Phree is a high resolution digital pen that can write on almost any surface. Although Phree’s Kickstarter fundraiser just launched last month, the foundational technology was actually invented 17 years ago. The company behind the digital pen, OTM Technologies, was founded by a group of engineering and physics experts who met each other at Talpiot, an elite Israeli Defense Forces training program. It took hundreds-of-thousands of hours to develop the pen’s optical sensor, which OTM patented in 1998.
At first, they planned to use the sensor to create the world’s first optical mouse to replace the popular dusty mechanical ball mice of the nineties. OTM struck deal with Logitech, but Microsoft beat them to announcing an optical mouse. Undeterred, in 2001 they signed an agreement with an unnamed “biggest and best consumer tech company,” but that deal fell apart because their chip supplier couldn’t deliver the processor on time. So the founders turned their attention to developing a digital pen. First, they had to wait 12 years for a chip that would be fast, small, and powerful enough for the signal processing that tracking hand writing requires. Now, with more than $800,000 pledged of a $100,000 Kickstarter goal, it seems the digital pen was worth waiting for.
Phree can write on wood, glass, or even the back of your hand. It connects to any screen with a Bluetooth connection and is compatible with popular software apps like Office and EverNote. While it is primarily an input device, Phree also functions as a headset and has a small screen for brief texts. Its battery will last about a week, and a special case enables wireless charging. The outstanding feature is the patented sensor, which could also have future applications in robotics. It is a compact 3D laser interferometer that “tracks the relative motion of a nearby surface by measuring the interference signal between a laser beam projected on the surface and the reflections from the surface,” according to OTM’s Kickstarter page. The signal is translated to X-Y-Z motion information by signal-processing algorithms that run on an integrated electronic component.
Phree still isn’t ready for consumers to start taking notes and drawing pictures just yet. The prototype is made of of large development boards that are being transformed to small scale components that will fit the pen-sized product design. OTM plans to start shipping the finished product in March 2016 at $200 each. In the meantime, just $20 buys the awesome Kickstarter-funded pen that uses conductive ink to draw circuits.