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March 2011: Dispatch from the Bleeding Edge of…Handwriting

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • “So you have a vested interest in the future of pens and handwriting?” Ginny Carpenter, VP of marketing for Anoto asked me as we walked the aisles of the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) annual meeting’s exhibit hall last week in Orlando, Fla.

Ironic it was, because the convention focused on the automation of clinical and business information throughout the hospital environment. While most of the hundreds of vendors were passing out ballpoints, rollerballs, gel pens and highlighters at booths ranging in size from roughly a broom closet up to the square footage of Rhode Island, the wares they hawked were all about health information coursing through networks of smartphones, laptops, network servers, and tablets like the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy, and Research in Motion (BlackBerry) PlayBook. In other words, getting physicians and nurses away from pens.

…a certain number of physicians above a certain age are much more comfortable with clipboards and pens than laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Many of them … are just plain lost navigating electronic medical records on a computer screen. Extra Fine Points

Anoto -- not to be confused with vintage pen-collector favorite De La Rue's "Onoto the Pen" (or the modern Onoto company, either) -- is a pen company, the owner of the technology that Livescribe licenses. The Anoto pen digitizes handwriting with a camera that uses dots on the Anoto paper as a guide. Livescribe syncs to computers via cradle and USB cable; at HIMSS, Anoto demonstrated its Bluetooth pens.

Anoto pen's camera

A camera inside the Anoto pen digitizes handwriting.

I’d just completed an interview with Carpenter for my day job as a news reporter for a Web site that focuses on healthcare information technology — and in that capacity I need to maintain an arms’-length vendor agnosticism, if not outright jaded pessimism toward their marketing messages. The job requires me to focus on real-world users in actual hospital environments. Vendors — and their marketing representatives — become conduits to the users who actually implement the gear.

But we had a long walk from the interview room to our next stop, an Anoto partner that uses the company’s pens and special paper to digitize forms data captured from a physician’s clipboard. So for a moment I abandoned my reporter’s jaded objectivity and started making small talk about being a fountain pen collector, letting it slip I’m a writing instrument aficionado. I didn’t go as far as to confess that I thought my own demo of the Bluetooth-enabled Anoto pen captured my handwriting on a smartphone was wicked cool, though. They’ll learn that reading this piece.

While Carpenter couldn’t legally confirm or deny it, one would suspect the next Anoto technological development would be a Wi-Fi enabled digital pen that transmitted directly to screen. If they already have Bluetooth perfected, how far off can Wi-Fi be? Imagine that: writing notes directly to a remote computer over the Internet wherever a wireless network is accessible. Sync later via cable if it isn’t. Don’t have to drag your laptop to a meeting or your favorite journaling spot.

This, my friends, is the future of pens — especially if handwriting recognition software becomes cheap and accurate enough to be usable.

The best part? Carpenter confirmed that Anoto’s technology, in theory, could be used with fountain pens to capture writing or even calligraphy — although no partner’s yet tackled that task.

Anoto pen's camera

The Anoto Bluetooth digital pen.

The whole argument could be moot, however, as the current generation of young adults becomes more accustomed to texting and typing more than they are writing. When I asked her about this — what kind of future does a pen company have, nowadays, really, even if it’s a high-tech pen that digitizes handwriting — Carpenter took the glass-half-full side, as vendors do.

They still teach handwriting in school, she pointed out. Field workers will always have to write some things, even if the world’s predominantly digital.

Yeah but, I said grabbing the glass-half-empty side of the argument, my second-grade son Patrick’s already started computer classes — keyboarding and mousing is now taught in parallel with handwriting, not delayed until high school like it was in our youth. Handwriting is becoming the afterthought.

For the short and probably medium term, Anoto’s got a good thing going, at least in healthcare. The U.S. government is funding a massive network infrastructure to host patient data in electronic forms, and a certain number of physicians above a certain age (estimates vary from 35 to 50) are much more comfortable with clipboards and pens than laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Many of them never took typing classes, and are just plain lost navigating electronic medical records on a computer screen.

This group of docs — numbering in the tens of thousands, if not six figures — would do anything for a pen-based solution to digitizing their clinical workflows. That cultural reality helped Anoto and its partners create some serious buzz in the HIMSS halls, despite the fact their collective footprint was dwarfed by huge companies like GE Healthcare. People wanted to see Anoto pens in action.

It was cool enough, I thought, to share with you here in my Extra Fine space.

But in answer to Carpenter’s question about how invested I was in the future of handwriting, I said no, actually I wasn’t.

“It’s more like I’m looking for reasons to convince myself it isn’t already over,” I said. Secretly, however, I hope some manufacturer finds our little fountain-pen market to be substantial enough to create a digital fountain pen that writes like butter and digitizes our journals.

That would advance fountain pens into the digital age, and at least give them half a chance for survival among the electronic communication devices presently choking out the existence of all writing instruments, not just fountain pens.

The idea’s just a lark. But a cool one, nonetheless. The jaded news reporter in me has to issue a public-service announcement: Don’t go to Vegas and lay money on it ever happening. If it does, however, I’m calling dibs on being first in line to test — and purchase — a digital fountain pen.

cover Further Reading: Pen, Ink, & Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective, by Joe Nickell
Anoto may be the future of pens, but how about the past? Want to know what the Romans wrote with? How to make oak gall ink? How pens work? These subjects and many, many more are covered in Joe Nickell’s fascinating tome. It’s a worthwhile addition to any pen aficionado’s library.

Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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