Livescribe Pulse digital pen brings your notes to life

You've finally gotten used to carrying a smartphone. Now, Oakland start-up Livescribe wants to persuade you to also carry a smartpen. Its clever new Pulse pen makes a strong case.

Pulse transforms an ordinary ballpoint into a digital quill, promising to change the way you cram for an exam, review an architect's blueprints or capture any notes.

Pulse can record what you hear or say while writing, talk back and provide visual cues of what you are doing on a tiny display (e.g., showing a timer while you record audio).

The pen's power is in letting you review written notes that are synchronized with audio. When you tap what you've scribbled or drawn on the special "dot paper" Pulse works with, you'll hear any audio you recorded while you were writing. You can search notes on your (Windows-only) PC by typing in a word and having Livescribe's software find a written match. Searching worked well despite my suspect handwriting. Pulse also functions as a basic digital audio recorder.

Pulse was first unveiled nearly a year ago, so it's taken awhile to get here. The $150 to $200 pen is available only at livescribe.com. The company says you'll have to wait a month or so for delivery.

Livescribe CEO Jim Marggraff describes Pulse as both a "multimodal computer" and a "person's primary writing utensil." Moreover, since notes can be shared online, a professor might sketch out a little animation on photosynthesis and post a lecture for the class.

"Imagine if da Vinci had a smartpen," Marggraff says. "We'd be able to look at his notes and hear what he was thinking as he created his ideas."

Livescribe is opening up the Pulse platform (based on Java technology) to outside developers, encouraging them to create uses for the pen in much the way third parties produce applications for Palm devices. These apps, which are still on the, um, drawing board, would be posted for sale or free on Livescribe's website.

Pulse is by no means the first digital ballpoint. In 2002, I reviewed Logitech's cigar-size io Personal Digital Pen, which also uses dot paper. Though less brainy than Pulse, it could also store handwritten notes and transfer them to a PC. (Logitech stopped selling io, but you can still find it online.)

Marggraff invented another product I reviewed, LeapFrog's Fly Pentop computer (along with its popular LeapPad Learning System). Pulse and Fly also share dot paper and certain other capabilities (e.g., being able to play a piano you've drawn).

"It's inevitable that writing tools will become intelligent," Marggraff says. "It's a question of when it happens, and who does it, and what the road is to get there."

Livescribe is banking on students, doctors, lawyers, contractors, journalists and anyone else who still regularly writes and draws on paper — and sees the value of being able to link audio to those notes for an easy, searchable review from the notebook or a computer.

Pulse can translate written English words into Arabic, Spanish and other languages. It can do basic math and play a piano drawn on a page. Docked in a USB cradle, Pulse can upload jottings and recordings to a Windows PC and later the Web, where notes can be shared with others.

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