Keeping handwriting alive in the digital age

How companies are keeping handwriting alive i... 04:24

Deep inside Microsoft's brand-new device laboratory outside Seattle, a team of highly skilled designers are working to perfect something we've all been using since grade school.

"The pen, as a tool for someone's mind, to express ideas and make them tangible, is incredibly powerful," Surface tablets creative director Ralf Groene said.

Groene leads the team that figures out how to make Microsoft's Surface Pro-3 tablet imitate paper and pen, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"It feels just like a ball point pen button, right, so call it ClickNote, you click it, and a notepad appears and you can just jot these things down," Groene said.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it has been no match for the keyboard. In an age when surveys find 1/3 of the population hasn't written by hand for six months, re-imagining the pen seems counter-intuitive.

"I think there's a principle that is everything that can be digital, will be digital," Groene said. "If you take a powerful tool from the analog world, and you turn it into the digital space, or you connect it to the digital space, and all of a sudden, you multiply its use, its power."

A handwritten note on a tablet can be emailed, stored and shared around the world in an instant, but handwriting of any kind can be powerful for the mind.

"Writing is the way we learn what we're thinking," University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger said.

She studies the effect handwriting has on the human brain.

"Handwriting requires production of a letter form stroke by stroke," Berniger said. "The act of producing something supports perception, so we need to output in order to improve our ability to process what we input from the environment."

Using brain scans of young children, her team is scientifically proving what seems to be a simple truth.

"The handwriting, the sequencing of the strokes, engages the thinking part of the mind," she said.

It can also be good for business. MailLift CEO and co-founder Brian Curliss is building an entire company on the power of handwriting.

"Many of the results that businesses are focused on these days is building relationships with their customers," Curliss said. "What happened is, a lot of people would send letters, it became less effective, they moved onto a new medium, now that no one's sending handwritten letters, it's become an effective medium again."

His two-year-old start-up hand-writes tens of thousands of letters a year for companies all over America. His team of writers pen everything from marketing mailers to personalized thank-you notes, and his clients range from other start-ups to Fortune 500 giants.

"You used to have a secretary that would manage all your, handle all your writing for you, we think of ourselves more as an extension of your secretary's desk," Curliss said.

But even the most resilient writers have their limits, so when an order goes into the thousands, mail lift relies on a computer-programmed robot writer.

"All you have to do is set it up once and then let the machine run," MailLift COO and co-founder Nicole Rostollan said.

Perhaps the best case for the future of handwriting is the fact that there's still money to be made doing it, by companies small and large. With some help from high tech, handwriting may yet survive in the age of the keyboard.