Phree is a pen that can write on wood, the couch or your hand and the words will show on a screen. Gilad Lederer and two of his computer science friends sat down for many hours to develop the pen. It’s a 3D laser interferometer, an optical sensor that is the most important component of a digital pen that Lederer and his friends have built, called Phree.
Phree is the latest hit gadget on Kickstarter. With 14 days of its campaign to go it has surpassed its $100,000 goal to raise more than $775,000 from 3,710 people who are interested in something that goes beyond the abilities of a stylus, Wacom tablet or the range of digital pens that require special paper with microdots. Phree’s optical sensor is not new. Lederer co-invented it 17 years ago after he had an idea in the shower and decided to look into whether it would be possible to measure motion across a flat service with a laser doppler.
People have been measuring changes in distance with laser dopplers for more than a 100 years now, but for the most part have only tracked the distance of an object moving towards a sensor, or away from it. Lederer wanted to measure side-to-side movements. Lederer reached out to a pair of old friends and physics experts from his days at an elite training program in the Israeli Defence Force called Talpiot. Together with Uri Kinrot and his brother Opher, Lederer bought some optical components, super glue and masking tape. On Lederer’s kitchen table they glued a laser onto their components and tested it out. To their surprise it worked.
They started their company OTM in January 1998 and got a global patent on their optical sensor technology, ready to create a product that could be shipped to millions. Most seasoned entrepreneurs are well acquainted with the ups and downs of running a startup, but what followed was a marathon of near-death experiences for OTM. The trio initially focused on turning their technology into the world’s first optical mouse. At that point in time most people with PCs used a mechanical mouse with a ball that gathered dust and had to be cleaned every so often. Before the year was out they had a licensing agreement with Logitech. Then disaster struck in April 1999. Bill Gates announced that Microsoft was releasing the world’s first optical mouse and Logitech halted the project.
In 2001 they signed an agreement with one of Silicon Valley’s biggest consumer technology companies. Six months later that fell through too, because their chip supplier couldn’t deliver the main processor on time.
“It was a killing blow for our company,” Lederer said. “We had the best customer, the best tech, the best product, something that would sell many millions.” Having lost the market for computer mice, Lederer and his team could have shut down their company. Instead they decided to pivot to a completely different gadget, a digital pen, and wait for Moore’s Law to catch up with a fast-enough processor. The optical sensor for a pen requires a much stronger signal-processing algorithm than what’s needed for a mouse. It has to transmit the precise act of writing as smoothly as possible. The OTM founders went back to their full time jobs. “We waited,” Lederer said.
Today the team has a working prototype. The startup’s technology also has the potential for wider applications in robots, Lederer claims, which could use its optical sensor to better handle objects. His hope is that the Phree pen will demonstrate how well that sensing technology could work. the team believes that the technology will change the future. Forbes reported