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Fly Fusion
Pen Computer Aims at Literate Kids

By Jim Bray
January 9, 2008

Everyone knows kids are far more tech savvy than we oldsters and that they're as at home with computers as they are with mouthing off to grownups and hanging out at malls. This "savviness" seems especially true with computers, to which kids take like the proverbial duck to water.

This is mostly good. In a world that's getting increasingly technological it pays if the kids can handle the concepts. But what if a family can't afford a notebook computer for their kid to use at school, or what they just want to instill good penmanship into their offspring?

That's undoubtedly part of the rationale for the FlyFusion Pentop computer, a little doohickey aimed at kids between the ages of 10 and 16.  This $80 unit can capture handwriting and turn the scrawls and whorls into text that can be fired over to a computer, sent by email, or whatever else you can do with digital text. And that seems like a great idea, at least to a point.

The last time I played with something that was supposed to recognize my scrawling script it was a tablet PC, and I had the same problem then as I did when playing with the Pentop computer: while I may type 80 words a minute, my handwriting has gotten so bad over the years that I can't read it myself half the time – and it's even more difficult for robotic brains to figure out. This is why I use a digital voice recorder for taking notes.

But if a kid's penmanship – shouldn't that be penpersonship in this politically correct society? – hasn't atrophied like mine has, this handwriting recognition could be a really cool way of getting your notes into your notebook.

The pen comes with a mini USB cable for transferring files to and from the device (and for charging its battery), a "flypaper" notebook (you need its special paper), application software (which interacts with the pen and the company's online store) and a quick start sheet. You also get some games and brain teasers and even a little musical application with which little Johnnie or Jennie can compose his or her own opus.

The company says the Pentop computer gives "easy access to subject information for faster problem-solving and real-time homework support"  through interactive, step-by-step applications for math, algebra, writing, language arts, and French translation.

I could have used something like this when I was in high school, when dealing with stuff like equations (you write the equation on the Flypaper with the pen and then let the software expend the actual skull sweat on your behalf). Fractions can be converted into decimals, improper factions into mixed numbers, and you can calculate area, perimeter, and circumference – the kind of stuff that made me decide to be a writer instead of an engineer.

The Pentop computer has just enough razzle dazzle to make it interesting to multimedia-indoctrinated kids. For example, you can store and play back MP3 music files (an alternative to buying the brat an iPod) and through the FlyFusion online store kids can download a variety of applications including movie tie in games such as Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Fly FusionFortunately the company has set up the system so that parents can restrict the kids from downloading anything, or they can buy the Flybucks themselves and let the little buggers use them to purchase whatever applications get their little hearts a-fluttering.

The pen's a little bigger than you'd expect from most pens these days, but it'll still fit easily into a pocket or back pack. I think its width might make it a tad tiring to use over the long haul, but if the kid takes breaks (which isn't always possible, of course) writer's cramp may not be too much of an issue.

While the Pentop computer is aimed at kids, I could see grownups using it for note taking as well if, unlike mine, their penmanship isn't completely out to lunch. It could be a nice little portable way to get your notes to your PC without scanning them and running through OCR software.

But not for me. I'm going to stick with my digital voice recorder and the voice recognition software with which I use it. It isn't because I don't think the Pentop computer is worthwhile, but because I'm too lazy to discipline my handwriting so people and the little robot inside the Pentop computer can recognize what to all intents and purposes is chicken scratching. Besides, I've already trained my voice recognition not to shut down at the mere sound of my squawking, and since my voice recorder is even smaller than the pen, it would be redundant for my application.

But that leaves the rest of the world as a potential market for this little Pentop computer gadget.

I feel so alone.

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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