Could Pens Rewrite Interactive Technology?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Cooper Hewitt Interactive Pen

In today’s high-tech world, pens are not the sexiest technology that you can imagine. People are looking for ways to jettison pens and paper, and use tablets and smartphones to track notes and send communications. Everything is about going paperless. So what’s driving the wave of “pen technologies” that are being developed and deployed throughout the museum world? Just when you thought pens were outdated, tech integration is giving new life to these highly portable devices and building on the deeply ingrained psychology and symbolism associated with pens to expand visitor engagement. Here’s a closer look at how pens are being used as the next step in the evolution of interactive technology.

Local Projects, whose creative work we’ve covered before, is behind the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s new interactive pen. The Cooper Hewitt museum is housed in the former residence of Andrew Carnegie and is the nation’s only museum dedicated exclusively to historic and contemporary design.  In a new interactive exhibit opening to the public in December, the Cooper Hewitt is unveiling a new technology that’s intended to transform visitors into designers. It changes the whole experience of visiting the museum from passive observer to engaged participant.

Designing the Pen Infographic

According to the museum’s site, “Asked by Cooper Hewitt to come up with a visitor technology that emphasized play and spoke to the specificities of a design museum, the concept for the Pen originated from Local Projects working with Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The Pen was pitched as a way to invite visitors to learn about design by designing themselves. Beyond working as a tool for drawing, it would encourage visitors to engage with the works on view in the museum, rather than looking at them through the small screen of the more traditional approach of a ‘museum App’.”

The way the technology integrates into the museum experience is both fascinating and multi-faceted. Each visitor is assigned a pen upon entry. The pen can collect objects and it enables guests to design via drawing on interactive tables. It uses a dual technology approach, interfacing with interactive tables through the same type of materials used on a touchscreen stylus. Simultaneously, it interfaces with object labels by using sensors that read tags imbedded through near-field communications technology. It’s not unlike the RFID technology we’ve talked about previously in connection with Disney’s MyMagic + or the iBeacon technologies discussed at this year’s Museums Beyond the Web conference.

Cooper Hewitt Pen

Using the large, ultra-high-definition screens on tables designed by Ideum, visitors can view, learn more about, and play with the objects they collect. The system also has a discovery feature that lets users find related objects in Cooper Hewitt’s collections; provides more information about the exhibit; gives background on designers, processes and materials; gives access to exclusive video content; and allows users to sketch their own designs. For example, if a guest draws a shape on an interactive screen, a database will be searched and return every item in the collections that contains that shape. In a word, these pens are a powerhouse.

Earlier incarnations of the pen technology can be seen at museums such as the National World War I museum, where an entire gallery is taken up by large interactive tables. Guests use light pens to call up photos, videos, and other content related to the Great War. Others are using pen-like devices as part of audio tours, limited scale tablet-based drawing exhibits, and even accessibility programs for disabled visitors.

But the interactive pens from Cooper Hewitt are truly next generation. In the most elemental sense, pens embody creation. They were one of the earliest tools that we had to transmit ideas, record our thoughts, and sketch out the abstract concepts that would transform into everything from design to technology. The pen has played an undeniable role in civilization’s development. Its physicality is something that we all relate to, with writing and doodling being natural ways to engage with the world around us. As a virtual tool, pens may be just the thing to help overcome the challenges of uninspiring interactive screens.

Image sources: The Cooper Hewitt


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