Pulse pen picks up sound and scribbles

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Digital pens have been around for years, but there are good reasons why the standard ballpoint pen hasn’t disappeared. In the past, digital pens, which write with ink and record the handwriting so it can be displayed on a computer screen, were unreliable and expensive paperweights that were more problematic than useful.

      Livescribe’s Pulse, which can record audio and upload notes to your Windows computer, may be worth the price and a switch in loyalty. Released in January, at US$199.95 on Amazon.com for the two-gigabyte version (the one-gigabyte pen is US$50 less), this user-friendly device has a lot going for it.

      Using a dot-positioning system, a high-speed infrared camera tracks everything written or drawn on Livescribe’s proprietary paper. On the bottom of each sheet, which is covered with nearly invisible dots, is a menu of controls that when tapped with the pen will start, stop, replay, and fastforward a recording on your computer screen.

      The Pulse reconciles the audio it’s taking in with the notes you jot down. The tip of the pen tracks your scribbling by taking 72 pictures per second. That’s one advantage it has over digital pens that rely on neat handwriting. Later, when you’re ready to review them, your notes are highlighted on your screen as the corresponding audio is played back.

      You can use the recording headset that comes with the Pulse—and has an embedded microphone in each earbud—to capture better-quality sound, even in a large room with ambient noise.

      As a newspaper reporter, I first tried the pen during the federal election campaign, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed reporters in the back yard of a Richmond family’s home. Even when I recorded at a distance of about 12 metres, blocked by television cameras and surrounded by people updating blogs via quick tapping on their BlackBerrys, the sound quality was excellent.

      Another useful feature of the Pulse is that it allows you to search for words. After Harper finished speaking, for instance, I was able to determine on the spot how many times he had used the word family.

      In one-on-one interviews, the recording is flawless—as good as any digital recorder’s. Writing with the pen has no effect on the audio, as expected. What surprised me, however, was how well the mike muffled background noise and picked up sound from speakers. When former prime minister Paul Martin made a speech at a noisy Chinese restaurant during the recent campaign, the Pulse picked up every word.

      This bodes well for the possibility of students using the Pulse in the classroom, and for those wanting one for meetings.

      But is it worth the price? Livescribe’s director of marketing, Eric Pettit, said that customers report a high level of satisfaction.

      According to Pettit, the Pulse isn’t a digital pen. He considers it a smart pen, a computer within a pen that aids reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

      “Digital pens in the past were computer peripherals,” Pettit said. “The smart pen is a computer within itself. You can interact with it. This is not a computer peripheral.”

      The Pulse’s killer application is called Paper Replay. It synchronizes what you’re writing with the corresponding audio. So, even if your notes aren’t perfect, you can tap on a few of your written words and replay the conversation from that point.

      Pettit said that additional applications—including games, books, learning aids, and an improved translation system—are in the works.

      The translation software included with the pen is already pretty useful. Write one or goodbye in English, then select Mandarin translation in the pen’s menu, and the Pulse pronounces “yi” or “zaijian”.

      That’s part of its gimmicky or “cool” factor—along with the “paper piano”. Draw nine lines and join them together at the top and bottom. Write the letter I for instrument and R for rhythm, and the digital pen becomes a keyboard with a cheesy calypso sound and even a disco beat.

      The basics of the Pulse’s software and hardware are sound. The pen is connected to the keyboard of your computer through a magnetized dock attached via USB port. Once the software has been downloaded, your notes are uploaded via the Livescribe desktop, which is as simple to use as iTunes. There’s even a Web site where notes can be shared with other users.

      The pen itself is bulkier than regular pens, but not so unwieldy that it’s unmanageable. A bigger worry is that the lack of a clip means it can easily be lost or roll off a desk.

      One issue is that the pen only works on Livescribe’s own special notebooks, though the company promises that by the end of the year, users will be able to download dot paper from its Web site. A four-pack of notebooks, each the size of the coiled type used in schools, costs more than regular notebooks. But it isn’t outrageously expensive at US$19.95.

      Although the Pulse isn’t available in bricks-and-mortar stores in Canada, Canadians can purchase it from Amazon.com or the Quebec-based www.SmartpenCentral.com.