The Pentop Computer

As Moore's Law works its seemingly inexhaustible magic, more and more (no pun intended) computing power can be crammed into smaller and smaller spaces.

One result? The pen as computer. We're not talking about handheld computers or tablet PCs, in which the pen is a simple stylus. These are pens that are computers.

Consider the pen-like gadgets produced by Wizcom. Although they look a bit more like box-bodied, legless praying mantises than ballpoint pens, they have all sorts of non-insect abilities. Take the ReadingPen, for example. Drag it over a word, phrase, or even a line on a printed page and it will read the words to you. (For a review of ReadingPen, see the November issue of Technology & Learning.)

You can also trade up to the Quicktionary pen. It will translate English to more than a dozen foreign languages. Scan words or phrases in French; see them printed and hear them read to you in English.

Imagine this technology in the hands of a high school student. While reading a novel for Spanish or French class, the student could use the pen to quickly get definitions for unfamiliar words and write notes in the margin at the same time. Change vocabulary modules and the pen could be just as useful for reading Beowulf as it is for deciphering the directions to a complicated chemistry experiment. Anytime esoteric connotations or specialized jargon come into play, a pen like this could be a lifesaver.

If you miss your yellow highlighter, Wizcom's QuickLink-Pen may be just what you need. Roll its beady little eyes across text and collect a digital recording of key words and quotables. You can scan and store as many as 1,000 pages of text and transfer them via infrared or USB connection to your handheld computer, desktop, or laptop. You can even capture small images.

Sound useful? You bet. But imagine what you could do with a bit more functionality. To begin with, add a voice recorder. Then, not only could you scan text and capture images, you could create voice annotations at the same time. Instantly note why you wanted to save that particular passage or the name of the person in the picture. What a neat tool for investigative reporting or field research!

Techno-toymaker LeapFrog recently introduced an even snazzier gadget. For one thing, the FLY writes in old-fashioned ink — but that's the humblest of its capabilities. To learn about the FLY's myriad uses in education, see the review in the upcoming February issue.

But it shouldn't be long before all the possibilities of the computer pen become reality for anyone in a teaching or learning situation.

Michael Simkins is creative director of the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership (TICAL).