Livescribe Pulse Smartpen

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INTRODUCTION

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I sometimes I question whether I might wake up one day and have forgotten how to write. This isn’t a tease on illiteracy; rather, I write on paper so infrequently that there is a distinct period of adjustment to the physical writing implement whenever I am mandated to write. I am surrounded by computers. I have two laptops, one desktop, and several PDAs, like most of the folks who read this website on a regular basis. I spend so much time inputting into Microsoft Word, GMail, and a suite of about twelve other PC applications that I have no need to pick up a pencil and a piece of paper. Every one in awhile I’ll create a shopping list using a Post-It note. Other than that, I take a computing device of some form or fashion with me wherever I go: to meetings, to the airport, to meet friends, etc. Why even attempt to relive the days of handwriting class (elementary school – for those of us who have been away from our hometown for so long) when it’s so convenient to keep everything in a digital form? There’s one good reason that I can think of: written text is universally accepted. I have several government clients and their security organizations typically frown upon walking about with a $3,000 ThinkPad T61 laptop (security will make you sign in that equipment to ensure it doesn’t get flagged as stolen property when exiting!).

    There’s one additional situation where the "natural approach" makes a lot of sense – when you need both of your hands free to perform an activity. In this situation, a different tool might make sense to capture your thoughts: a voice recorder. Well who wants another piece of gadgetry to carry around that acts as a one trick pony? Not me – but if only there were a way to combine these two old-fashioned thought collection devices…

WHAT’S HOT

    Digital pens have been around for awhile; they’ve been useful and cost effective for the last 5 years or so. Logitech had their io line for awhile (Series 1 and Series 2) – they sold well but no longer own the IP to the line – a firm called Destiny in the UK has taken over product development. Then there’s LeapFrog. This was the mini "computer" you wish you had at your disposal when you were younger. This thing is loaded with education applications that help ace those difficult spelling tests as well as entertain you with basic games and even can do multimedia playback. And here comes a firm called Livescribe. They started talking about their Pulse Smartpen way back in 2007 during the All Things D conference. Several features stood out about this product: it leverages a monochrome, super-bright OLED screen, it has an internal camera that negates having to tote about an infrared device whenever notes need to be taken, and it supports audio recording (intelligently!). More about those features below.




PRODUCT FEATURES

    When I was first asked to write this review, I asked myself if I could use a product in this market. If I couldn’t, then I wasn’t going to take on the review, since it’d make for a pretty boring read. Then I thought back to how often I am nagged by my managers at work to take more notes at client meetings. As weird as it might sound, folks observe contractors and notice when they’re not writing things down. No pen movement = disinterest in the meeting content. I wanted to put a stop to that! Enter the Pulse Smartpen. It’s got a 96×18 pixel OLED and an ARM 9 (150 MHz!) processor. Sounds like the specifications of my last cell phone. But in a pen?

    A quick note on system requirements. The Livescribe desktop piece works on Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista. Windows 2000 and Mac users need not apply. I’m sincerely hoping that OS X users will have an option sometime soon, as Apple fanatics are often quick to snap up creativity-enhancing gadgets like this! As of 6/8/2008, the LiveScribe site has this note:

"*Note to Mac™ users:

We are actively developing a native Mac solution. Please note that our product is not currently compatible with Parallels or VMWare. We are working hard to resolve both of these issues, and will post more details and timing as soon as possible."

(all images link to higher resolution)

    Inside the box is a pen, charging/sync station, pen case, "3D microphone", pen tips, and a neck lanyard

The pen itself is a bit rotund. This is because inside the body (not sure if the top or bottom part holds it) is an optical camera

    At the top of the pen is a great OLED screen. OLED is an interesting technology because it consumes very little power but is very bright. I was able to use the pen outdoors and had no problem seeing the display. We’ll get into the pen applications later, but you can get the current time/date, battery life, recorded session status, and try out some of the demo applications like a piano player and translation demo. The menu that appears on the display is navigable quite easily: each companion paper product as well as the carrying case and docking station have "Nav Plus", a four direction icon that the pen understands and steps you through the menu system. Neat!

    Here is a picture of the pen coming in contact with the "Nav Plus" on the docking station. The docking station is nicely weighted and has a USB connector at the opposing end. I never got the battery too far depleted, so charging was always quick. To use the Nav Plus here, you’ll want to swap out the pen tip for the "stylus tip". The process is a little odd at first since I really didn’t want to be hassled with the replacement tips. There is an opening on the docking base (and carrying case) to insert the tip. Press in and angle the pen back, then pull up. That will remove the pen tip. Then the stylus tip is easily snapped in. Note: I have no intentions of using this as a PDA stylus! I only would keep the stylus tip in if I wanted to keep the pen in non-writing mode (such as when using the calculator – see below).

