I truly believe that every one of us (yes, that includes YOU!) has cool tools that we use on an everyday basis and stories about how we use these tools and how we came to find and use them. I'd like to hear about yours.
This week’s Cool Tool, the new Pulse digital pen from LiveScribe, is still undergoing my evaluation since I’ve only had it about a month now, but it has already lived up to its predecessor, the now discontinued io2 digital pen from Logitech, which I nominated as a previous Cool Tool. I can see that this new Pulse pen has much more to offer, so I thought it worthy of bringing to your attention.
- The addition of audio recording & playback
- The ability to draw your own interfaces
- The option for additional programs and features via a developers API
These features intrigue me and seem to have so much potential that I’m going to address them in a separate posting.
I got this new digital pen (thanks Kelly!) in part to replace, as I already mentioned, my beloved and previous Cool Tool, the io2 digital pen from Logitech. For reasons that still elude me and which Logitech seems to deny and not want to discuss, the io2 has been discontinued. Logitech is not providing new drivers for the io2 so that it can work on Vista, so I’ve been having to use an old XP machine to keep my notes. Plus, the digital paper is no longer available and my supply is almost out.
I continue to champion and use digital pens and paper because I still find that writing and sketching on paper is the best option in many situations and ensures that I always have a digital version for better sharing of my notes and sketches and for the assurance of a backup copy and long term storage. The new Pulse pen from Livescribe has proven to provide all these features so it makes for a good replacement, but what makes it worthy of an additional Cool Tools posting is that it adds some additional new capabilities which have truly surprised and excited me with their potential as I’ll explain shortly.
About the LiveScribe Pulse Pen
OK, let’s get the info about the pen itself out of the way so we can get into what and why I think this is so “Cool” and worthy your consideration. I’ll let you do your own reading of the many reviews about the Pulse pen, but I can recommend that you check out these reviews in Engadget by Ross Rubin:
- Switched On: Livescribe's hot recording artist seeks mass appeal (Part 1)
- Switched On: Livescribe's hot recording artist seeks mass appeal (Part 2)
- Switched On: More options for getting from scribble to screen which also covers two other new digital pens and approaches
You can also check out the interactive demo and overview on the Livescribe site, which has links to other articles and reviews by PC Magazine, USA Today, etc.
Not surprisingly (read on), the Pulse pen is based on Anoto digital paper technology, which utilizes an almost invisible micro grid of small unique digital dots covering each piece of digital paper that is then recognized by the infrared camera in the end of the pen.
The list of items that come with or are inside the pen itself include: a rechargeable battery, internal microphone and speaker, USB port, an LED screen (currently quite underused I think), and a set of ear buds and microphone.
The included PC desktop software (Windows only at this time, Mac version said to be in development) copies all your written and audio content whenever you plug the pen into the USB cradle to recharge and synchronize with all your previous notes and recordings. Since this content is now stored as files, you can view, share, and edit them further. From within the Livescribe desktop, you have the option to upload your files (text only, audio only or both) to your own online space for either your own access or for sharing this with whomever you choose to grant access.
The digital paper comes in a variety of formats, including a very nice leather bound “Moleskin”-like version which I like the most so far. Each notebook also contains a set of additional capabilities, which are printed inside the covers or at the bottom of each page. These include an impressive calculator with full trig, financial, and scientific functions, as well as audio controls, book marking and a full keyboard.
The pen itself comes in 2 versions with either 1MB or 2MB of internal storage. Each MB is capable of holding about 100 hours of audio (at the lowest setting), as well as all your written notes and any additional programs you choose to install. I have the 2MB version and after taking both audio and "written" notes regularly and frequently for more than a month, it still has over 1MB available. You can delete what is in the pen’s internal memory every time you put the pen in its USB cradle and synchronize it with your PC.
The Man Behind the Curtain/Pen
Almost as interesting as the pen is the man behind it all, Jim Marggraff. Until last year, Jim was the CEO of Anoto, the Swedish company that developed the technology used by the vast majority of digital pens (I think), including of course this latest Pulse pen from LiveScribe. At 48, Marggraff has already achieved tech world fame and fortune as the inventor of the LeapPad and the FLY Pentop.
I can highly recommend the Wired article from back in November 2005 called “LeapFrog’s Wild Ride” that will tell you the interesting story about Marggraff’s journey from being the CEO of Anoto to building the fastest growing toy company in history, Leapfrog and the Fly Pen.
The Fly Pen grows up?
I was an early customer of the Fly Pen back in 2005 and in many ways, I see the new Pulse pen as a “grown up” version of the Fly Pen that was aimed more at children and students, though I should note that there is now a newer version of the Fly Pen that is called the “Fusion”, which has a lot of improvements over the original.
