Originally, the Cooper Hewitt Pen was designed to work much differently than what we wound up building. In fact, you could say it was sort of an opposing approach entirely. The Pen (as we have come to refer to it) is a “smart pen.” Actually, this is what the invoices from our manufacturer in Taiwan referred to it as—Smart Pen.
Smart, usually means there’s something inside. For the Cooper Hewitt Pen, this was a bunch of things, namely an integrated circuit board, batteries, an NFC antenna, a little motor to make it vibrate and some LED lights. The Pen was “smart” because when you switched it on, it knew how to do things. That little circuit ran code that reacted to all the Pen’s external interfaces.
What’s interesting about this approach is that it meant the pens were pretty much self-contained devices. Everything that had to happen, programmatically (for the most part) happened inside the pen, as it was being used. This also meant that the pens needed batteries, and batteries needed to be replaced, but that it could do fun things like vibrate, light up in different ways, and probably most importantly, be switched on or off. The Pen was “active” more than anything else, full of electronics and gizmos, engineered to do tasks, like any other electronic device you might encounter these days.
There was another idea. For a long while, we all thought the Pen itself would be “dumb.” It would just be a big hunk of plastic or rubber or something and it would have some kind of NFC or RFID tag embedded somewhere inside. This alternative approach was attractive for a number of reasons. For one, no batteries to charge. But also, they would be really cheap to produce—heck we even talked about giving them away to every visitor for free!
The “dumb pens” would work more like your RFID enabled ID-card at work that lets you in the building, or more recently your tap to pay credit card. Zero active electronics inside, and nothing more than some kind of chip that would react when you held it near something that was waiting for it.
There were a number of example for this approach to look at, but the one that was the most interesting was probably the Disney Magic Band. What’s interesting about the Magic Band is that it actually has two devices inside it. One is a long range device that is always on, draining a tiny battery very slowly over a very long period of time. This device exists solely to turn on the short range device when you approach one of Disney’s theme parks. It’s designed this way so it can basically last forever. When you purchase a ticket to Disney, you get a Magic Band in the mail ahead of your visit. You keep this band on you all the time–it’s your ticket to the park.
Ok, so the Magic Band did have some active electronics inside it, but still, it was a giveaway, and there wasn’t much else to the guts of the band. It was just a way to identify you to “the system” at any of Disney’s theme parks or other properties like ESPN Zone!
The cool thing about the Magic Band, and our initial concept for the Cooper Hewitt Pen was that it also meant that there needed to be something active that you could touch it to. Think of that ID badge that opens doors—the thing you tap your ID badge to, that little reader thing—it’s a device that is wired with power and connectivity to some server somewhere so that when you tap your badge it can decide if it should let you in or not.
For the Cooper Hewitt Pen, this would have meant something fascinating because our idea of what people would tap was a little Raspberry Pi computer, connected to power, and Ethernet, hiding behind a wall label.
Hiding behind a wall label. This was the little part of the project that got me really excited because all of a sudden, every wall label would essentially be “online.” Each object in the museum would have an IP address—everything would be connected—an elaborate network of tiny computers, resting, waiting and hoping you’ll tap them with a Cooper Hewitt Pen and bring them to life.