Pen computing: not just for kids

The clever pen computing technology developed by Anoto, a Swedish company that developed a system that combines a digital camera and paper covered with a dot pattern, is enabling two new consumer products, both launching at Demo 2008 this week in Palm Desert, Calif.

The Tag Reading System from LeapFrog Enterprises and the Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe, in some ways, couldnâ''t be more different.

IMG_1748.JPGTag is for kids. It talks. A child uses the pen-like reader to touch spots on a childrenâ''s book. The book itself looks like an ordinary hardcover book; the dot code, for the most part, is well hidden. The pen responds by reading whole pages, saying individual words, scoring learning games, or chiming out sound effects. The reader will sell for around $50; the hardcover titles for about $14 each.

IMG_1751.JPG

The Pulse Smartpen is for adults. It listens. It actually functions as a pen, and writes on any kind of paper. When you write on the dot-covered paper, it stores what youâ''ve written in digital form. (This has been done before). The new twist: the Pulse also can record speech while youâ''re writing, and files that recorded speech with your notes. So, in a meeting, you can take abbreviated notes and use these to navigate a sound file later. A USB connection lets you move the notes and the sound to a computer for long-term storage. Because the Pulse does optical character recognition as you write, it also can do simultaneous translation, displaying the translation on a tiny screen on the side of the pen. The Pulse Smartpen will sell for around $200 for a 2 gigabyte version, $150 for a 1 gigabyte version. The special coded paper, in various notebook forms and in single sheets will, the company says, cost about the same as comparable unencoded office supplies.

Besides being connected by the Anoto technology, these two technologies share another bond. Tag is the second pen computing product from LeapFrog; it follows the Fly Pentop Computer, a product used for notetaking, calculating, and learning games. Electrical Engineer Jim Matggraff designed the Fly for LeapFrog; in 2005 he left that company to start Livescribe as a subsidiary of Anoto; the company spun out in 2007.

My kids have outgrown the picture books that make up Tagâ''s world; I think itâ''ll be a successful product, but I wonâ''t be buying it; I'm sure my friends with young kids will, however. The Pulse Smartpen I want now. Actually, last week. I can immediately see just how much time it will save me, just how useful it will be. And, to judge by the hum around me in the conference ballroom as Livescribe concluded its demo, and from the crowd around Livescribeâ''s booth later; Iâ''m not the only one who wants to record meetings and then instantly go back and find the two minutes I really want to listen to again without trying to scan the entire file.

Unfortunately, while the PC version will be available in March, Livescribe says Iâ''ll have to wait for the Mac version until summer.

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