A Little Printer Mystery

09 September 2014

Some sad news from BERG today, one consequence of which being that the Little Printer service may only be running for another six months or so, depending on whether or not another company can be found to buy the service.

This reminded me that I still haven’t posted about a Little Printer thing that happened earlier this year: printers everywhere started producing strange, unexpected output.

The mystery begins

It all started on the 27th of March, 2014. Amidst the normal publications I subscribe to, something else appeared (click to enlarge the images):

I wasn’t the only person to notice. People posted on instagram:

… and then, a few days later, some more:

Everything was back to normal on the 7th of March, but the next day, more strangeness:

The comments on one instagram were particularly intriguing; even the people responsible for Little Printer had seen this strangeness, but didn’t know what was going on.

Matt Webb: I don’t know… but I have a theory

Then, some more sporadic conversations, even going so far as to quote Beckett.

This, at least, felt like a clue:

And then some meta-physical self reflection:

And, weeks later this final message:

… and since then, nothing. But who was having those conversations? What happened to them? What did it all mean?

A source of mystery and delight?

Well, we hinted as much that this was going to happen in our ‘Advent Calendar’ post.

Anyone who subscribes to this (or indeed any) publication cannot know for certain what might pop out of their printer from one day to the next.

Would it be possible to make unexpected content appear? Indeed, it is. However, what I found most surprising was that nobody really found it particularly strange. Actually, as I kept tabs on Twitter and instagram, and with 150 subscribers to the piggy-backed publication, there was really almost no reaction at all.

So, some mystery, but really not much delight. It’s interesting to explore how far “personality” can enter into the world of connected products; NTLK’s view is particularly interesting:

I’m assuming it’s designed to give this object an opportunity to appear as if it has a life and identity independent of the owner, to make it more lively, interesting and playful; but for me it just regularly reminds me that someone else is in control.

BERG themselves wrote about explorations into the personality possibilities of connected products. They called this “BotWorld”. In our view, the results of that experiment were inconclusive; some people were delighted by the haircuts and sunglasses, while others (such as NTLK above) feel it highlighted that the device was being externally controlled.

And, perhaps, there is another slice of Little Printer owners who didn’t pay much attention to it at all, which would be a shame if it were true, but unfortunately not surprising.


The mystery messages stopped in April, but a few months later Nick Ludlam (then BERG’s CTO) finally – and accidentally – discovered what had been happening:

While there was no deep meaning to it, I’m glad that Nick unearthed our little game; for me it was as much a conversation between me-the-developer and BERG-Cloud-the-system as it was an attempted conversation between two mystery characters, or between the Little Printer and its owner.

BERG explored the fringes of the world of connected products, and it was fun to in-turn explore the fringes of their exploration.

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