You Tell Us: An Electronic Pen That Listens and Talks Back

3 min read

If a pen that helps preschoolers learn to read by sounding out the words they point to in specially produced books could top the list of the most popular toys for two years in a row, how popular would an adult version be? Livescribe Inc., an Oakland, Calif.�based start-up founded by Jim Marggraff, the inventor of the LeapPad’s pen-based computing platform, is about to find out. A full month into 2008, well after the height of the holiday shopping frenzy, Livescribe is introducing a smart pen and special paper aimed directly at college students (who are no doubt too busy text messaging each other in class to actually take notes, but that’s another matter) that together digitize everything the user writes and make possible some jaw-dropping applications.

Shoehorned into the aluminum writing implement—which resembles a high-end fountain pen but is as thick as those fat crayons kids use in kindergarten—are a camera that allows the device to track its movement across a grid of tiny dots imprinted on the special paper; two microphones to record sound (though you can’t tell how sensitive they are, and whether a professor’s voice will be picked up from, say, across a big lecture hall, by listening to the demonstrations, which use audio clips that seem to have been recorded in a studio); a speaker for playback; and onboard processing that facilitates the pen’s tricks. That explains why a package containing the pen, a pad of the special dotted paper, the docking station, and some software and drivers goes for roughly US $200.

Among the pen’s abilities are ”paper replay.” The Livescribe records sound as you write, so your notes are automatically synched to whatever you or a lecturer say at the moment you make a particular pen stroke. Anytime you subsequently tap on the ink, the pen recognizes where it is on the page and plays back the lecture starting from the moment you jotted down a word at that spot. Control ”buttons” printed at the bottom of each page allow you to play, stop, and pause as you would a CD in a disc player, or speed up and slow down the replay just by touching them with the pen.

And since your scrawlings are digitized, they become searchable once you place the pen in a docking station that allows you to upload the digital pen’s contents to a laptop. Furthermore, you can e-mail a copy of the text you wrote on the page and the sound files associated with it, allowing others to click on your words and hear the lecturer’s voice or use a search bar to find a particular word.

The pen will also solve math problems from pre-algebra to calculus written on a Livescribe pad, speaking the answer or displaying it on its LED display. Plus you can download a program that turns the pen into a translator. If you’re an English speaker and are traveling to a place where, say, Spanish is spoken, just write what you want to say to the taxi driver in English (”To the airport, please”), tap the pen on the phrase, and listen as the pen speaks the words en español (”Al aeropuerto, por favor”).

These new capabilities—and others that will appear not long after the planned release of developmental kits that will allow students and third-party software makers to produce their own programs and study sheets—are the sum total of the difference between Livescribe and the Anoto digital pen that appeared a few years ago. That pen, which worked with dotted paper, also digitized text but would allow users to get only a text version of what they had written. Livescribe founder Marggraff, a former Anoto employee, is intimately familiar with that device’s underwhelming sales numbers.

Livescribe is being marketed to college students, who have no problem shelling out way more than 200 bucks for electronic gadgets like home video-game systems that are designed for their amusement. But will a generation reared on keyboards instead of pens invest in something that’s exclusively a work tool? Will they fear the possibility that a device in this form factor will be easily mislaid? After all, cryptic notes written in ink are of little value without the supplementary sound files to fill in the blanks. Will they be willing to fork over the $200 but worry that the cost of the paper and replacement ink cartridges will be the real drain on their finances? As the pen might say in translator mode, ”Quizas” [click, click]. ”Perhaps.”

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