I’m painfully familiar with the problems of print publications in the digital age. A refugee from the newspaper industry, I (and every newspaper executive) wanted to find a way to capitalize on digital media. Jason Barkeloo is trying to solve that problem by effectively making newspapers and other print products into touch screens.

sdlogo3d1.jpgAt Cinncinnati-based Somatic Digital, Barkeloo’s four-person team has created an electronic folder that serves as a connection between a print publication and the Internet. It looks like the Leapfrog Enterprises LeapPad books that you insert an electronic book into. But it’s designed for adults, with a streamlined interface. You put a magazine into the folder and it recognizes the issue. When you turn a page and touch an ad, it can send activate a web page on a connected display.

“It’s about converting regular images into a touch-screen interface,” Barkeloo said. “So when you interact with the paper pages, you are interacting with the device, which in turn activates a database. It could be a computer, DVD player, TV, or mobile phone. We then generate analytics on what you’ve touched.”

The Touch User Interface is a way to bring a better return on a printed product and it works without publishers having to do anything special to their printed products. Data about what the user is doing can be transferred wirelessly using a variety of wireless protocols but the default option is a low-power radio using the Zigbee standard. The TouchBook folders are expected to cost around $20.

Not only can content be linked, but also communication applications. A telephone number can be touched and a VOIP call can be launched; an email or IM address can be touched and the applicable application is pre-addressed and launched.

jason-e-barkeloo-pic.jpg“The distribution of content is split between print and digital forms, but they are disconnected,” he said. “Digital has great advantages but print won’t die.”

(Amen to that, say the old newsprint folks).

“We decided to link the print and digital environments, not through electronic paper and in a way where you don’t have to change either one,” he said. “We enable the print product to be a low-cost entry into the digital world.”

The company has raised $1.6 million and it is raising a Series A round now. It has been in development for four years. Barkeloo said that the company had a hard time developing hardware on a shoestring budget and also didn’t know exactly what to do with the technology. One option was to create a product for people with disabilities and another was to help under-privileged kids deal with the digital divide. Neither idea was a magnet for capital. Now Barkeloo believes the technology has more potential as a publishing platform.

Competitors include e-ink and Plastic Logic. There has been some history of start-ups in this area, notably CueCat. But Barkeloo says his advantage is the fact that the blind and deaf can use his product and print publishers don’t have to do a thing to participate.

It has functioning prototypes and has sold some to a local Cinncinnati government agency, it has a contract with NASA’s Robert Goddard Space Flight Center, and has given some models to the National Center for the Blind.The latter is using it because the product can be used by deaf or blind people.

Some orders are in the queue. The company is trying to use an OEM licensing business model and reap revenues through analytic information. Barkeloo says the company is considering relocating to Silicon Valley. He expects customers in the educational publishing, government agency, and OEM businesses.

Before starting Somatic Digital in 2004, Barkeloo founded TouchSmart Publishing LLC, an educaiton supplement provider. He was the founder and still serves as director of research for DiscoverTek, a technology consultancy.Earlier, he served in the U.S. Army air defense operations and in intelligence. While in the Army, he also served as a medical operations officer managing medical facilities. Upon leaving the military, he taught science to inner-city high school kids as part of the Department of Defense’s Troops-to-Teachers program.