    Here are the journals included with the Pulse review kit – the top is a "black book" journal with leather-like cover and elastic strap to keep the book closed. This was my preferred writing surface as the book was somewhat rugged and didn’t get damaged in my laptop bag. Beneath the journal is a standard college-ruled notepad with spiral binding. After a few deposits into my laptop bag (and a few flights), the notebook started to get slightly damaged, like any other soft-bound magazine or document folder would. At this point, I began using only the journal. For students, both styles would make sense and new styles will be made available soon.

    Inside the cover of both books is a cool activity center that has a full scientific calculator, pen status viewer, settings changer, and virtual keyboard (useful for entering symbols). The calculator was the best feature – it’s a close equivalent to the scientific calculator built into Windows and is great for spur-of-the-moment computations.

   Why the need for special paper? Aside from the tiny embedded dots, you also get these controls on every page. In addition to "Nav Plus" for getting around the on-pen menu system, you can manipulate all recording activities from here. You can also change playback speed and volume from the bottom of the larger-sized notebook.

    The benefits of not having a silly infrared device to lug around show in the box materials – there are interactive instruction guides that have embedded hyperlinks that the pen understands. For the technophile, this might seem gimmicky. For a student trying to master a new device, this makes learning the tricks so much easier.

    The pen is fairly comfortable for me, despite its size (6.1 inches long, 0.63 inches wide at the top, and 1.3 ounces). Granted, when I take notes, I’m very casual in my approach: I am not going to use this tool to write a novel. Instead, I will jot down main points, perhaps sketch some diagrams, and likely write down the names of those around me (in the case of a meeting). I wouldn’t recommend this pen for someone who is intending to scribe their auto-biography (unless they have incredibly enduring finger muscles!). As with all technology, I would expect the size of the camera and microprocessor to decrease over time. For now, I’m okay with the size and wouldn’t discourage anyone except for those with children-sized hands. They might get tired and need writing breaks more often than most. It would be nice, though, it some kind of grip or padding accessory were made available for this pen that didn’t greatly increase the pen width.

    For the most part, writing with the Pulse is just like writing with any other pen. Once you’re writing on a Pulse-compatible paper product, turn on the pen and scribble away. Since the battery life is so good (300 mAH – probably will last a good week or so under frequent use), you need not worry about shutting down the pen until you’re ready to put it away. I prefer to write in non-cursive, engineering-style fonts (small and closely-spaced) and the pen has no problems picking up my thoughts. What becomes special is when you want to record audio. Livescribe came up with a unique approach to audio integration: your written notes will be stored as pages, and those pages support audio "hyperlinks". In the software product discussion to follow, you’ll see how audio notes are embedded as links within the written content. So to record either a brief thought or an entire meeting, you tap on the page where you wish to create the audio note, then press the record button at the bottom of the paper, and then recording status shows on the pen itself. Very easy. And by the way, welcome to 2008 – the pen stores an incredible 200 hours (for the 2 GB version, half as long obviously for the 1 GB).

    Here is what the main interface looks like – fairly pleasant to the eye and definitely not coded as a standard Windows application. On the left pane you’ll see any Pulse paper product you’ve registered with the application. Caveat: You cannot use multiple instances of same exact paper product at the same time (like two single-serve black journals). This is because the pen sees the journal only as "Black Journal" and will show up as such in the desktop application. However, multi-packs will soon be available. This way, you’ll see "Full-size Notebook 1, 2, 3" in the desktop application and there will be no conPulse. So what happens when you have completely filled a journal? For now, nothing. You’re stuck until the "Journal Archive" feature is implemented in the desktop. So the product does have its shortcomings. I’ve been reassured by Livescribe that many changes will be coming to the desktop application in the coming months as more people begin using the application.

    If you click the "Sessions" button, you can see all of your audio recordings. This view is pretty unstructured – it shows an entry for an audio ever created, regardless as to which journal it came from or if the recording was done free-form without the attachment to a journal page. It’d be nice if this view could at least be categorized by page. You can, however, click the little "Pages" icon next to the recording to jump to the associated journal page. You just can’t filter this view without first clicking around for awhile. At the bottom of the page is the same set of controls as you see on the actual paper products. Nice touch. You can jump ahead, jump between recordings, and change speed of playback.

    Here is the pen manager. Like many things in livescribe desktop, it’s all about future promise. None of the applications listed on the current firmware can be removed. In the future, new applications will be made available by third parties. For now, you are reminded of the small set of applications already in firmware. Some other points of interest here: you can get a nice graphic of how the space on your pen is utilized in case you’re worried about running low. Eventually, the "Queue" button will allow you to install a whole bunch of applications onto the pen and watch as they get downloaded. Kind of like iTunes, this application handles self-updating (updates to the desktop product are auto-fetched) as well as pen updating (new firmware versions are delivered too).

