Have you heard of The Pen? That’s a silly question, of course you have. Launched earlier this year, the project  is all over Twitter, magazines, and blogs. Most importantly, it’s also in the hands of all those who visit the Cooper Hewitt.

Shaped like a real pen, the device allows visitors to explore, sketch, and save all the objects they see.  Associated with touchscreen and responsive walls, the pens help visitors browse through the museum’s artworks and build their own collection. They can access that collection back home, enlarge it anytime they visit, and share it on social media.


More than just a fun tool, the Pen breaches some very interesting questions: how to smoothly connect the physical and the digital, how to fully immerse visitors without distancing them from the artworks, and how to use the data generated by the tool, for instance.

We wanted to know a bit more about the device, so we asked Micah Walter from the Cooper Hewitt Lab to answer a few of our questions. Once a photojournalist, Micah is now a developer and webmaster in the museum’s Digital and Emerging Media department.

We Are Museums: Of all the choices available, why choose something as simple as a pen and name it that way? Do you think it helps people feel more at ease with the object?

 Micah Walter: One of the things we love about the idea of it being a “pen” is that a pen is sort of the basic design tool. Nearly every designer uses a pen or a pencil as a core part of their design process. As a design museum, we thought that this would help put our visitors in the right frame of mind. Also, the pen doesn’t have a screen. It’s not an app on your phone, and so it encourages visitors to look and do vs. consume content on their phones. Of course we spent a lot of time considering what we would call “the pen.” We had lots of ideas for catchy names, but at the end of the day, we thought it would be better to just call it what it is.

WAM: What kind of data can you collect from the pen? What has it taught you about the way visitors interact with the artworks? Have you changed anything in the exhibitions and permanent collections based on knowledge you got from the pen?
MW: The pen allows a visitor to collect any of the works that are currently on view as well as thousands of additional works that are browsable through our interactive tables. It’s all about recall, and trying to make the act of remembering things your noticed while visiting the museum much easier. One of the things that I love about the pen is that it gives our visitors permission to interact with objects in a way that they previously thought was not allowed. The simple gesture of collecting something with your pen and then having it saved to your own personal webpage creates a new relationship between visitor and object which we feel is incredibly permissive and engaging.

It’s probably too early to glean any meaningful insights into our exhibition design based on the data we’ve collected, but we are really excited about this possibility. We are also very aware of the privacy implications around the data we are collecting, which will certainly have an impact on how we make decisions about things like exhibition design and our collection in the months to come.

The Pen in use on the interactive tables and the "digital river" of collection objects. Concetp, design, and production by Local Projects LLC. Initial Pen concept by Local Projects with Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The Pen in use on the interactive tables and the “digital river” of collection objects. Concetp, design, and production by Local Projects LLC. Initial Pen concept by Local Projects with Diller Scofidio + Renfro

WAM: The pen isn’t a traditional guide in the way that audio or video apps can be. What about the pen is more compelling than an audio or video app sometimes handed out by museums? Why not stick with something more « educational »? What do you think visitors learn from it?

MW: Well first I’d argue that the pen is extremely educational. It’s an incredibly simple device that when placed in someone’s hand gives them the permission to engage with the museum almost immediately. It may be more of a “learn by doing” kind of educational device, but it certainly works well in that context. We have many types of visitors on any given day, each looking for a different kind of experience. Some prefer a more handheld, tour style approach and for them we offer a variety of public and private tour options. For many visitors however, the educational experience needs to be a lighter touch. Offering a device like the pen, and the apps on our interactive tables allows them to build their experience in any way they like. Some visitors will spend their entire time browsing the interactive tables, and some will hunt through the museum trying to collect every object they can find. Everyone has a different approach and we hope the pen lets them learn about design through a multitude of avenues.

WAM: What’s the next step for the pen? Do you think it could be associated with 3D printing technologies?

MW: Personally, I believe the next steps will be revealed through analysis of the data we are collecting, both actual data collected by the pen and through visitor interviews and observation. The pen, and all of our interactive installations are meant to be long lasting, and used as a framework to build upon. Now that we have this underlying infrastructure, our technology stack as we like to call it, we are only limited by our own imaginations.

In terms of 3D printing technologies, of course there are connections to be made. 3D printing was integral in the design and development of the pen itself, and so I am sure there will be projects that tie this aspect of design together with our interactive experience in the years to come.

WAM: Do you see any commercial use to it?

MW: Ha! Of course. At the end of the day, the pen is just a button, it’s just another bookmarking tool, it’s another connected device. It itself doesn’t have a real obvious use outside of our gallery walls, but there are a lot of obvious connections one could make to commercial applications. For example, I’ve always wanted a giant red button in my living room that when pressed would just order me a large pizza. The pen could probably do that!

 Thank you Micah for taking the time to answer our questions!
If you want to know more about the pen and the strategy behind it, come meet Micah at We Are Museums in June and follow him on Twitter.

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