Brooks (brooksmoses) wrote,

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Indistinguishable from magic?

I just wrote this as a post to rec.arts.sf.composition, but I thought I'd post it here too.

The pen of the future, with built-in drum set.

Laura drew a "K" on her pad of paper, and circled it. "Keyboard," the pen said, and then, "Draw a row of nine vertical lines. She drew the lines, and then the pen instructed her to draw horizontal lines across the top and bottom, making the lines into a row of eight squares.

She tapped the pen against one of the squares, experimentally; the pen played a note, as if it were a key on a keyboard. When she paused for a bit, the pen spoke up again: "Instrument Select. Write an 'I' and draw a box around it." She clicked the box a few times, cycling through "Piano" and "Organ" to "Synthesizer". Then, the pen offered to turn four circles into a drum set, and a rectangle with "REC" written in in and a triangle with "P" in it into a record and playback system.

A while later, she drew a "C" on the pad, on a new sheet of paper, and circled it. "Calculator," the pen said, and, "Draw a large rectangle on the paper where you want your calculator. Draw numbers on it, and a plus sign, minus sign," and so forth. Laura put some numbers in it, somewhat randomly; the pen announced each one as written. Then, she tapped the pen on the numbers, and as she tapped it read aloud, "one plus two equals," and supplied "three" as the answer.

Bored with the calculator, she went back to the first sheet of paper, and recorded a version of "Three Blind Mice" with a slightly tinny drum solo.


So, that was part of my entertainment for the evening. (Well, ok, I made up the "Three Blind Mice" part.) Laura says it hits stores in September, aimed at 12-year-old kids. It also does note-taking, scheduling, greeting cards and stickers (tap the pen on the right place on the greeting card, and it plays a note), helps with long division, and with an expansion pack it does Spanish/English translation.

Welcome to the future. Charlie Stross, are you taking notes? :)

I also found it rather remarkable how it accomplishes all this. The paper, as one might guess, isn't ordinary paper -- but only barely not; it's got microfine dots printed on it in infrared-visible ink, which encode positioning data. Essentially, the dots on each sheet of paper are taken from some position within a space about the side of Europe, and a small camera in the pen can tell by looking at them exactly what part of the space the dots are from. (The company that makes the pen bought a square mile of this space from the company that invented the dots.)

And so, once someone draws the box around the "REC", the pen remembers (for a while) that that position in the dot-space is a "record" button, and so forth. Add in some handwriting-recognition software, a voice synthesizer that knows 70,000 words, a library of sound effects, a fair number of general-purpose programs, and a rather large set of
associations of paper-locations and sound effects for stickers and greeting cards, and that's pretty much all there is to it. Well, aside from the fact that all of that fits into something the size of an only barely unweildy pen, and sells for a price comparable to a larger Lego set.

Funny how this sort of thing seems so easily distinguishable from magic these days.
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