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The LongPen: From World-Famous Novelist to High-Tech Entrepreneur

Longpen Three cheers for carbon-free book tours! She's one of Canada's leading literary lights--with Giller and Booker-Mann prizes to prove it--But now, the dame of Canadian literature is also a high-tech entrepreneur and inventor. Margaret Atwood, who has ventured into the realm of science fiction with works like Oryx and Crake, and The Handmaid's Tale, has recently turned her talents and sharp eye to real-word technology, creating the LongPen, a tele-remote device that enables authors to give readings and do book signings without being physically present.

Longpen_big But before you get carried away with visions of frizzy-haired, sharp tongued, android Atwood doppelgangers traipsing across the planet giving talks and doling out autographs, come down to Earth and take a gander at the LongPen for what it is: an ingenious combination of videoconferencing, gesture capture functionality, and robotics resulting in a pair of affordable terminals (sending and receiving) that can be used by publishers and retailers of all sizes to hold promotional events anywhere on the planet.

The LongPen consists of twinned apparatuses, each with a flat panel screen, a high-resolution web cam, speakers and microphone. The sender's end includes a tablet PC that records the pen strokes used to autograph or  dedicate a book. This information is then transmitted to a robotic arm at the receiving end, which reproduces these movements and inscribes the message from the other end on paper in ink.

Besides its obvious appeal as a way to shield authors from crazed fans and manuscript-wielding wannabes (in all fairness to Atwood, she does occasionally engage such manuscript-toters, such as future Giller Prize winner Vincent Lam, whom she met on a cruise), the LongPen is an ecologically sound way for authors and celebrities to make promotional appearances without recourse to costly and environmentally devastating air travel. It is also a way for authors to hold signings and Q&As in smaller markets that are regularly skipped by book tours for reasons of cost effectiveness.

Of course, there may well come a day of robotic avatars remotely controlled through a direct-mind interface. And this eventuality may be--in the words of a young girl who was getting a book signed by Atwood via LongPen at Toronto’s 2006 Word on the Street Festival--"kind of creepy." 

As Atwood quipped back at the admirer, "There are far creepier things in the world." Perhaps she hadn't considered that one day she’d be introducing recently disgraced media mogul Conrad Black, who remotely signed copies of his Nixon biography, The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon  at a Toronto bookstore last week. Unable to leave the United States due to bail restrictions while awaiting sentencing, Black used the LongPen to autograph copies of his latest book while holed up in his Florida home. While this might register as a mere curiosity, it does open up prospect of the likes Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan remotely signing autographs and dedicating trashy tell-alls during future stints in jail or rehab. And that would be far too creepy for me.

Posted by Christos Tsirbas.



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