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.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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