Instrumments: An Ingenious Smart Pen And Ruler From The Team Behind Misfit

It’s the debut product from a company that wants to rethink the tools of measurement and data.

A year and a half ago, Sunny Vu, the founder of the wearables company Misfit, was hot off selling the company for $260 million and looking for something new. So he approached Mladen Barbaric, who designed Misfit’s sleek marquee product, the Shine, and asked him, if he were to start all over again, what would he do differently?


Barbaric thought for awhile and realized that he’d never been part of the intended audience for the Misfit Shine. In fact, as a successful industrial designer, he’d never designed anything for himself. As Barbaric and his team started panning around for annoyances that they dealt with every day, one that quickly emerged was all the rulers and tape measures that they were always lugging with them, on 15-hour flights from their homes in Montreal to the factories making all the things they designed. Why not do away with all that stuff, and turn a pen or a pencil into a super-precise measuring implement?

Thus was born the Instrumments Zero 1. Launching today on Indiegogo, it comes in three versions–a stylus, pencil, and roller-ball pen. The front is analogue, and it writes as well as you’d hope for any $149 writing tool. The back end is where the smarts are: There’s a ring that circles the top of the pen, and simply by rolling it across any surface, you can take measurements that are accurate to within .1 mm.

The mechanism that makes this work is clever but also mechanically simple, so that it won’t easily break: After you click the pen’s “on” button, the top of the pen projects a laser tick-mark that tells you exactly where the measurement is being laid. As you continue to roll the pen, a magnetic gear counts every revolution, and the companion app on your phone shows you exactly how far the pen has rolled. The app itself lets you easily specify whether you’re measuring length, height, or width. You can then use your phone to take a picture of what you’re measuring, and share a simple web card that has all the dimensions on it.

A Bigger Vision For The Company

Though the pen itself is ingenious, Barbaric thinks that his company, Instrumments, has five years of products ahead of it—a whole new universe of measurement and data tools. He says that Instrumments, which he now devotes most of his time to as CEO, was founded to reinvent tools not just for measuring the objects around us, but also our spaces and even our own bodies. “But we’re starting with objects with the Zero 1.”

As to opportunity, Barbaric points out that there’s a problem not only with how we capture measurements in the world, but in how we then use that data. Though he won’t give many details, he hints that data is the real opportunity that lies ahead for Instrumments. “There are a lot of experiences dealing with measurements that need to be improved,” Barbaric says. Drawing an analogy, Barbaric points out that if you want to buy a car, it’s easy enough to filter your options based on the color red or the dealer’s distance from your house. But there are dozens of other buying criteria that remain unaccounted for, such as whether a dress will be too long or just right, or whether a couch will fit in your living room. The implication seems to be that if the entire world were more easily measured, there would be new ways to buy things ranging from clothing to furniture.

Barbaric declines to say much more, but the Zero 1 has sensors inside of it that will allow for entirely new features to be released after people buy it—something akin to the Tesla example, of revealing major new features as software updates over time. And Barbaric also says that designers can look forward to an API that will allow the Zero 1 to send measurements directly into their design software. And, after that, Barbaric says, they’ll begin releasing different products altogether starting next year: “Once we started talking about how crappy all these tools are, we started to realize this isn’t just a product, it’s a whole company.”


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.