Can Apple Save Handwriting?

apple on a chalkboardOver the past few days, two seemingly unrelated topics converged upon me and sparked some wishful thinking.

First, there’s a mounting roar of media buzz about Apple working to get a tablet PC to market by the Christmas shopping season.   It’s speculated that this book-sized, 3G-enabled, 10-inch touch screen tablet computer will have more in common with the Mac than iPod Touch or iPhone at the operating system level.

Apple’s new device is said to feature only an on-screen keyboard rather than a physical one, so it’s seems a given that this device will offer handwriting recognition, which is a mature user interface technology that’s been employed in Windows-based tablet PCs over the past few years.   Despite being a surprisingly accurate means of entering text, handwriting recognition really hasn’t found its way out of the niche market because tablet PCs have never been widely adopted.

The second topic, , has been talked about for the past few years, but has been getting lots more buzz in the blogs just recently.   Increasingly, the news media continues to forecast the demise of cursive writing, calling the once-essential skill now something as quaint as, well, using a telephone to actually speak to people.

I’ve long since been concerned that and I’m a big advocate of kids being exposed to analog technologies.   So, the ideas of Apple’s forthcoming device and handwriting recognition sort of snapped together like perfect puzzle pieces for me and I’ve become kind of excited considering the possibility…

Maybe Apple can save handwriting!

And why not?   Apple has certainly revitalized & catapulted other languishing technologies in its wake.   The iPod was by no means the first MP3 player.   The iPhone wasn’t the first touchscreen PDA — it wasn’t even the first multi-touch device, although they spun that little-known user interface into mainstream gold overnight.   Album art has been around since the invention of the record, but Cover Flow made it cool again.   Yup, Apple has a distinguished history of reusing & breathing new life into overlooked or underestimated technologies.

So maybe Steve Jobs & Co. can take handwriting recognition out of its obscure little niche and elevate it to become a new precedent in printed electronics and an attractive, mainstream user interface element too.   Perhaps Apple could reinvent cursive writing as a valued technology once again.

What do you think?   Is handwriting worth saving?   Will Apple’s release of a tablet with handwriting recognition have similar far-reaching ripples to bring handwriting back from the brink of extinction?

"C" is for Cookie

Yesterday, we went to the Healthy Kids Fun Day at Floyd Gwyn Park sponsored in part by MCH.   Cookie Monster and The Biscuit Brothers were there to entertain the kids.   I wasn’t sure how they were going to promote Cookie Monster as “healthy” but they pulled it off with saying that besides cookies, he also loves all kinds of vegetables and healthy food.

  Ok, sure, I bought into that.

I wasn’t expecting much from The Biscuit Brothers since I’d never heard of them before but I was pleasantly surprised.   They were quite entertaining and the kids loved them.   They sang and interacted with the kids doing silly dances and songs.   If you have the opportunity, you should check them out!

Next up was Cookie Monster.   I felt sorry for him with all that hair in the 100+ Texas heat.   You would’ve thought he was a big enough celebrity that they could have kept him in an air conditioned building!   The first time we stood in line to see him, we didn’t make it to the front of the line before they shut it down. He had to take a break so we had to wait another hour for him to come back.   We made it through the line the second time and here’s a short video of Liam living his dream and giving Cookie Monster a big hug:

Some of the other kids left the line crying over being frightened by a giant, hairy, blue monster that entices you to like him by eating cookies, but not our boy; Liam knows no fear and would gladly take on any of the creatures that live on Sesame Street!

From Bytes to Bits – Not Sci Fi Anymore

Snap a shot with your digital camera, tweak it on your PC, upload it to the photo processor at a nearby retail megastore, and in about an hour, you’ve accomplished what would’ve required a professional photo lab not that long ago.

Ditto for desktop publishing.   Who needs to farm work out to a professional offset printing firm when you’ve got a snazzy laser printer sitting right on your desk?

What if the same could be applied to manufacturing?   Imagine designing some new widget on your PC then within a few minutes being able to hold the actual, physical item that previously existed only within your imagination.

Well, imagine no more!

RepRap or the Replication Rapid Prototyper, is an exciting grass-roots, do-it-yourself (DIY), open-source three-dimensional printing project poised to turn manufacturing on its ear!   RepRap lets you turn an idea into an object, that is, fabricate your own small plastic items, for around $500 — or less than what you would’ve spent on a decent laser printer just 5 years ago!

Photo of RepRap printer and PC

RepRap uses Fused Deposition Modeling or additive fabrication to build plastic parts layer by layer by extruding a melted strand of biodegradable plastic filament, kind of like a very precise hot glue gun.

One of the team’s core goals is that the machine be able to reproduce the components necessary to build another version of itself.   The visionary designer Dr. Adrian Bowyer gets a bit too philosophical about this “self-replication” and the exponential growth that it may bring about but the fact that the RepRap can create more than 60% of the parts needed to build subsequent versions is quite an engineering feat.   In addition, the project team has focused on using off-the-shelf parts and adhered to open-source design, so it’s ever-evolving that RepRap owners can download plans for, and fabricate, upgrades at will!

(About 3 months ago, a RepRap equipped with a swappable head system capable of printing both plastic & conductive solder created the first electronic circuit boards, thereby even further increasing the number of its own components that the machine can create.   And the design team believes they’ll also be able to “print” with silicon polymer to produce gaskets & other flexible parts soon.)

In keeping with the overall open-source design goal, the hardware is driven by the free, Java-based Art of Illusion (AoI) 3D modeling CAD software.

This is very much a project for advanced DIY electronics hobbyists rather than the average consumer, but it’s a fascinating concept.   And for the slightly less industrious, at least one company already makes a complete, ready-to-assemble, that you can purchase for about $1,000.

Want to know more?   Check out Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s Pop!Tech conference talks:

    •   What is RepRap? Introductory Lecture – Part 1 of 2
    •   What is RepRap? Introductory Lecture – Part 2 of 2

RepRap is admittedly still a far cry from Star Trek’s instantaneous & futuristic replicators and it’s not likely to spell the end of Wal-Mart for quite some time to come.   But this kind of cheap, accessible, DIY fabrication shatters many of the traditional barriers for design protoyping & manufacturing and, given that computer-aided design shapes every manufactured item we touch, this could pave the way for vast numbers of creative minds to bring more exciting visions to reality.

Hat tip to fellow Basin blogger Joe Ewbank for mentioning RepRap in his “Stuff of the Day” post a few days ago.