In a time when phones are comparable to laptops and you can carry an HD video camera that’s the size of a bar of soap, it’s sometimes tough to find a gadget that impresses people enough to elicit an audible “wow.” But that’s the exact reaction I received when showing friends, family and colleagues the Pulse smartpen from Livescribe.
At first glance, the Pulse smartpen looks like a bigger version of a normal, everyday pen. But on closer examination, it’s much more. The Pulse pen is a recording device like you’ve never seen before. It’s not only capable of recording the audio in the room around you, but also of creating a visual history of every penstroke you make.
The Pulse Smartpen is a two-part device. First, the pen, itself, is unique. It appears to be a slightly oversized rollerball, slightly larger than the average Sharpie. But embedded in the pen’s body is some impressive technology.
At the business end, recessed behind the ink cartridge and rolling head is an infrared camera that records your writing or drawing. Near the pen’s waist is a stereophonic microphone for recording audio around you and a speaker for playback. A little higher is a small OLED display that allows you to interact with the pen’s menus and monitor recording and playback. The pen’s power button is located here, as well. At the top of the pen is a mini headphone jack for listening to your recordings.
The pen can be used like any other pen for jotting notes, agreeing to a third mortgage or signing Executive Orders. But in order to take advantage of its special recording abilities, you have to use the Livescribe notebook. These are available in a variety of options that look similar to normal spiral notebooks or leather journals (you can also print out your own paper on your printer).
The pages of these notebooks look like ordinary ruled paper, with a few exceptions: At the bottom of each page is a printed menu of commands for the pen, which allow control over recording and playback. Look closely at the paper and it appears to be light gray in color, but this color cast is really a series of microdots covering the paper. The infrared camera in the pen is able to read these unique dots and know exactly where the pen is on the paper and use that information to accurately record your penstrokes.
After playing around with the Pulse at home, I took the pen and the special notebook with me to a meeting for work. Sitting at one end of a 15-foot conference room, I was able to successfully record, with good sound, what was being said at the other end and all points between.
With the pen recording what was being said, my note-taking was significantly reduced. Rather than try to capture every detail being said, I simply wrote down keywords pertaining to the conversation. Later, in my office, I touched the pen to the keywords in my notebook. Playback began at the point in the discussion where I had jotted down that word. I was able to jump ahead, back and forth at the touch of pen to paper.
What’s more, the Pulse pen comes with a USB docking station. After downloading a Livescribe application, I was able to download my handwriting and audio to my desktop. I then uploaded my notes to the Livescribe community and shared my notes with my team. They were able to listen to the discussion and see my notes that pertained to them. (The community allows varying levels of access, so you can limit who sees your pages.) See an example of an uploaded document, the page that was used in the video demo, here.
Additionally, the pen allows you to do calculations with a printed calculator, play a piano drawn on paper and translate a handful of words to foreign languages (see video for demonstration). Plus, with more than 2,500 developers, third party apps are starting to be developed for the pen. Who knows what that will bring?
The Livescribe pen comes in 1GB (100 hrs recording) and 2GB (200 hrs recording) models. It is currently available for $149-199.
Wired: Big “WOW” factor. Great for meetings with lots of facts.
Tired: Pen is kind of big for small hands.