The LongPen – landmark distance tool

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March 30, 2006 The unveiling of the LongPen at the London Book Fair earlier this month is one of the most important technology stories of 2006. The fact it was conceived and funded in its development by Booker Prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood seems to have helped to disguise the story from the tabloids. Similarly, the absolute focus of Unotchit on the LongPen as a tool to enable authors to escape the drudgery of book signing tours has been equally myopic – Atwood could not have picked a harder industry in which to pioneer a machine that challenges traditional ways. The LongPen machine threatens the lucrative tradition of book signing tours because it enables the author to sign a book remotely while they chat via videophone with the recipient – all facilitated by the Internet. Viewed with some perspective though, LongPen is the world’s first real-time, remote signing device and will likely find many applications in a world unshackling itself from the tyranny of distance. It is already being adapted to sign basketballs and will be used by entertainers, musicians ad infinitum to sign CD/DVDs and photos remotely. Instead of focussing on how much the value of a signed book is diminished by LongPen, we think Unotchit should forget the book market and go after the burgeoning distance-everything markets where it is a landmark tool that will enable public figures of all types to represent themselves more effectively to the global community.

One of the more intriguing technology stories of recent times has been the unveiling of the LongPen at the London Book Fair 2006 earlier this month. Conceived and funded in its development by novelist Margaret Atwood, the LongPen is the world’s first real-time, remote signing device and was created by Atwood in the hope that book authors will no longer need to traipse around the world for book signings.

It works like this - the author signs using a LongPen machine, and another machine signs the book remotely while the author and the person with the book chat via videophone – all facilitated by the Internet. The machine is being adapted for use with sporting memorabilia (so it can remotely sign baseballs, basketballs etc) and will no doubt find application in other aspects of the entertainment industry where musicians and actors can sign CD/DVDs or photos remotely.

Ironically, though the LongPen will undoubtedly be embraced by many of the world’s digital communities and will likely find many applications in a world unshackling itself from the tyranny of distance, Atwood might well have picked an easier industry in which to pioneer a machine that challenges traditional ways.

The immediate questions raised by the LongPen’s target audience of book signing attendees surround the value of a book, baseball or an autograph signed remotely in comparison to being signed by a flesh-and-blood human.

It seems to us that everyone, including Unotchit, has missed the point, focussing almost myopically on the book-signing market and failing to see things with any perspective. The LongPen is a tool of landmark importance for the burgeoning distance-everything market and will facilitate important people of all types to represent themselves to the global community.

The LongPen consists of two units. One unit is the signers and features a video screen, a bit pad, and a magnetic pen. The second unit is stationed with the recipient and includes another screen, a book/document holder and an electronic arm wielding a pen.

The participants can see and hear each other with clarity through the video screens and audio connections and it should be said that the LongPen incorporates a high-quality videoconferencing system that facilitates clear and compelling eye-to-eye communication. The recipient places the object to be signed in the LongPen holder and, in the case of a book, informs the signer what they would like written in the inscription.

When the signer obliges, a preview screen appears before the image is sent, in case corrections are needed. Whatsmore the entire process is recorded and either party can have a DVD copy of the transmissions.

Now logically, this should enhance the process of signing a book. Instead of the recipient standing in a queue to get a brief view of the top of the author’s head and to have them look up at you for a moment while you tell them what you’d like written, the LongPen enables eye-to-eye viewing, greater interaction, a faultless signature and no-misspelling’s in Siimon’s name. What it doesn’t offer is a living breathing person in the same place – the markings on the book or baseball may be identical, but somehow something is missing, or at least that’s what people seem to think.

Atwood’s target audience of book readers is one which holds the personal touch as very important. By definition it is an audience which is one of the most resistant to new communication methods and one which holds dear the opportunity to meet an author in person – to meet and look into the eyes of the person who crafted those words, even if it’s for just a moment.

An example of the resistance the LongPen faces is evident in the reaction of Abebooks.com, the world’s largest online used book marketplace. Abebooks lists 80 million used, rare, and out-of-print books and represents 13,500 booksellers, selling 20,000 books a day from its web sites.

At the beginning of 2005, immediately following the news that the LongPen machine was under development, Abebooks.com ran an online opinion poll which found an “overwhelming 96 per cent of voters believed a book signed via a machine was worth less, emotionally and financially, than one signed by in person.”

Though the poll had just 451 respondents (why so small when that number must represent just a few seconds of traffic at the abebooks.com site), it indicates overwhelming opinion by visitors to the site of the world’s largest representative of booksellers. The Abebooks press release makes interesting reading.

Where to from here for the Unotchit?

Though it may encounter some resistance in the bookselling industry, there is undoubtedly a future for the LongPen as it means that more authors can “tour” (massively reduced costs), authors can “visit” several cities on the same day (six hours of promotional time can be spread across three cities on different continents), authors can appear in small cities and towns that would not be on the tour map and countries where a translation into another language has been done with a significantly reduced print run can still be supported.

One idea we particularly like for the LongPen is that authors can be imaginatively teamed by bookstores for a signing with say, a local author, a mid-list writer and an international star all appearing on the same bill at the same store on the same day with one or both of the latter being present via LongPen.

It will also open the possibility of an author, a sportsperson, an entertainer or a celebrity being able to support a charity or make themselves available for a corporate event without needing to fly across the world and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In some ways the LongPen is tool to enable authors to avoid the drudgery, but in times to come, we believe history will be much kinder to the LongPen and it will be seen as a landmark distance device – perhaps it’ll only be seen as a peripheral for teleconferencing, but we think it might be seen as much more landmark than that.

The LongPen is manufactured and promoted by Margaret Atwood's purpose-built company Unotchit.

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