In the early chapters of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Henry Petroski speculates about the uncertain origin of a certain species of writing implement, proceeding to chronicle a fascinating (albeit at-times long-winded) account of its eponymous subject matter. A civil engineer by training and professor by trade, the author takes the pencil as a vehicle for tracing a loose history of his chosen profession over the course of some 300-pages.
As in Petroski's account, FiftyThree's latest product represents far more than the everyday object that sits on or in our desk. Its name and form factor transcend mere etymology and superficial skeuomorphism: "Pencil" captures the very essence of its namesake—typically the first tool that we use in earnest as a means of recording words and drawings—a stylus that significantly expands the power of their breakthrough app, Paper. But beyond a tightly integrated hardware-software ecosystem, Pencil marks a first step towards smarter accessories in general.
"We really want the materials to be authentic—it's a big part of our brand, craftsmanship and authenticity." -Jon Harris
Pixels, in some ways, represent a digital equivalent of graphite—discrete pigment deposited on a virtual surface, which can be restored to its original state by erasing these particles. If the physical evidence of a Dixon Ticonderoga consists of an infinitesimal amount of matter transferred from one object to another, then the digital traces of, say, the brush tool (in your sketching software of choice) are even less tangible. With their first product, Paper, a versatile drawing app, FiftyThree harnessed this unseen magic to reveal the potential of the iPad as a mobile creation device.
But the artifact itself endures, and that much was clear at FiftyThree's New York HQ last week, where co-founders Georg Petschnigg and Andrew Allen offered us a hands-on demo of the production version of Pencil, which launches this very morning; Director of Hardware John Ikeda and Design Co-Founder Jon Harris were also on the line via videochat from Seattle. The handsome Bluetooth-enabled stylus comes in sustainably-sourced walnut and black brushed aluminum variations, and it's hard to decide which one is superior. Ikeda clearly prefers the former: "We try not to coat or treat the wood too heavily—just enough to protect it from humidity and those kinds of thing—but what's really nice about them is that after a handling them for a while, they take on their own character."
Like many of his colleagues at FiftyThree, including the three co-founders, Ikeda previously worked at Microsoft: "We always wanted to build a product that we could describe with the word 'patina!'"
Besides the aesthetics and weight, the walnut version has the added advantage of an embedded magnet, which allows it to snap to an iPad cover. Harris notes that it's a subtle allusion to Pencil's unmistakable flattened form factor: "Carpenter's pencils are shaped the way they are so they don't roll off the woodbench."
The tried-and-true ergonomics of the rounded shaft have another advantage as well. Petschnigg points out that "electronics—i.e. chips—want to be flat." Both of the Pencil bodies are hollowed out to 1.2mm wall thickeness—the walnut is milled while the aluminum is extruded, to reduce waste—with the exact same components: capacitive rubber tips that enclose gold-plated contacts at either end; a removable battery module with a built-in charger; and the brains of the device itself. The firmware knows which end is which; regarding the business end of the Pencil, Ikeda elaborates:
It's a helical wound torsional spring—it's meant to flex [from] side-to-side, not up and down, like a ballpoint pen spring— because we wanted it to actuate the switch accurately and sensitively from multiple angles but also to allow for larger surfaces that would hold up to the robustness of scrubbing along with the finer tip for more precise line work.
Petschnigg, for one, is glad that "you'll never lose the charger."
The tip is directly connected to the battery and its charger, which consists of an exposed USB plug, but the user-friendly hardware belies an engineering challenge. "Much to our engineers' chagrin, we wanted the battery on the front end," Ikeda relates, "because we wanted the weight on the front end. And they were like, 'Dude, there's a reason why people put batteries in the back end. It's easy.' And we're like 'Yes. But we're not about easy, are we?'" Suffice it to say that the engineers made it happen, and the result is that the weight of the device that simply feels right.Just like any other tool, if it doesn't feel great, if it doesn't do its job, you're not gonna use it. Before we even got to the interaction part of the experience, we really wanted to think about, 'Does it feel great in your hand?' 'Does it feel like something you're gonna become accustomed to love?' 'Does it feel great as a tool?' ...all of those things married to the carpenter pencil form were a really nice metaphor for us.