I was very disappointed when the Fly Pen was not a breakout success, since I thought it had so much potential. I bought several of these for friends to play with and gave them to several who had young children. But for a variety of reasons, it just didn’t catch on with either adults or kids. After experimenting with it and also after talking with others, my take was that the Fly Pen and its interface was just a bit too complex and non-intuitive. Most people who tried it never got past that critical first few minutes and figured out how to use it and unleash its power. But for me the potential is still HUGE and these are just part of the steps along the way to eventual success, as is usually the case with truly revolutionary technologies and inventions. Hence my delight when I found that the Fly Pen had in many ways evolved into this new Pulse pen.
New Mashups: Highly Annotated Notes & Sketches
Of all the many things that are capturing my curiosity with this new Pulse pen, I must say that the connection between writing and audio is at the top of the list. With the Pulse pen, you have the option to easily record audio (just turn on record with a tap of the pen) with the built-in microphone and then listen either through the surprisingly good built-in speaker or plugging in the supplied ear buds and microphone. This latter accessory is full stereo BTW and provides what Livescribe hyperbolically describes as “3D sound”.
But for me the real power lies in the combination of controls for finding and playing the audio, and the ability to create mashups of written notes and accompanying audio. This has already had a significant effect on the way I take notes. Because I now know that the full audio of the conversation I’m having with someone in a meeting is being recorded, I can and do take much more condensed notes, simply jotting down the key words, phrases, or just marking a key point in the conversation. What I can do afterwards is touch the pen to any word or mark in my paper notes and start hearing the audio that was present at that time. It's very cool and useful. Taking notes in meetings, lectures, and presentations is a great application of this Cool Tool.
I’m also finding myself writing my own notes differently. I now often turn on the record feature as I’m jotting down some of my thoughts and ideas and then talk while I’m writing to provide more details in my notes, reducing the amount of writing I need to do.
These added audio capabilities have also enabled me to be much more productive when my hands are otherwise busy, such as when I’m driving. In these cases I use the “pen” as more of a digital audio recorder. In this situation, I just use the pen and paper to help with later access by making a few marks or one word notes for reference. The recording function also lets me capture external sounds that are going on around me that are related to what I’m writing about and want to share, such as music, birds singing, street noises, etc.
Perhaps even more valuable is its ability to create voice-annotated interactive sketches and drawings. You can talk while you are drawing to explain details, symbols, and background. It gives you the ability to synchronize locations on the drawing with the audio so you can create a drawing whereby you can tap on a spot and hear the audio explanation that goes with it. Simple yet powerful.
For example I recently had the opportunity to tour the Mayan ruins of Copán in Honduras. I was able to record the guide talking while I took some written notes and made some sketches of the layout of the ancient Mayan city. I could also go back and add my own audio explanation to my sketches from additional details I had learned from reading plaques and from spending a few hours in the museum. The result is a series of annotated sketches I can share with others or refer back to and help out with those “senior moments” when I can’t remember details from this fascinating tour of the Mayan ruins.
On my wish list for future releases is the ability to manipulate and edit the tech and audio portions independently. For instance, it would be much better if I could take a piece of audio, such as a recording of the guide in the Copán ruins, and trigger it to play when I tap a spot on a sketch I create later. This would be much like the way we can currently move and manipulate text and photos in blog entries and documents.
I’ve got the 2MB version, which gives me the ability to capture up to 200 hours of audio. This capability encourages me to turn on the audio recording feature and add audio to almost all my notes, a response that is similar to the “if in doubt shoot” approach many have adopted since the advent of digital cameras where there is little or no cost to taking more pictures, and you might just get that perfect shot!
On the down side, I guess this also leads to a society full of people who appear to be “talking to themselves” with the advent of hands-free mobile phones with wireless Bluetooth head sets, Skype calls, audio interfaces, and now digital audio note taking. So PLEASE practice and encourage considerate audio etiquette whenever you are “talking to your technology”! Microphones are typically very sensitive and do NOT require yelling to be understood!
LiveScribe enables you to share your work as an attachment to an e-mail, a posting on Facebook, or for downloading as a PDF. The company is also hosting what they call “Pencasts” that let you put your written plus audio notes up on the web. This could be quite a useful feature for capturing, sharing and reusing lecture notes (and the lecture itself!) or presentations and meetings. I expect this will lead to some interesting additions to blogs, web sites, and social sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Here for example is a Calculus 191 lecture on the Livescribe site. While the recording is not the best quality (note: you can change the setting of audio recording quality), I rather like that it takes only the push of one button on the pen to turn it on and one tap of the pen to instantly start recording everything you write and any audio happening at the same time. What matters is that it works and is simple and easy for anyone to do.
