A new digital pen

This may come off as a naked plug for a new gadget, but it's actually a sober technology assessment. You have my word on this as a journalist, husband, father, and President of the United States.

This may come off as a naked plug for a new gadget, but it's actually a sober technology assessment. You have my word on this as a journalist, husband, father, and President of the United States.

I'm always interested in new user interface hardware and I've just run across the Digital Pen from Livescribe. The system uses specially-marked paper and a miniature pen-mounted camera to track strokes, then synchronizes with a PC to upload the data as an image or (see below) to convert the strokes to machine-readable text. As an input device–particularly for students who have to draw diagrams–it's hard to beat.

But it goes further. As you take notes, Livescribe's pen records the surrounding audio. So if you're listening to a lecture, you automatically save those parts of it that are related to the notes you take. (This would probably have bad implications in an enterprise setting, but it works fine in school.) The pen can also replay the audio, which means that you can take notes, then go back in your notebook and play the audio associated with a particular note–all without synchronizing.

So What?

I don't know about you, but I would have done back flips (or tried) for this when I was in school. Digital pens have been around for years and what's always bothered me about them is that they have no output – input is excellent (what could be more natural than writing?) but feedback has to wait until you sync the pen with a PC, something that may be hours in the future. Livescribe's (I think they should get an award just for not using interCaps in their name, by the way) audio output significantly improves this situation.

There's more, actually, though this piece of functionality has a certain "Look, Ma! No hands!" quality to it. Livescribe's pen does text-to-speech translation. If I'm sitting in the back of a cab in Tokyo, I can just write, "To the airport, please," press a button, and the pen repeats my sentence to the driver in flawless Japanese (or, possibly, Uzbek; what do I know?).

Which is all very well, but what does the future hold? Stylus-based input to tablet PCs, smooth though it is, still can't compare to the natural feel of a ballpoint pen. But, eventually, 1) high-powered tablet PCs will be as thin as paper notebooks and 2) the stylus will feel like ballpoint-on-paper. At that point, digital pens will become irrelevant. In the meantime though, if you're a student or someone else who takes a lot of notes–and you're in situations where recording the proceedings isn't considered rude (at best)–Livescribe's system is eminently worth looking into.

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