But the hardware is only half the story: Pencil is designed for Paper, and inasmuch as they had the opportunity to revisit the software in tandem with the hardware, FiftyThree sought to make the user experience more intuitive across the board (or tablet, as it were), starting with the very first step. "We spent a lot of time thinking about that basic interaction—we wanted it to be simple," Petschnigg says, opening the app with a newly unboxed Pencil in hand. "What we have here is a [Bluetooth] pairing spot—we developed a mechanic called 'kiss to pair'—so in order to complete the bluetooth pairing, you just tap down, and in three seconds... [the icon turns white] it just paired."
"Kiss to Pair"
Once paired, Pencil allows for entirely new ways of using Paper. Not only does the device unlock all of the tools (which were previously available for in-app purchase), but FiftyThree has developed a 'palm rejection' algorithm that rivals Dikembe Mutombo. Ok, so it's not a euphemism for blocked shots, but it's quite impressive nonetheless: The App effectively detects when a touch comes from Pencil or one's hand, such that it knows not only when to ignore a resting palm but also remains gesture-controllable. Petschnigg marvels at the software engineering team's accomplishment, demonstrating the three features at once:The first thing [you notice after pairing] is that your hand no longer writes on the screen, and you can now just rest your wrist on the screen and simply write. What this meant for us is that we had to make the entire user interface aware of a pen versus a palm versus a touch—buttons don't know about palms, they know about touches.
But in our case, we developed a system... we actually had one of our Ph.D-level engineers work out geometric constraints [for] the tip signals coming in, to figure out how to disambiguate between pen versus palm versus touch. And our multi-touch gestures still work, which is an industry first—you can open up the loupe, if you want to do a detailed field. There's a lot going on on the screen right now: You're manipulating a loupe, with your fingers; the palm is being ignored; and the tip is still there for detail work.
There's also a smart smudge feature (not unlike using pastels or charcoal, though its less tactile on glass) and, of course, an eraser that works exactly as you'd expect. "As Ikeda says, 'There are 50 billion pencils out there right now—people know how to flip it around to erase,'" says Petschnigg as the hardware designer nods in agreement. "It's a really natural gesture." In short, Pencil is intended to have all of the advantages of your beloved Blackwing and none of the drawbacks.
But if the product itself is a thing of beauty and utility, FiftyThree also has an eye on the not-so-distant future of Pencil. In keeping with Petschnigg's opinion that "there shouldn't be barriers for creation," they're working on an SDK for other apps to take advantage of Pencil's palm rejection technology; he's also passionate about the stylus's application in educational settings. "An object like the pencil is generally considered unremarkable, and it is taken for granted... because it is abundant, inexpensive, and as familiar as speech," Petroski writes, a few pages into The Pencil. "Yet the pencil need be no cliché. It can be as powerful a metaphor as the pen, as rich a symbol as the flag."
The pencil, the tool of doodlers, stands for thinking and creativity, but at the same time, as the toy of children, it symbolizes spontaneity and immaturity. Yet the pencil's graphite is also the ephemeral medium of thinkers, planners, drafters, architects, and engineers, the medium to be erased, revised, smudged, obliterated, lost...
Pencil offers the best of both worlds: the ability to erase, revise and smudge, without risk of outright obliteration or perdition. And while Petroski curiously omits designers in his list of pencil-wielding professionals, Petschnigg and his colleagues are the very folks who have reinvented the tool for the 21st century.
Let's go ahead and pencil them in.
The packaging was designed in-house with the same attention to detail; you'll have to check it out for yourself to have the pleasure of unboxing it...The packaging was designed in-house with the same attention to detail; you'll have to check it out for yourself to have the pleasure of unboxing it...
Pencil by FiftyThree is available now at an introductory price of $49.95 for the graphite version and $59.95 for walnut; orders placed before December 6 will ship in time for holiday delivery.