Nestled inside FiftyThree’s Seattle office on a typically rainy fall afternoon, I’m enjoying a quick chat with Ian MacDuff, a veteran developer working at the young startup. We’re talking about the company’s newest product, Pencil, and MacDuff admits that he’s never really been a creative person.
But he quickly follows that with a comment about Pencil’s influence.
“This really does make you feel creative,” he said.
That is exactly the feeling FiftyThree hopes its customers experience with Pencil, the company’s first foray into the hardware space.
You might remember FiftyThree as the company behind Paper, which won the Apple 2012 iPad App of the Year. Today, they’re releasing Pencil as a companion to Paper.
Since Paper debuted last year, one of the top requests from users was a better tool to write and draw with. FiftyThree has delivered in the form of Pencil, a souped-up stylus designed to mimic a physical pencil, pen and paintbrush — all in one device.
“It’s like a multi-use tool that has all the best features of all those tools that you’ve been accustomed to using,” said FiftyThree hardware designer John Ikeda.
Pencil, which has been in the works since FiftyThree was founded more than two years ago, is based on the notion that, despite advances in technology, people still like sketching designs and producing art with physical tools. It’s often more simple, efficient and “real.”
“As we enter the digital age it’s no different — that human need to have some sort of utensil in hand is still there,” co-founder Jon Harris said.
Pencil has a few unique features. Just like a normal pencil, there’s a built-in eraser at the back-end of the device. With Pencil connected to the Paper app, you can also use your fingers to smooth rough edges and blend colors with a function called “Blend.”
There’s also palm rejection technology, which can differentiate between your palm or the Pencil touching the screen. This allows users to rest a palm on the iPad’s surface while drawing — even when the tablet is used vertically — and not affect their artwork with their hand.
“We’ve invested quite a bit in palm rejection technology,” Harris said. “There are other devices that do it, but there’s always some sort of funniness going on. You might have to calibrate it first or choose whether you’re using the left or right hand. The way we’ve done it, those things don’t matter.”
In addition, Pencil’s strokes are dynamic — that means, depending on how hard you press down with the tip or what angle you use it at, the device will react as such. For example, when I rapidly moved the paintbrush back and forth, not much “paint,” went onto my canvas. However, slow, steady strokes resulted in thicker lines.
But perhaps the most impressive part about Pencil is the “Kiss-To-Pair,” feature. Instead of going through Bluetooth settings or similar menu options, you only need to press down on a logo for three seconds with your Pencil to activate or deactivate the device.
“With other styli, there’s always a dance to do in terms of hitting other buttons, seeing flashing lights or accessing settings in an app,” Harris said.
This feature exemplifies FiftyThree’s underlying goal for Pencil: Allowing users to engage in the creative process without any hiccups or distractions. Pencil was designed to be as simple as possible while mimicing the use of real-world art tools.
Its creators say that this allows users to unleash more “expression” with the device.
“When you have these mechanical or digital roadblocks, it kind of disrupts that flow,” said FiftyThree designer Hauke Gentzkow.
Pencil, which comes in a walnut or graphite outer shell, was designed to mimic a Faber-Castell wood-cased pencil, the first-ever commercialized pencil, which looks similar to what a carpenter might use.
I tried it out for a few minutes, and it felt pretty natural and fit in my hand quite nicely. The metallic Pencil is a bit heavier and geared more toward mechanically inclined users.
The tip of the stylus isn’t solid rubber. Instead, there’s a flexible rod inside that allows the Pencil tip to bend as it’s pressed against the screen. You can charge Pencil by plugging the detachable tip into a USB charger. A typical customer will get a month’s worth of use out of one charge, which takes about 90 minutes.
FiftyThree is offering an introductory price of $49.95 for the graphite version and $59.95 for the walnut version. If you purchase a Pencil, you’ll receive the suite of five drawing tools for the Paper app (normally $1.99 each) for free. The package also includes an extra tip.
FiftyThree was founded two-and-a-half years ago by a team that includes several veterans of Microsoft, including some who worked on the ill-fated Courier project. The company landed $15 million in funding from a group of investors led by Andreessen Horowitz in June. FiftyThree is now up to about 30 employees split between Seattle and NYC.
Harris said he’ll soon be hiring to expand the 11-person Seattle team — which is mostly focused on hardware — and has plans to move into a bigger office in Pioneer Square. FiftyThree also has plans to expand past hardware and software and into the service side, perhaps using the content people create with Paper.
For now, though, the team is focused on Pencil and hopes that eventually, more than just artists will find Paper useful.
“We want everyday creators — not just artists, but engineers and designers,” Harris said. “We want anyone who thinks in their day-to-day lifestyle.”
Editor’s note, Nov. 22, 1:20 p.m.: Prices for the graphite and walnut models were updated to reflect correct amount.