Sitting on my desk is a lovely note, written on thick, customized stationery with my name scrawled across the top. It's in my handwriting, but I didn't write it. A robot did.
Looking closely, I can spot some slight differences between the bot-generated lettering and my signature scribble. The penmanship is cleaner, more methodical, a little too consistent. But even with those disparities, the words capture my essence. To anyone else, it looks like I took the time to hand write a thank-you note, when really a machine took words I typed and, like a prosthetic arm, moved a pen up and down the page to write just like I would.
The bot comes by way of Bond, a company looking to take the hand out of hand-written letters. "We think there's a lot of friction points when it comes to doing something nice for someone else," Sonny Caberwal, founder and CEO of Bond told Fast Company. New York-based Bond initially launched in 2013 as a gift-giving service with a less adept note-writing bot. The company transitioned to just notes this November, after recognizing how much people liked the personalization aspect of the business.
In its new incarnation, Bond wants to retain the delight of giving and receiving notes, without the hassle of heading to the stationery store, writing out a letter, finding stamps, and locating a mailbox. "Nobody has ever said, 'You know what's awesome? I had the best experience at American Greetings,'" said Caberwal. Bond wants to bring the romance back to letter writing with a more modern experience. "We have really set out to reimagine what that would look like—how we can create a truly personal experience that lets people deliver that personal touch that is truly theirs, but let them do it from anywhere," he added.
Thanks to Bond's robots, writing a note is indeed as easy as shooting off an email. That is, after the initial intake process, which involves completing and returning a handwriting sample designed to extract a person's distinctive handwriting characteristics and style. The bot doesn't just copy letters; it learns spacing patterns, angulation, how a person connects certain letters, and how far someone veers from the margins. Those details are what make your handwriting yours. For a computer to fully learn the nuances of a person's penmanship would take pages and pages of samples. To avoid a too laborious a sign-up, the typeface specialists at Bond have whittled the process down to a couple of paragraphs, which allows for a pretty accurate representation of your handwriting, if not a 100% copy. For an added personal touch, there's also a page where you can draw or select a doodle, like a smiley or peace sign, as your signature stamp.
Filling out the four pages of forms took no more than 10 minutes. For someone who spends little time with a pen in hand, it's pretty fun. (I chose a heart as my doodle; I'm no artist.) Getting a scanned copy to Bond for processing, however, adds some of the friction Bond is hoping to remove from the letter writing process. Bond asks for scans that are 300 dpi or higher resolution, which is too high for smartphone cameras and the Fast Company office photocopy machine. An employee from Bond had to come pick up my forms to input into the system—an option not available to non-media civilians. Those stuck without a high-quality scanner can mail in the forms. (Ironic.)
After receiving the sample, Bond's software analyzes the handwriting and within two to three days you're set to write. Unlike services such as Pilot Pens and MyScriptFont, Bond doesn't create a font out of your handwriting; the final result isn't digitized. A robot literally pens the words.
To write a note, head to the website, pick a stationery and font, then type. In addition to your own handwriting, Bond has five other options, including Nikola Tesla's markings. (Due to popular demand, more famous peoples' penmanship is coming soon.) There are also various stationery templates, some of them customizable for companies that might want to add their logo, or a couple doing wedding thank-yous that might want to use special cards. If inspiration doesn't strike, the "click here for inspiration" link cycles through some messages. As you type, a rendering of what the robot will create appears on the screen.
Because each card is made to order, even if you send out ten thousand of the same message—something a company might do around the holidays, say—none will look the exactly same as the next. The robots inject some variety in handwriting into each letter. Once finished, within 48 hours the bot will inscribe your message on quality paper and send it out to the recipients. (Caberwal hopes to get that time frame down to between 24 and 36 hours.) The cards cost $2.99 a pop, but can go as low as $1.49 for businesses ordering in bulk.
As the machine writes a message, it moves along the page like an old-school line printer. In a 10-hour day, each of the company's 11 machines can produce 500-700 notes (and without all those pesky hand cramps).
The robot was designed to ensure the highest fidelity. Caberwal's theory is that if it the cards don't look and feel beautiful, people won't buy into Bond. "It's a lot of work to make sure the thing looks perfect," explained Caberwal. "We thought about: what is the right kind of pen? What is the right kind of paper? How does the ink bleed into these things?" The final result looks perfect, but not too perfect, avoiding a potential uncanny valley situation. I could have written the notes on the thick card stock paper with "Rebecca" calligraphed in purple ink at the top, and would be perfectly OK with the recipient thinking I did. (Nowhere on the cards does it say: "a Bond robot wrote this," at least not by default.)
Right now Bond makes the most sense for businesses, and that's where the bulk of the company's orders come from. Caberwal says he couldn't keep up with demand over the holiday season. But Caberwal created Bond to "make relationships better," and hopes that more individuals take the opportunity to partake in the gesture.
Some people might not understand the company's move to physical, paper goods in an increasingly digital world. But Caberwal argues that despite decades of the Internet, people still participate in the analog world. "Ultimately people are about the human experience," Caberwal, whose previous startup was the popular online Indian retail company Exclusively.in, said. "You want convenience but you also want to feel things. I don't mean literally feel things, but the emotional context. Good communication elicits a response and an emotion for someone."
Getting a handwritten letter in the mail feels special, but maybe that's because of the time, energy, and thought it takes. If Bond takes away all the friction and everyone starts sending each other cards, all of a sudden getting a letter in the mail will feel more like receiving an e-card. Caberwal counters, "We don't think it's necessarily about the time you take to put together the gift; it's the intent." Bond is for all those times you're thinking of someone and want to do something about it. "We want to create technology that will let you finally act upon that intention."