LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the school division of the Emeryville, Calif.-based company that six years ago introduced the LeapPad electronic learning system–a device so popular it had parents flocking to toy stores nationwide–this fall will release its latest tool for learning: a computer the size of a pen.

Dubbed FLY, the new “pentop computer” works with a special brand of electronic paper that lets students interact with their own drawings. Using the magic-marker sized device, students can write a word in English, then hear the word translated via a special voice synthesizer to Spanish; draw a piano keyboard, then listen to the notes played back to them by tapping the keys with the pen; or make a calculator that performs mathematical operations by touching the pen to a combination of handwritten digits.

The product is built specifically for today’s “tween” set. This demographic group, which includes students in the third through fifth grades, is receiving increasing attention these days, as emerging technologies–sophisticated cell phones, laptops, MP3 players–continue to shape how these near-teens live their everyday lives.

The hope of LeapFrog marketers: This new pentop will put the bounce back in their step. The company, which lost upwards of $8 million in 2004, has watched its stock slip more than 70 percent since its highest levels in 2003.

Patt Montgomery, vice president of marketing for LeapFrog’s SchoolHouse division, said the goal is to expand the company’s reach by tapping into a new market share.

“With FLY,” she said, “we’re really looking at aging up the learning platform.”

Executives say the FLY pentop computer is the first consumer electronics device to give users real-time audio feedback as they write and draw on special FLY paper. The idea, Montgomery said, was to take a tool that both teachers and students were familiar with and personalize it for individualized instruction that can take place anywhere. “Pen and paper is the most pervasive tool [set] there is,” she pointed out. “Teachers know how to manage pen and paper.”

Al Johnson, technology director for the Jefferson Parish Schools in Louisiana, plans to test the FLY technology next year with the district’s tough-to-reach middle school crowd.

“It has so many applications, and we’re providing so much–like calculators and workbooks–that we can condense it into one device,” he said at a product demonstration during the National Educational Computing Conference last month. “Whenever you can make a child feel like something is special just for them, they want to use it. It’s a valuable tool.”

Pentop computing has been around for a while–mostly in the form of Bluetooth wireless-enabled pens from companies such as Sony and Ericsson–but LeapFrog’s SchoolHouse division is perhaps the first education company to fashion the technology specifically for use by students.

The “intelligent” pen receives it commands from a series of dots laid out on the specially designed FLY paper. The dots are then read by a tiny optical sensor located on the tip of the pen. LeapFrog developed the technology in conjunction with Swedish technology firm Anoto–the same company that has helped several of the nation’s leading cellular phone makers build Bluetooth wireless-enabled pens for use with handheld computing devices.

FLY gets its wings from special character-recognition software that interprets students’ handwriting based on a system of ideal letter shapes and stroke patterns, rather than a system of symbols, company executives told eSchool News. A special phoneme-to-speech technology supports a lexicon of more than 70,000 words–a feature that ensures the pen is as articulate as the students and many of the teachers who it’s been built to help, the company said.

“With ‘intelligent’ technology, the FLY pentop computer will assist people of all ages in the mastery of core academic subjects and provide a new genre of entertainment,” said Jim Marggraff, the visionary behind FLY and LeapFrog’s executive vice president of worldwide content.

FLY was developed with the help of 50 product testers ages 8-13. Nicknamed the Quantum X Team, these “kid developers” worked on a regular basis over the past year with LeapFrog product designers to provide input on the FLY platform and its applications, the company said.

LeapFrog plans to follow its usual strategy for new product releases: rolling out FLY first through retail channels before eventually making it available to schools. The idea, according to executives, is to get the product into homes, while continuing to develop and hone applications for the classroom.

Applications immediately available to consumers include FLY Through Math: Multiplication and Division, a first-of-its kind product designed to helps students master math homework assignments. With Fly Through Math, students can write a long division problem out on the FLY paper, then receive guided, step-by-step instruction from the pen as they work to solve the problem. Though the pen gives hints, LeapFrog says, one thing it won’t do is help students cheat by providing the answers.

Another application, FLY Through Spelling, incorporates teacher-provided spelling lists and generic grade-level spelling lists to help students build their vocabulary skills and word usage. Also available is the FLY Through Spanish Translator, an English-to-Spanish dictionary that allows students to touch a word written in English with the pen and hear it translated into Spanish.

With an eye toward higher test scores, the company also is offering a special test-prep package for math, science, and social studies in grades 6-8. Developers contend the material, which includes talking maps and book excerpts, correlates with more than 90 percent of the material currently featured in subject-related textbooks across country.

Each application is activated by way of an interchangeable cartridge that is plugged into the top of the pen, in much the same way a video game or memory card is inserted into a portable player.

FLY is creating quite a buzz in the broader technology marketplace, where companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Disney, MeadWestvaco, Upper Deck, and NBC News reportedly have approached LeapFrog with ideas for new content.

“Every time we talk with someone about this product, it seems like they come up with something new to do with it,” said Montgomery, who noted that LeapFrog executives encourage companies to approach them with new ideas about how to leverage the technology.

“HP supports LeapFrog’s vision for its FLY pentop computing platform,” said Frank Cloutier, chief technology officer for the imaging and product group at HP. “We are excited to explore the possibility of expanding the use of intelligent printed paper to a broader world of learning and entertainment opportunities at home, school, and work.”

HP and LeapFrog are currently looking for ways to leverage HP’s imaging and printing technology on the FLY pentop computer platform, such as providing ways for schools and consumers to print their own electronic paper.

LeapFrog also is talking with school-supply providers such as Mead to produce its special electronic paper for use in schools.

FLY will be available to consumers this fall. The pen itself is expected to sell for about $99, and the applications are expected to range from $7.99 to $29.99, the company said. The pen is powered by a single AAA battery. LeapFrog has yet to announce when the product will be made available in bulk to schools, but the company did say it plans to offer special education pricing discounts, which were not yet announced at press time.


LeapFrog SchoolHouse