Paper apps may sound like an oxymoron, but they offer extraordinary creative possibilities for quickly and cheaply developing real-world projects that combine the best of graphic and interactive design.

The idea is based on a technology called printed electronics. Many manufacturers already use it to produce circuits on flexible materials to wrap around objects such as car dashboards. It’s also the basis of future-generation concepts such as electronic paper. Now designers and academics are tapping elements of printed electronics that are already (or are soon to be) available, creating groundbreaking interactive projects for clients – and their own amusement.

The principles of paper apps are simple: you print a circuit onto paper or card, hook up a programmable computer chip, a battery and something for the chip to control, and you have a basic ‘app’. It receives input when the users touches different areas on the paper, which can, of course, bear a visual design as well.

“Paper is the most versatile of platforms,” says Dr Jon Rogers of the University of Dundee’s Product Research Studio (PRS). “It can be disposable and it can be priceless, and temporary and last a lifetime.”

He says it really excites him that a radically simple interaction, that of touching paper, can allow you to browse the web, for example. “I don’t believe that the future of the web will be hard, shiny and rectangular. I believe that people want their information, data and entertainment to come from a rich complex mix of materials and formats that they can use as they want to.”

The simplest type of paper app uses capacitive touch à la the iPad. In this case touching a ‘button’ on the paper connects part of the circuit. If you prefer to print the circuit on the back of the paper so as not to interfere with a design on the front, you can achieve a similar effect by embossing the button. Connection made, the chip does what it’s been programmed to do when it gets input – setting off an output device such as a speaker, say, or sending a message to a server, or even an email or tweet.

It’s interactivity at its most basic, but by combining multiple inputs – even from devices such as light or temperature sensors – you can achieve sophisticated results. The examples we’ve seen so far largely involve audio, and already these vary hugely in form and scope.

Liverpool design consultancy Uniform recently teamed up with printed electronics specialists Novalia, based in Cambridge, and students at PRS to create a prototype poster that lists forthcoming gigs and plays samples of each band on demand. With a web connection, the samples can be streamed from a server and new tracks added easily.

There’s nothing in the project that couldn’t be achieved with listening stations like those found in music shops, but by implementing it as a paper app, the creators of the Listening Post Poster have devised something that could be rolled out at scale, for example at bus stops, and updated easily at relatively low cost –by printing new posters. They can also be customised for particular locations.

PRS students also recently stuck flat piezo speakers to printed electronics on paper to create working headphones. These are easier to recycle than conventional ones, environmental friendliness being an important factor in what’s essentially a disposable product. The students are now seeking investment to turn their idea into promo items for brands that can be given away at festivals.

Then there’s the tissue box, demoed by Novalia, with printed piano keys on the side. It does, as you might guess, play notes – handy for keeping kids amused on long journeys. Developed in partnership with one of the US’s largest packaging firms, the tissue-box piano can be produced using the same equipment as standard tissue boxes – so could easily appear on millions of boxes at minimal extra cost.

Novalia also produced a concept poster, similar to the Listening Post, that carried a personality test and recommended the user a cocktail. The firm’s MD Dr Kate Stone showed it to a pharmaceutical packaging company, despite being “a bit embarrassed, as it seemed frivolous”. She was surprised when the company leapt on the concept, pronouncing it great for pill packaging. The thinking is that the box your pills come in could tell you whether it’s time for your next dose. It could even relay to your doctor the times when you took a pill, which could help in tailoring regimens.

The episode shows that, as with any emerging complex technology, explorations in one area can inspire work in quite different sectors. “That’s how it works,” Kate says. “We see how what we create can inspire others.”

On another positive note, some established technologies and processes are surprisingly easy to adapt to the creation of paper apps. For example, you can screenprint a paper app just by incorporating conductive inks, such as Bare Paint from Bare Conductive (below) – a start-up formed by recent RCA and Imperial College graduates. For prototyping, simply apply Bare Paint with a brush.

At a larger scale, there’s nothing technologically preventing ink manufacturers offering silver or carbon conductive inks for offset or flexo printing – it’s just that no one has, as yet. That should change as paper apps grow in popularity.

What skills do you need to create paper apps? Programming is inherently necessary, although it’s easy to hook up with a programmer if that’s not in your skills bag.

More important, says Uniform’s futures director Pete Thomas, are conceptual interactive and experience design skills.

“The main challenge is to understand what works with a paper interface and what doesn’t,” he says. “[Ask yourself] when does a paper interface add value to the user experience?”

Asked how Digital Arts readers can get involved with paper apps, Jon simply replies: “Get in touch with us. I’d suggest following #paperapps on Twitter and dropping Novalia, Bare Conductive and Uniform an email. Jump on a train to Dundee.

“Get a sketchbook and pen. And start to think about what it could mean to connect paper to the web  – and about what it is that you love about paper.“

You can learn more about paper apps in this video by Uniform.