Today, on our way to the Fung Wah bus (we never got there, but that’s another story), my partner & I happened to stop in at a bookstore/teahouse for brunch. Then we realized that they were actually having a booksigning by Margaret Atwood. I’m in the middle of a huge deadline, and have just started a new job to boot, but my spouse was very excited and managed to persuade me that I could work while she listened to the reading & signing.
So, we’re enjoying our very delicious chai when the event begins. My spouse wanders over to the event, and about 10 minutes later comes back laughing & shaking her head.
It turns out that, in fact, Margaret Atwood isn’t here in NYC; she’s in London. No, she didn’t miss her flight; her publisher and a group called Unotchit have jointly planned the first trans-Atlantic book-signing. This miracle of modern technology apparently permits Ms. Atwood to sign a book, in London, and all the way over here in New York City, the “Long-Pen” scribes her autograph on a book here in NYC. And that’s what’s happening: there are monitors set up to show Ms. Atwood signing, and the LongPen device, and people standing around waiting to get their books autographed long-distance. (I asked, btw, and this was a true transAtlantic long-distance call. No Skype!)
Naturally I thought this was hilarious. I mean, first the serendipity: that a cafe we happened into almost randomly is having a signing by Margaret Atwood, an author I tremendously respect and enjoy. But then, o brave new world that hath such [wonders] in’t, it’s not just any ordinary book-signing! It’s an experiment in virtual presence! And it’s trans-Atlantic–what more needs to be said?
The LongPen company, Unotchit, has provided a whole packet of info, with a promotional DVD, a special cartoon by Margaret Atwood, and a photocopy of a hand-written note:
This is my actual handwriting — a sample so you can compare it with what the LongPen™ does–and assure yourself that the spikiness, illegibility, and peculiarity is a property of the actual writing, and has not been added by the LongPen.™.
As it turns out, Ms. Atwood is the President of the company (Unotchit), which explains why she was such an enthusiastic participant in the demonstration, and so respectful of the company’s trademarks. Good for her for coming up with something innovative in response to her own exhaustion from book tours.
Unfortunately the system didn’t actually work for the performance, although we were assured that it had worked in the trials just a few minutes before, and had worked successfully city-to-city. I’m sure it will start working, though, and then we can look forward to some of these listed applications:
- “The signing of their books by authors.” (and lots of other celebrity/fan autographic applications)
- “The signing of legal documents (in most instances).” plus real estate business, banks, government signatures like passports, marriages, divorces.
- Banks, real estate business, and financial applications like cheque-cashing facilities and prevention of credit card fraud.
- And “of special interest for languages that do not use phonic writing but have many characters. For such languages, it is sometimes easier to write than to type.”
I’m not sure I get the language thing, but okay. I’m also a little skeptical as to whether or not autograph-seekers will really be quite satisfied with remote autographs. I think part of the thrill is getting the tiny particles of author/athlete oil & grease along with the signature. Plus actually getting to stammer a few words in the presence of the great one.
But the proposed legal / financial applications raise questions of a somewhat more serious nature. I’ll be going thru that DVD as soon as I get a chance (not till next weekend, for sure), but some questions occurred to me off the top of my head. Among them:
- What is the authentication procedure for making sure that the item signed by the robotic pen has the same content as the item signed in the presence of and by the signer? For instance, if you’re signing a contract on page 4, how are you going to know that page 3-New York is the same as page 3-London?
- How do you prevent the signature transmission from being captured & replicated somewhere else? For instance, A is signing a
chequecheck in New York, and a checkcheque is being signed in London. But I’ve captured the signature transmission and am using it to sign a check in Boston — a check made out to me, perhaps, or to a local pimp or skanky political party.
- For that matter, if the signal is unencrypted, how do you prevent it from being captured & interfered with, so that it becomes less likely to be validated? There’s a visual read-out of it on both sides, but you could capture the video transmission as it comes from London, and mirror it back so it looks like it’s coming from New York, but in the meantime send something slightly different to New York. Or if the signature was only slightly different it might not be apparent over the transmission, but still not pass a handwriting expert signature.
- And, how good *are* these pens, anyway? Can they really replicate the changes in pressure and angle that a real pen does? Even if it can do pressure & angle, what is the original pen that the author holds actually like? Does it feel like a real pen? Or is it held rigidly in place? Which would certainly affect the signature, and I wonder what a handwriting expert would think about it.
The answers to these questions will no doubt become clearer when I go through the materials. Stay tuned for more.
In the meantime, more info available at:
- Independent article
- collision detection
- Publishers Weekly
- Monsters & Critics Books, 3/2
- contemporary lit links to a video of the event
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