pages, the prototype's pace was lethargic. That's not to say the benchmark of 45 seconds per page is stunning considering my ho-hum Canon MX340 can deliver plain text pages nearly five times faster than that. Yet even if the company can create a product that prints a page in less than a minute, it will appeal.
The goal of Zuta Labs isn't necessarily to replace traditional printers, but to supplement them with a device that you can stash in your bag and print off several pages in a few minutes--no matter where you are. "If you were to print 20 pieces of paper, I wouldn't recommend using this. You could, but it'd be a hassle." Elbaum said during an interview at the company's offices in Hebrew University's High Tech Village, a set of converted dormitories housing a number of Jerusalem-based start-ups. "It's meant for printing two to four pieces of paper on the go."
But is anybody really printing anymore? We often communicate via email, fill out applications on websites, and view photos on our PCs, phones, and tablets. For those times we do need to print, solutions like Google Cloud Print and Apple's AirPrint make it possible to print online from anywhere, on any device, and have our documents waiting for us at home or the office. Buy maybe you don't need that tabletop printer if printing is such a rare occasion. Maybe all you need is a tiny little printer sitting in your drawer or bag.
That basic appeal of using the Pocket Printer to create hardcopies in a pinch was incentive enough for 3,081 backers to pledge $500,000 to Zuta Labs in a month. Nearly 2,500 of those backers paid enough to get one of the first printers slated to start shipping in January 2015. Those aren't Pebble smartwatch numbers, but with backers pledging $180 to $300 each for an early Pocket Printer, the company may have tapped into a real desire for printing on the go.
The Pocket Printer has also gained interest from investors, and the company recently initiated a round of venture funding that it hopes to close in the coming weeks. Without naming any names, Elbaum says a number of manufacturers, distributors, and large retailers are interested in the Pocket Printer as well.
A fresh take on old tech
The Pocket Printer was born out of Elbaum's desire to scratch his own proverbial itch. "I had the idea in college." said Elbaum, who co-founded Zuta Labs with his Jerusalem College of Technology classmate Matan Caspi. "Every once in a while, I had to print, but I had to wait until I got home or to the office. So I went online looking for a mobile printer. It came basically from that."
Most mobile printers you can buy today are just smaller versions of the larger peripheral you have at home. One exception: the Brother PocketJet, a thermal printer that measures 10 inches long, about 2 inches deep and weighs a pound. That's a giant compared to the Pocket Printer, which is aiming to measure less than 4 inches high, around 4.5 inches in diameter and weigh a little more than half a pound.
Using the robotic printer will also be similar to what you do now. If you're on a PC or Mac, the device will appear to your system just like any other printer. For mobile, the company plans to release apps for Android and iOS that will allow you to print from your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. The apps can also track ink levels, battery life, and create custom print jobs.
Even though the product hasn't shipped yet, Zuta Labs has even bigger dreams for future versions of the printer. Elbaum says the company hopes to put Wi-Fi capability in later versions, as well as add color printing, and the ability to print on more materials than just paper. Imagine, for example, using a robotic printer to create a garage sale notice on cloth or wood.
But that's the future. Right now, the team has to focus on getting the initial grayscale model out the door. The company is so focused on the device itself, it doesn't even have time to consider designing its own printer cartridge. Instead, it will look for a cartridge already available at your local Office Depot or Staples.
If all goes well, Elbaum wants to start selling Pocket Printer pre-orders to non-Kickstarter backers in time for the 2014 holiday season. That batch would then ship sometime in the first quarter of 2015. Initial sales are planned through the company's website before it attempts to branch out into retail.
While pricing has not been set, Elbaum said the company is targeting $240.
That's cheaper than the PocketJet, which sells closer to $400, but the Pocket Printer is still pricey considering wireless all-in-one printers cost less than $100 at Best Buy and they can spit out close to nine pages of text per minute. But if Kickstarter is any guide, the novelty and convenience of the Pocket Printer could make it a hit, even at more than twice the price of a stationary box.