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.

Your writing does not get converted to text, but a third-party developer is working on that for this summer. I prefer to type than write whenever possible. But keyboards are not always practical, convenient or socially acceptable. You still can't draw with one. Typing is a distraction in meetings. You wouldn't want your shrink taking notes while pounding on a keyboard.

Let's take a closer look:

•Design. The anodized aluminum quill is slightly chunky but comfortable to write with. It's actually a little computer built around a Samsung processor. It comes with either 1 or 2 gigabytes of memory, depending on whether you opt for the $150 or $200 version. The latter can store more than 200 hours of audio.

On the side is a small, high-contrast OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display that gives visual cues along with the audio, depending on what you are doing. When translating English words you've jotted into Mandarin, for example, the Chinese characters are displayed. For now, you can translate less than two dozen words — at this point, merely a demonstration of what's possible.

Pulse's speaker produces surprisingly good sound. It also comes with a headset that lets you listen in richer stereo. You can use the headset to make "binaural" recordings that make it easier to make out the professor's voice in a noisy lecture hall; each earbud has its own microphone. If you don't use the headset, Pulse's dual built-in microphones, meant for a more intimate setting, record in mono.

•The technology. An infrared camera is at the tip of the pen. It captures 72 pictures a second to digitally track words, numbers or drawings on special paper imprinted with millions of microdots. The paper is licensed from a Swedish company, Anoto. A 100-sheet, college-ruled notebook is supplied. You can buy additional four-pack notebooks for $20. Months from now, you'll be able to print dot paper for free using a laser printer, Livescribe says. Of course, you can always write with Pulse on regular paper; turned off, it's just a normal pen.

Imprinted at the bottom of the dotted notebook pages are Paper Replay controls that you tap to record, pause or stop recording. You can also tap controls to create bookmarks, jump to any point in the audio, alter playback speed and change the volume.

To move around or display menus on Pulse's screen, you tap a five-way Nav Plus navigational controller that's also printed on the notebook pages. It's a cross with a center button and directional arrows. You can also draw intersecting lines to create your own Nav Plus, which I suppose will be more useful when you can print your own dot paper.

Controls printed on the inside front cover of the supplied notebook let you tap keys on a calculator. You can also tap settings to tweak microphone sensitivity, display brightness and determine whether the display is oriented for a righty or a southpaw.

•Sharing what you've written. You can transfer your work to Livescribe's PC software by attaching the pen to its USB cradle. The cradle is also how the pen's non-removable lithium battery gets its juice. Livescribe says you'll get about a day's worth of work in between charges. To find out how long before the battery peters out, write the word "battery" on the dot paper, tap it and a battery gauge is supposed to show up on the display. The gauge appeared only when I wrote neatly, however.

You can store up to 250 megabytes of work at livescribe.com — several thousand pages of notes without audio and about 10 to 30 hours of recorded audio. Navigating the site could be a tad friendlier. But Livescribe deserves kudos for fine online help.

You can share your notes online with members of the Livescribe community and weigh in on others' "pencasts. " There's a lot of potential for uploading blogs, academic lectures (with diagrams) or just fluff.

Pulse isn't perfect or for everyone. But in producing this sharp gadget, Livescribe is mostly flaunting the write stuff.

USA TODAY columnist Edward C. Baig reviews tech products, trends and services each week.

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