FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Mighty Pen

This holiday season's must-have toy is supposedly the Fly Pentop Computer from LeapFrog, essentially a giant ballpoint pen with an on-board computer. Designed for pre-teens, the Fly has interchangeable educational modules that allow it to read what is being written, provide audible feedback, and even play games and music.

David Pogue of the New York Times provides some examples of what the Fly can do:

Staggering possibilities await a pen that can read software right off the page as it moves, and the Fly package comes with a sparkling sampler. For example, as you tap countries on a world map, the pen pronounces their capitals or plays their national anthems. On a glossy, fold-out mini-poster of a disc jockey's setup, you can tap buttons to get music samples, or tap turntables to produce record-scratching sounds; then you can record your own compositions or compete, memory-game style, against other players. There's even a sheet of stickers that, when tapped, produce appropriate sound effects. (For my two elementary-schoolers, the belching mouth alone was good for 20 minutes of hilarity.)

The Fly, however, has much greater potential than as a mere toy, or even as an educational tool. Able to save reminders and perform calculations, the Fly can, in effect, serve as a PDA. (Actually, that's what Gizmodo said when it reviewed the Fly back in August). It will also be interesting to see if and how users hack the Fly, and whether third-party developers will create software for it. The current model has its flaws, but that's to be expected. Could a 2.0 model contain a wireless interface so that Flies could "talk" to one another, or even download data and tagged files from the Internet? Teachers could use it to deliver assignments and study aids to students. Kids could recommend music downloads to their friends (just what the music industry wants to hear, I'm sure).

A pen-based computer might not make much sense to adults, but kids who have tested them reportedly find them endlessly fascinating. Even though the Fly has a bit of a learning curve and -- like any good computer -- crashes occasionally, the kids don't seem to mind. As these kids grow up and enter the workforce, they'll bring their experiences with pen-based computing with them... and perhaps foster a new generation of computing devices.

Source: Business Week