Here’s the page viewer. Pretty straight-forward if you know which page you care to jump to. Each page shows up in order of its page number.

    Double-clicking a page brings up this view. You can zoom around by using the scrolling tool in the bottom right-hand corner. Very easy to use. There are a few things to notice here: check out the clarity of the ink! I’m not exactly sure what kind of resolution the paper + pen combination provides, but click on the image above and look at the full-size version. The ink is very, very crisp! Also, notice the green text. No – I didn’t find a magic green tip somewhere in the reviewer kit. Instead, these are the audio hyperlinks I mentioned before. By clicking on the green text, the "embedded audio" will begin playing. This is a very powerful way of stitching the written with the verbal.

    Now what? There are three things you can do with your pages once in desktop. I wish there were more. First, you can copy the page to Windows Clipboard (with or without the lined notepad background). You can then paste into your favorite image editor and so as you please with your content. This would be pretty useful if you created an amazing diagram that you wanted to store in a more common format such as .jpg. Second, you can print your pages (again with or without the background). Third, you can upload your pages to Livescribe Online. This feature makes desktop begin to get interesting for students. For me, though, I might be less inclined to use the feature. To begin, go into page viewer and select one or more pages. Next, select "Upload Pages".

    The desktop application wraps around your web browser, so your online account immediately pops up. I had some rendering issues within the desktop application (I’m a Firefox 3 RC2 user, so it’s likely the fault of my configuration). The website is quite beautiful and makes heavy use of Flash and AJAX. Each time you upload pages from the desktop application, you’re asked for a context name. This makes browsing your uploaded pages a lot easier. From the website, as the content owner, you can save to PDF or share with others. You get 250 MB of online storage with each pen you buy. Since audio isn’t uploaded, this should be worth at least a journal or so of captured notes.

    With just a few clicks, you can send lecture notes to members of your class who weren’t in attendance. Very cool! Plus, they can save to PDF and print as well. The website is quite innovative. I’m curious as to how they will improve the online feature set to encourage others to build a real community.

HELP SUPPORT

   Livescribe has worked pretty valiantly to create a strong sense of community on Livescribe.com. To get help, you can start with their Knowledge base, or if that fails, move to the support forums. These forums seem to have a decent amount of activity, so I presume most people will have a good deal of success in getting their questions answered from here.

BUGS AND WISHES


    I tend to scratch my head a bit when I hear a product promoter extol the virtues of an "open platform". I had the opportunity to speak with Bryan Connel, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Livescribe. He seemed to understand the digital pen industry better than your typical marketing agent and we had a solid conversation about the developer story, future vision of the pen, and ways in which third parties will be able to add value to the pen use experience by adding on the base functionality. Here’s my concern: even with the Java language support and good online documentation, I’m wondering how much excitement will be created for third parties to jump on the enhancements. Without a product that already has a tremendous following, the likelihood of a software developer to spend the time to learn a new system and then build/test/ship an application is somewhat low. I really hope that changes, but for the near term, I would imagine you’re only going to see a small handful of extensions made available for the Fusion.

    Out of the box, you receive the Paper Replay application, which is where you’ll likely spend most of your time – it’s what allows you to embed audio into your notes. The piano application, on-pen tutorial "movies" and translator demo are all cool, but limited in use. I would definitely purchase the full version of the Translator Demo once it becomes available, given the amount of time I spend in other countries. It’s simple to use: just write a word, and it automatically is spoken back to you in the specified output language. Currently, it’s limited to one word at a time. Clearly, to be able to translate expressions or paragraphs would be pretty novel. But like I said, for now, it’s just a limited demo.

    Livescribe desktop is a good start. It needs more work for it to become one of the four or so applications that is always open on my desktop (I include Outlook, Firefox, Visual Studio, and Windows Explorer in that category). If you only have a few pages of notes, then navigating the application is easy. Once you have several journals to wade through, the search capability is way too limited – you can search by one or more words and be brought to page after page that matches that query. What we need to have here is a way to tag pages and then search in a more granular fashion (allow me to filter on tag: "Company ABC" and then show only records from May 2007. This kind of capability should be easy and from what I gathered during the Livescribe conversations, support like this will be coming. Another thing that’s nagging me – the "archive feature". Why put a visible placeholder for this feature and not implement it, kind of like a tease? As I fill up my pen, I should be able to archive contents off of the pen and free up space, keeping the storage hit on the desktop side. For now, you can manually delete recordings off the pen, but there is no easy way to archive off an entire journal. I hope this feature will be out soon, even though I don’t think I’ll run out of pen space anytime soon.