Create Your Own Digital Paper
One other key advancement I’m anxiously awaiting is the ability to print your own “digital paper”. This capability has been mentioned several times by Marggraff and on the LiveScribe site, so I’ll keep watching. As you come to understand what you can do with digital pen and paper, you’ll start to see almost infinite and exciting possibilities. For example, you could create personal or professional “business cards” that would include either digital places to write on or the ability to understand commands, such as “email this” or a small calculator or...
Key to the Future: Extending the Pen with Software
In my estimation, the highest potential for the future of the Pulse pen is the ability to create additional programs and applications which utilize the pen’s capabilities. One tantalizing example is a demo of a translator function where you can write in one language and have it be translated and “spoken'” via the speakers in another language! A demo included with the pen has the ability to translate from English to Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic or Swedish for a limited set of 20 words, such as hello, goodbye, coffee, chocolate, beer, and numbers from 1 to 10. It has been great fun to try out even this very limited set of words with some of the people who only speak Spanish here in El Salvador. Just start to imagine the potential this has when there is a much larger vocabulary and selection of languages! For example, you could be in a taxi giving directions and write down what you want to say and then have the pen “speak to” the driver. Or you could hand the pen and paper to someone and have their writing translated for you, so you can communicate with them despite language differences. We’re still a ways from the “Bablefish” translator of Douglas Adam’s imagination but the feature of the Pulse pen definitely elevates it to the Cool Tool status in my view.
I’m fascinated by this overall capability for combining writing, drawing and programming. The Pulse pen lets you create your own interfaces anywhere you want (on digital paper) by just drawing them. For example, you can draw a cross symbol, which the Pulse pen understands for navigation. You can then use this simple graphic interface to scroll through the programs on the pen, playback of the audio, etc. For example, a demo has you create a piano by drawing an eight note keyboard which you can then “play” by touching the pen on the virtual key on the paper and hearing whatever note you touch through the speaker in the pen or via headphones you can plug into the end of the pen.
While these demos are just limited examples, the potential of being able to have hand drawings and symbols create interfaces and trigger actions offers truly unlimited potential and power in my mind.
I should note that these abilities for hand drawn interfaces and even the piano and translation demos were in the original Fly Pen and they generated most of my initial excitement. I’m therefore hoping that both Livescribe and especially external individual developers will be bringing us a flood of additional software programs that we can add to our digital pens and paper to extend their functionality and use more. This is where the developer’s kit and API are so critical for the future of this pen.
On the Livescribe web site there is what appears to me to be a reasonably complete set of tools, including a “content development kit” (CDK) and a software developers kit (SDK), which allows for others to create add-on programs and games. Just as was the case with operating systems initially and now the web, this ability to extend the basic functionality and open it up for independent extensibility will be key to determining the future success of the Pulse pen and others to follow. Initially, just as is the case with games, this will be depend upon the degree to which independent developers take up the charge to create add-ons and applications that extend the capabilities and applications of this new technology. But over time, my greatest hope is that this capability to “draw your own" interface and programs will enable any of us, regardless of our programming skills, to create just what we need.
The Pen Ever Mightier than the Sword?
As I re-read what I’ve written above, it doesn’t sound like much to be able to capture handwritten notes, sketches and audio. But as with most major value propositions, I often find that the simplest things turn out to be the most valuable and powerful. While I think this new Pulse pen is but one example, this ability to both capture, find, control, and replay the mixture of text, images, and sound in a very simple and intuitive way—pen and paper—is extremely compelling and powerful.
I hope some of these new capabilities of digital pen and paper ignite your imagination as much as it does mine and that you’ll look into these digital pens and paper. As I said previously, the success of this technology will depend in part on the degree to which we see the development of add-on applications and capabilities. However, it will ultimately depend upon the degree to which all of us see the potential of digital pen, paper, and audio and begin to adapt, adopt, and apply it to innovative and creative uses.
What do you think about digital pens and paper? Are you using any yourself? Would it make it to your Cool Tools list? It usually takes months or years of regular use for something to make it to my Cool Tools list, but the Pulse pen is definitely already there. Free your imagination and I’m sure you can already start coming up with many other exciting ways to apply and extend these new capabilities of pen and paper, along with the mashups you can create by adding audio into the mix. I’ll be back with more wandering and pondering about digital pen and paper and especially the combination of audio, writing, and what I see as the evolution toward truly natural interfaces. Hope you’ll stay tuned!
Have "Cool Tools" you use and want to share? Send me your favorites with the following information:
- Name of the tool and source for getting one.
- What does it do?
- How did you come to discover this?
- How do you use it?
- Why is it on your top ten "Cool Tools I Use" list?