Freehand input is hardly a new idea. It was a fixture of the early Palms, a feature of the famous Newton, and of course our primary means of “input” before computers came along. With the ascendance of touchscreens today, the capability is everywhere — and yet it still hasn’t really caught on. Why? The three big reasons seem to be that screen real-estate is a premium and freehand input requires a lot of it, many devices simply aren’t responsive enough to make it feel natural, and it isn’t actually that useful in most situations. For this week’s awesome stuff, we’re looking at a device that aims to solve at least two of those problems: Phree, a laser-based digital pen.
Let’s look at those three key issues again. The screen real-estate problem is what Phree aims to solve by its very nature, moving all that freehand work off your device’s screen itself and onto any nearby surface. That alone would likely just exacerbate the second issue — responsiveness — but this is where the team’s technological innovation is focused. In the video, they claim to have built the world’s smallest 3D laser interferometer with new algorithms to achieve this high degree of accuracy in the compact device, and though I can’t speak to the truth of this, the video does indeed show a very-responsive-looking system in action. If the finished product really works that well on such a wide array of surfaces, it’ll have cleared the two key viability hurdles for the technology.
The big question for anyone who has looked into this kind of device before is: can it compete with Livescribe, the current household name in smart pens? There are, of course, some big differences: Livescribe pens are real, functioning pens that also record what you write digitally, while the Phree is just an input device. The Livescribe can work as a standalone unit to record notes during the day then retrieve them digitally later, which it appears the Phree cannot. And, despite these missing capabilities, the Phree costs a bit more than a Livescribe 3.
That sounds pretty grim, but there are some factors running in the opposite direction: Livescribe pens only good for storing notes, not active live input of handwriting, and require you to actually be writing on paper at the same time; they are wi-fi only and operate through the cloud rather than being directly linked to your device by BlueTooth; and they have considerably fewer compatibility options, leaning heavily on a partnership with Evernote. The Phree is a far more versatile device.
In a way it’s an unfair comparison, since the two are trying to accomplish different things, but I suspect it’s the first comparison many people will make — and it’s not entirely clear that Phree comes out on top.
We’ve established that the Phree aims to solve two of the three big issues with handwriting input, but what about the third? Freehand input has been possible for a long time — even longer than the multi-touch input we all use every day — but it’s never really caught on. Part of this might be because the technology wasn’t good enough, but there’s a big question as to just how useful and desirable such input really is. Speaking for myself, I rarely find myself wishing for freehand when typing on my phone; on the occasions when I do want to jot and sketch more freely, I grab an actual pen and paper; and on the occasions when something I jot turns out to be important, I snap a photo of it. Obviously this process leaves a lot to be desired but, critically, it doesn’t come up all that often.
On the other hand, I imagine there are many people with a different story to tell, who would love the ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. The Phree could provide this with unprecedented responsiveness, and much more convenient workflow integration than existing smart pens — and that could definitely be a winner.