The Fly Pentop Computer

How an educational toy became a hot holiday gadget.

OMG! Best. Gift. Ever. Click image to expand.
OMG! Best. Gift. Ever.

You could have guessed that the iPod Nano, the Xbox 360, and all manner of plasma televisions are this year’s hot holiday gadgets. But right behind them is a $99 educational toy with no screen, no joystick, not even a pair of self-balancing robot legs: the Fly Pentop Computer. How did a pen—yes, a ballpoint pen—designed as an educational tool for 8- to 14-year-olds become the shopping season’s surprise hit?

A big part of the Fly’s appeal is that it’s as nonthreatening as a gadget can get. The Fly looks like a run-of-the-mill pen, albeit one designed by Reebok. It’s got a battery, a computer brain, a software cartridge, a loudspeaker, and a headphone jack, all camouflaged by its rubber-gripped fatboy casing. You don’t dock the Fly with your PC, nor do you download software for it, squint at a screen, or fiddle with pop-up menus. This is one gadget that makes you do most of the work:”Print two capital letters for day of the week … or … print capital D for date, then listen.”It’s a computerized toy even Grandma can love.

Another reason why old fogeys can’t resist the tricked-out pen is its pedigree. Tens of millions of parents know the Fly’s maker, LeapFrog, through its wildly successful LeapPad. Its secret is the company’s Seven-Second Rule: “If the product’s art and audio fail to engage the user within 7 seconds, the user will never engage.” The Fly goes one step further, helping LeapPad-weaned tweens learn Spanish and math by having them write out words and equations themselves.

You can buy the Spanish and math tutorware as add-on cartridges, but the Fly comes with a beginner’s pack of simple, fun games like a calculator, a draw-it-yourself music keyboard and drum machine, and a goofy DJ contest where you scratch on paper. There are also Fly stickers you can slap anywhere. Tap the pen on the sticker of a guy with a wide-open mouth and the pen belches. If you’re 9 years old, I’m sure it’s hilarious.

The Fly’s most important piece of hardware is a tiny, hidden camera near the tip. The pen comes with sheets and booklets printed on special “Fly paper.” Each page is embedded with a grid of tiny dots that only the camera can see. Whenever you touch it down on the paper, the Fly orients itself to the page’s geography based on which gridlines the camera sees. As you move it across the page, the pen knows what you’re writing, drawing, or pointing at.

The best way to get a sense of how the pen works is through the videos and Flash demos at the Fly Web site. (Warning: Proceed only if you’ve got lots of bandwidth and free time.) The Fly has also been exhaustively reviewed by the New York Times and USA Today(twice). My own experience jibes with theirs: The pen has a simple interface and is fun to use instantly. The draw-your-own-calculator program is my favorite. The pen tells you to draw a box, then the numerals 0 through 9 and the plus, minus, times, divide, and equals symbols. Simply tap the symbols you’ve drawn to make the Fly do the math aloud. As long as the pen recognizes your symbols, you get full artistic control over the interface. I drew my numbers in varying sizes and arranged them in a flower pattern instead of neat rows; they still worked.

This all sounds tricky, but the pen tells you what to do. When you’re creating the piano keys it announces, “Starting from left to right, draw nine vertical lines in a row.” If you hesitate it adds, “Vertical means up and down.” As you draw the lines, it counts with you: “One. Two. Three …” I timed it. Sure enough, the pen never lets seven seconds go by without interacting with you, either by responding to your strokes or prompting you to do something.

On the downside, the Fly occasionally mangles pronunciations. It anglicizes my French last name into “BOUGH-den.”It reads “I HEART NY” as “I de-ny” and can’t understand cursive handwriting at all. Its software is sometimes buggy and repeats the same menu option over and over until you switch the pen off and on.

The weird thing is that the games would be mind-numbingly stupid on a computer screen. Oooh, a calculator! But using pen and paper woke up a different part of my brain. The key seems to be the Seven-Second Rule: Keep the user engaged but not overwhelmed. The software’s response time is snappy, and you can speed-tap through menu options without waiting for the pen to say them all. It can also tell when you’ve jumped from one piece of paper to another. I switched to the beatbox demo in the middle of a calculation, then went back to total the numbers. The pen didn’t miss a step. “One-two times eight—BA-DUM-DUM-DUM-BLAP TAP ONE OF THE, TAP ONE OF THE—five equals 1,020.”

Just because a middle-aged egghead like me has fun playing with the calculator doesn’t mean kids will love it. This is a toy designed to be cool for kids without pissing off their NPR-listening parents. The only software LeapFrog flogs that isn’t either educational or goofy is the baseball game, and even that seems designed with budding sportswriters in mind rather than third basemen.

But the games seem designed (and focus-group tested) to appeal to children without condescending to them. The “educational” games are the kind you can beat Dad at—quick, what’s the capital of Maine? If you write nasty words the pen says “bleep” instead, although it will speak words with multiple meanings—”blow,” for instance. Potty-mouthed tweens will have a field day, but even that’s kind of a learning game. Just get ready to wince when you inevitably hear the Fly say “bitch” in its chipper baritone.

Even though I think this is a spectacular gadget, I’m not sure the Fly will spawn a vibrant new genre the way Palm’s Pilot 1000 did 10 years ago. Palm’s stylus interface gave people a way to carry powerful computers in their pockets before the advent of nano-sized keyboards. The Fly is fun to play with, but I can only think of one killer app for a pen-and-paper computer that meticulously records every stroke, prompts you when you don’t follow instructions, and leaves you with a paper copy in your own handwriting: LeapFrog should definitely consider making voting machines. 

The Times’ David Pogue first fretted that the Fly might be too hard to figure out, then observed that “my young test Flyers were so hooked, they tolerated an amazing number of frustrating glitches.” There’s a lesson for future inventors. The presumed wisdom in Silicon Valley is that you give any new tech to a samurai class of early adopters who figure out the bugs, use it to look at porn, and help you prepare it for the mass market. Instead of presuming all new technologies should begin their life as $300 status gadgets, how about turning them over to the kids? Fly’s smart-paper technology has been around for years with limited success. But by February LeapFrog will have logged millions of hours of real-world testing by rugrats who’ll literally draw outside the box with it.

Fly reviewers’ own grade-schoolers proved to be natural beta testers and an eager focus group. They didn’t blog about the Fly’s bugs or demand LeapFrog open-source its software—they just played with the pen, discovering its strengths and flaws in the process. If more tech companies would hand over their prototypes to tweens instead of other techies, they might actually come up with a smart pen the grown-ups will want to use.