    Sure, I can always wish for technological leaps, even with an already pretty cutting-edge device like the Fusion. How about a multi-color OLED screen that would perhaps let me store my ink in different colors (monochrome doodles aren’t as useful as multi-color ones)? I would imagine special color journals with a 6-color "wheel" at the base of each page that will allow me to pick between colors as I’m writing text. And then pen’s display would change to reflect the color choice I’ve made. Students would especially like this kind of feature, I’d imagine. I’m also hoping that over time, Livescribe will be able to slim down the pen a bit or work to improve ergonomics a little more. Yes, larger/chunkier pens do exist, and it’s impressive how much processing power they’ve slammed into a pen. I feel like in another year or so, Moore’s Law will have allowed the weight to go down by a quarter as well as the width.

    I asked about standard OCR technology being bundled into the desktop product. Optical character recognition, in any ideal world, would be a one-click function in livescribe desktop where your handwritten pages would examined and exported to Word or PDF. The printed text would be converted, maintaining its approximate layout, and the drawings and tables would be left in-tact. I was really hoping this functionality would come bundled in the product, especially as someone who would benefit immensely from sending meeting notes to participants only minutes after the conference took place. It’s likely that Livescribe will bring forth a third party to implement this, and it will likely add another $50 – $100 to the purchase price (mere speculation here). I feel like OCR should be an integral part of a product like this, as most people in my world don’t care to read my poor handwriting. In the education market, this is likely a different story. Stay tuned to the Livescribe Partners page for announcements.

PURCHASING

   
It’s pretty clear that Livescribe will be handling sales of its pen-related products by itself. It’s trying to center the whole Fusion experience around their rather tastefully-designed website. Purchasing new paper products is just a click away. The Livescribe store is selling the 1 GB version of Fusion for $149.95 and the 2 GB version for $199.95. With the package, you’ll receive the pen, the 3D audio headset, USB docking/charging station, pen case, 3 black ink cartridges, one stylus cartridge, and the large, 100-page college-ruled notebook. Replacement cartridges are available in 5-packs ($5.95) as are a variety of paper product bundles. I’d recommend buying one of the multi-packs unless you are absolutely certain you’d only write in one journal at any time. Most people will have different journals for different uses. Notebook packs start at $19.95. Not cheap, but down the road, it’ll be possible to print your own Fusion-recognized paper. I’d recommend buying the goods from Livescribe so you have the embedded recording controls at the bottom of every page. I’m hoping in the future that Livescribe will begin offering bigger discounts for volume packs, especially for education users. I know college can easily cost $40k a year for private tuition. Even still, paying $6 + shipping is a lot to pay for 100-page notebook!







PROS


  • Sharp OLED display, great battery life

  • Livescribe Online – Pen meets Web 2.0!
  • Paper product choices and quality
  • Quite capacious (1 and 2 GB holds many hours of voice)
  • Pen itself is reasonably priced

CONS


  • A little too large for heavy writing sessions

  • Livescribe desktop shows potential but needs improvement
  • Currently no Mac support
  • Paper products are expensive
  • No OCR included
Value
Ease
of Use
Features

Overall

OVERALL IMPRESSION

    The Pulse pen shows a lot of promise. The technology is quite noteworthy and the extensibility framework exists to make the pen an important part of a student and business executive’s toolkit. However, there will need to be a lot more enhancements to the available pen application selection (the features that can be downloaded to the pen itself) as well as to livescribe desktop to make it really take off. Once folks begin sharing notes on the excellent Livescribe Online website, I think we will see more developers open up to the idea of learning the Java implementation supported by the pen. If word of mouth doesn’t travel enough, this might remain a niche product. Given that the Logitech io generated tremendous buzz during its manufacture period and still is held in high esteem leads me to believe there’s a big enough market for this kind of device to sustain it.

    Even if I never get that OCR support in the desktop application, I still will use the Fusion smartpen for times when I absolutely cannot bring a laptop into a conference. I’ll likely use the desktop application as a safe repository for my notes so that when my journal wears out or I misplace it, I’ll have a backup copy to return to. Hopefully, some of the basic features I’ve suggested above around tagging/filtering will be implemented soon since searching several hundred pages of Jared-script would be a pain otherwise! I’m impressed by the amount of processing power Livescribe has crammed into a (relatively) small enclosure. The pen will turn heads in formal conference settings. It won’t, however, upset traditionalists like the 8 pound laptop, perhaps the biggest meeting disruption since the 1-way pager. I look forward to watching the Livescribe ecosystem – stay tuned to pocketnow for updates.

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About The Author
Jared Miniman